July 28--Imagine the racial overtones of David Duke. The machine-boss politics of Chicago's late Richard J. Daley. The aura of Marlin Brando's "Godfather."

That's a composite of Bombay's Bal Thackeray - who has ruled India's premier city for most of the 1990s by a system of fear and patronage, and a militant Hindu party of lower-class youth known as Shiv Sena, or "Army of the King."

Now imagine trying to arrest Mr. Thackeray.

That's what Maharashtra state authorities have been fumbling with for the past 10 days - without success. With rumors of riots, schools and businesses closing, and the stock market plunging, this city of 15 million has nearly shut down twice.

At one level, the arrest attempt of Bombay's most provocative and colorful figure seems purely a political vendetta by a former protégé, who is now the Maharashtra state deputy chief minister.

But at a deeper level the arrest of Thackeray, for allegedly inciting the bloody Bombay riots of 1992 and '93, is a special moment in a battle over the erosion of civil society in a city of great wealth and greater poverty that has often been a bellwether of ethnic conflict and extremism for South Asia.

At the center of the struggle is a single-spaced, 274-page document that most people in Bombay have not even read. Known as the Srikrishna report, it is named after a Bombay judge who spent five years investigating the riots. In painstaking neighborhood-by-neighborhood detail, the report describes riots that raged out of control for days, where police stood by while 800 Muslims were killed (the official figure)--leaving wounds that have not yet healed.

Shiv Sena's rise

At the center of the riots, according to Judge Srikrishna's report, was Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena organization.

"There is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organizing attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several leaders....," the report states on page 28. "Bal Thackeray ... like a veteran General, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organized attacks against Muslims."

By 1995, riding a wave of Hindu revivalism throughout India and a promise to make Bombay great again, the Shiv Sena itself was voted into power.

Its record was spotty. Rather than conducting reforms of housing and education, critics say, the Sena used its official status to collect spoils.

As Praveen Swami, a leading Bombay journalist writes, for five years "the Sena ran perhaps the most formidable roughneck apparatus ever seen in Mumbai [Bombay], using state power to displace traditional criminal organizations."

The Sena took over protection rackets, nightclub licenses, and film finance. It engineered land schemes--all the while deploying the police to guard its own city-wide network of 250 local bosses.

Last September the Shiv Sena was voted out.

Today, what the effort to arrest Bal Thackeray symbolizes, say many analysts, is an attempt to reassure a confused and fearful middle class that liberal and secular ideals are still informing politics, at a time when the actual day-to-day government in Bombay is petty and corrupt.

"Are we going to allow the culprits of a crime this large to go free?" asks leading Bombay attorney Majid Memon. "We are in the midst of an erosion of democratic and secular values that will take decades to regain. The Srikrishna report speaks to this erosion."

"There is a need for Indians to constantly rejuvenate their self-image of having a civil society," argues Indian-American scholar Shekhar Krishnan, a Bombay resident. "The middle class needs to feel that ethnic passions are being held in check."

Srikrishna was issued in 1998. Not surprisingly, the then-ruling Sena rejected any complicity in the riots. The report was shelved.

But on July 15, the now ruling Congress Party ordered Thackeray's prosecution. He was charged with violating a law disallowing the "promotion of enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language." Specifically cited were three editorials Thackeray penned for his party organ, Samna (Confrontation) during the '93 rioting. He called for a "holy war" in one, and in another titled "They Became Like Sheep," he alluded to Muslims being shown their place in the riots.

When the order to prosecute came, Thackeray said Bombay, if not all of India, "would burn" if he were arrested. (Later, he called for calm.)

Thackeray's ace in the hole has been a statute of limitations forbidding prosecution. This Tuesday, when he was brought to court and the city began to shut down, the local judge went far past standard procedure to invoke this statute. An appeal is under way and Thackeray could be arrested later this summer.

At an interview at his residence, Thackeray wears the saffron robes of a revered Hindu and comes across as personable and even charming, cracking jokes and famously saying, "I'm just a cartoonist" - his profession before he formed the Sena in 1966. His speech is punchy ("retaliation is my birthright"), gossipy, and he speaks of orators he admires, including Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr.

"What we need is a benevolent dictator; I prefer that kind of dictatorship."

Thackeray defends himself and his party in an absolute manner, blames Muslims for starting the riots, and argues that Judge Srikrishna is biased. "No Hindus have ever started riots in India. I had no part in the riots of 1992," he says. When asked if nevertheless he regretted the violence he says, "Why should I be sorry? If the Muslims had not started this, my boys would not have come on the street."

In Bombay, Thackeray is loved and hated for a pro-Maharashtra "sons of the soil movement" that started in 1966. At the time, south Indians dominated the professional classes here, and Gujaratis and Parsis controlled the business class. Local Maharashtrians - the lower and working classes - were often treated as second-class citizens in their own city. Their language, Marathi, was considered plebian.

Thackeray set out to change that. In many ways he did, becoming a cult figure among young men who in the Sena found dignity, jobs, and family social services the state was not providing. They literally worshiped the rough and ready rhetoric of local justice that Thackeray provided.

Thackeray tried to toughen his charges. "He would say to passive Hindus, 'You are impotent, useless, weak-kneed, supine, jellyfish,' " remembers Dipankar Gupta, a political scientist in New Delhi who knows Thackeray. "He set out to create a real right wing. 'Don't strike back with talk, but with force,' is his creed."

By the mid-1960s, his creed hit the streets. The Sena first campaigned against south Indians in Bombay. By the 1970s they took on the powerful communist and trade union movements. In the 1980s, Thackeray reworked himself as a Hindu leader and found a more volatile target: the city's 15 percent Muslims, whom he still criticizes for being "anti-national."

How extreme is too extreme?

Today, analysts question whether the Indian middle class - which has already internalized much of the recent Hindu revival discourse - finds Thackeray, one of its vocalizers, too extreme. Is his flamboyant, mafia-don style and open advocacy of "hitting back" too rough?

In an India Times poll, conducted among the English speaking elite, 69 percent thought Thackeray should be arrested.

This may still happen. Legal sources say the case for overturning the lower court is strong. A new case could even arise. But the inner workings of the decision are murky and more political than legal. Whether Congress Party leader Chhagan Bhujbal, a Thackeray protégé turned rival, will pursue the case with zeal is unclear.

The monsoon season in Bombay may still get hotter.

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