| A luxury bus burns in Mumbai. (PTI)
Mumbai, July 9: Beaten in two elections ' Lok Sabha and Assembly ' since 2004 and bruised by two splits, the Shiv Sena today whipped up a frenzy of violent activity over the desecration of a statue of Meenatai, the late wife of its leader Bal Thackeray.
Hundreds of Shiv sainiks stopped traffic outside Shiv Sena Bhavan near the site of the memorial at Dadar in the morning and torched a bus. The protest later spread to the rest of Mumbai and across Maharashtra.
With Sena leaders appearing to condone the violence by citing supporters’ wounded sentiments, Shiv sainiks blocked road and rail traffic, burned another bus at Nashik and damaged 38 state transport buses. Two persons, including a policeman in Mumbai, were injured and more than 510 people detained, 46 of them in the state capital.
Uddhav Thackeray, the Sena chief’s son and the party’s executive president, compared the desecration to two recent incidents of violence ' the more serious one at Bhiwandi over building a police station on land being used as a cemetery ' projecting it as another example of police failure. At Bhiwandi, two policemen were killed.
Describing the vandalism as “inhuman”, Uddhav blamed the police for failing to prevent the desecration, though Shivaji Park police station stands barely 100 yards away.
Former Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi said: “Meenatai, whom the Shiv sainiks called Maasaheb, is like God to us. Our God has been insulted. There will definitely be a reaction.”
The defacement was noticed around 7.30 am. As the news spread, hundreds of Shiv sainiks blocked the main road near the party headquarters .
Soon, the violence had spread from central Mumbai to the suburbs, Navi Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Nashik, Nagpur, Wardha, Aurangabad, Yavatmal and elsewhere. Class IV employees attached to the Sena union at Mumbai airport struck work, but there were no reports of major inconvenience to air passengers.
Calm returned by evening, but the Opposition Sena-BJP threatened to disrupt the Assembly tomorrow if the government failed to arrest the vandals who smeared the statue with mud.
Frustrated over its waning influence, the Sena had been simmering since the Bhiwandi violence. It accused Samajwadi Party leader Abu Asim Azmi, an old target, of visiting Bhiwandi to provoke the minorities. Police stopped over 3,000 Sena activists yesterday from attacking his Colaba residence.
Azmi, however, denied any role in the desecration.
A Sena eruption was almost waiting to happen. As supporters rampaged through the streets of Mumbai, Bal Thackeray did not say a word, visiting his wife’s statue with his son and senior party leaders. Earlier, a group led by Joshi performed a purification puja.
Supporters of Raj Thackeray, the estranged nephew of the Sena chief, also joined in the protests, as did Sena ally, the BJP.
With municipal polls coming up in six months, the Sena needs to rejuvenate itself to fight not only the Congress-NCP combine, but also the challenge from Raj and Narayan Rane, whom the party lost last year. While Raj formed his own outfit, Rane joined the Congress, helping it win one bypoll after another.
NCP spokesperson Ratnakar Mahajan said: “Fraught with internal differences, and its waning popularity, the Sena leadership tried to reassert itself before its own cadre.”
Chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who met senior police and home ministry officials in the evening with his deputy R.R. Patil, denied any links between the Bhiwandi violence and the defacement.