Since the past month, newspapers have been full of stories of the demand for a memorial for the late Bal Thackerey saheb as his worshipers address him. The Shiv Sena took a justifiably strident attitude about a monument, a samadhi for the man whom millions revered. One may have issues with the man’s philosophy or the lack of it, one may criticise his methods and the thugs he unleashed to establish and sustain his fief, but one has to admit that Thackerey was a leader of a huge mass of people who worshipped him as god. For whom he was second to none. If mass following is the gauge of a person’s stature, one must admit that Bal Thackerey was a titan.
Indian culture has an emotional association with samadhis and birthplaces. We have waged an internecine war for the birthplace of Lord Rama, even going to the extreme of damaging the unity of our nation. In modern times, we have built samadhis for our leaders; some deserving and some with dubious antecedents; New Delhi is littered with ghats.
After Bapu was murdered, it was decided to conduct his cremation on the banks of the Yamuna. The spot was picked by Pandit Nehru and the next day Bapu’s funeral was conducted there. At that moment, that piece of land became consecrated. Bapu’s murderers were chitpavan brahmins; one version of their origin was that they were brahmins who were baptised by the holy funeral pyre of Parashurama and so they were called chitpavan. One is purified by fire of the pyre. Thus, the funeral pyre is considered as purifying and in turn, consecrating fire. Hence, the place where Bapu’s funeral pyre was lit was consecrated by his funeral pyre and became holy. Therefore Raj Ghat came into existence. And slowly from a simple cube enshrining the pedestal of the funeral pyre turned into a granite-clad monument, undergoing several makeovers.
Delhi has many other ghats, Shanti Van for Pandit Nehru, Vijay Ghat for Lal Bahadur Shastri, Samta Sthal for Babu Jagjeevan Ram, Kisan Ghat for Chaudhury Charan Singh, Shakti Sthal for Indira Gandhi, so on and so forth. The tradition of samadhis and ghats is a very deep-rooted Indian tradition. One, that tugs at our emotions and the other is the last connect with the departed icon, the last physical connection to one’s idol. When funerals take place in crematoriums, since many cremations regularly take place at the same pyre, it lessens the personal connection and attachment to the spot. But when funerals are allowed to be conducted at places that are generally not cremation grounds, a special connection is immediately established. When the demand to conduct Bal Thackerey’s funeral at Shivaji Park was made, the establishment should have thought of its ramifications and consequences. The demand to enshrine the consecrated place was bound to be made and it is justified. A very short distance away, the spot where the architect of Indian Constitution, Baba Saheb Ambedkar was cremated on Shivaji Park Beach. The spot has been converted into Chaitya Bhoomi, a memorial to Bhimrao Ambedkar. Bal Thackerey denied a memorial to Morarjee Desai in Mumbai for political reasons; finally a memorial was built on the banks of the Sabarmati to enshrine the memory of Morarjee bhai.
The government allowed Bal Thackerey’s funeral to take place at Shivaji Park and in doing so, gave their tacit approval to the demand for a monument there. For one month, they allowed the temporary samadhi to remain there. Providing the Shiv Sainiks and those who worship Bal Thackerey to get sentimentally attached to the idea of the consecrated piece of land. It must be appreciated that after an acrimonious and volatile standoff over the removal of the temporary samadhi on his part, Uddhav has defused the situation by agreeing to accept a plot of land a distance away from where Bal Thackerey was cremated. I don’t think Shiv Sainiks and worshippers of Bal Thackerey will be happy with this compromise, but it is a very generous compromise made by a bereaved son; Uddhav must be congratulated for showing magnanimity. The government has lost all moral authority to now deny the demand made by Uddhav for a plot of land within Shivaji Park, but away from the place where his father, and whom millions of people consider a larger than life father figure, was cremated.
If the government was concerned about public opinion and legal issues, it should have explained these to Uddhav and the Shiv Sena leaders and offered a more prominent spot for the cremation to take place. But having allowed it to take place at Shivaji Park and having allowed a temporary structure to remain at the spot where the Shiv Sena supremo’s cremation happened and given it an identity of his samadhi in the hearts of his followers, it is now too late to deny them that privilege. Shivaji Park, or the part of it where Bal Thackerey was cremated became ‘Shiv Tirth’ the day Bal Thackerey’s mortal
remains were consigned to the flames there. It’s too late now for denial.
(The writer is founder president, Mahatma Gandhi Foundation)