Mumbai: The mortal remains of Bal Thackeray, a Hindutva mascot and flagbearer of Marathi pride, were consigned to flames as lakhs of mourners joined the Shiv Sena founder's grieving family to bid him a tearful farewell, with the city observing a virtual shutdown.
An emotional Uddhav Thackeray, the youngest son of the 86-year-old Shiv Sena patriarch, lit the funeral pyre a little after 6 pm, to loud roars of "Balasaheb amar rahe" (long live Balasaheb).
Raj Thackeray, the estranged nephew of Bal Thackeray and MNS chief, stood next to Uddhav with folded hands near the pyre as they accepted the condolences from political leaders, captains of industry, film personalities, relatives, friends and well wishers.
A contingent of Mumbai police gave a 21-gun salute and buglers sounded the last post in the state funeral, a rare honour for someone who had never held any official position.
In a spontaneous outpouring of grief, a sea of humanity, unprecedented in recent memory, descended on the streets leading from "Matoshree", Thackeray's Bandra home, along the 10 km stretch to Shivaji Park, to catch the last glimpse of the uncrowned king of Mumbai.
The pyre was erected on a platform at the very place from where Thackeray delivered his first speech to his rabble- rousing supporters after the launch of Shiv Sena on June 19, 1966.
"He had suffered a cardiac arrest. We could not revive him despite our best efforts. He breathed his last at around 3:30 PM," Dr Jalil Parkar, who treated the Sena supremo, told reporters after emerging from Thackeray residence on Saturday evening.
Thackeray is survived by sons Jaidev and Uddhav, who is the Executive president of the party. His nephew Raj had split from the family and found his own Maharashtra Navnirman Sena over six years ago following a succession row.
A rabble rouser, who started out as a cartoonist alongside RK Laxman in the Free Press Journal in the 1950s, founded the Shiv Sena in 1966 on the plank of job security for the Marathi manoos (sons of the soil) which translated into attacks on South Indians whom he had blamed for taking away the opportunities from the locals.
Later, his politics also centred around Hindu identity and anti-Congressism and was also unrestrained in his Muslim bashing. Known for paralysing Bombay, as Mumbai was called then, at any opportunity, Thackeray initially concentrated on the metropolis but later spread his politics throughout the state and tied up with the BJP to remain its longest ally till date, sharing the saffron agenda.
Always the kingmaker, Thackeray was largely instrumental in ending the Congress hegemony in Maharashtra when the two parties stormed to power in 1994 and they shared power even at the Centre between 1998 and 2004. He never occupied any office.
Thackeray, who had relegated himself to the background after anointing Uddhav as his successor, had been suffering from respiratory problems and pancreatic disease. Senior party leaders, Raj Thackeray along with family members and other political leaders rushed to 'Matoshree'.
Meanwhile, security has been stepped up in the metropolis in the wake of Thackeray's death.
Prez, PM condole Thackeray demise
President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condoled the death of Thackeray. Singh cancelled a dinner for BJP leaders scheduled today ahead of Parliament session following Sushma Swaraj's request.
Interestingly, notwithstanding his strong anti-Congress stand, Thackeray extended his party's support to Pratibha Patil, also from Maharashtra, in the Presidential election in 2006 and later to Mukerjee in this year's election.
Despite the setback in his health in the last few days, Sena leaders and the party mouthpiece 'Saamna' kept maintaining that he was improving. Eminent personalities from politics, Bollywood and industry have been thronging his residence ever since.
Media persons and Sena workers stationed outside 'Matoshree' realised around 4 PM that there was some development as several senior leaders from Sena, BJP and other parties started arriving and police were seen to have become more alert.
As the speculation rose, Shiv Sena leaders Sanjay Raut, Diwakar Raote accompanied by Dr Jalil Parkar, who had been treating Thackeray for the last three years, came out around 5 pm to announce Thackeray's demise.
On hearing the news, a frenzied mob of Shiv sainiks tried to enter 'Matoshree' by raising slogans "Bal Thackeray Amar Rahe' while police tried to prevent them from going inside and enhanced security allover.
Many of them in the crowd broke down on hearing the news about their leader's death. Thackeray's health kept fluctuating since last few days with his son Uddhav appealing to Sainiks "to maintain calm and pray for his father" on Thursday night.
Shiv Sena spokesperson Sanjay Raut appealed to people to maintain peace and harmony. Thackeray was being treated by doctors from Lilavati Hospital. No medical bulletin was issued, but Sena leaders briefed the media daily.
The condition Sena patriarch worsened on Wednesday night when he had to be put on life support. He was taken off life support later after showing signs of improvement.
In the last three days there was a steady stream of visitors to Matoshree, including Bollywood personalities. Among them were Amitabh Bachchan and his family, Salman Khan along with father Salim and brother Arbaaz, filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar, actress Hema Malini, yesteryear stars Manoj Kumar, Jitendra and Rakesh Roshan.
Political bigwigs like NCP chief and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar -- Thackeray's old friend; BJP president Nitin Gadkari, and senior leader Gopinath Munde, Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, Home Minister R R Patil, Finance Minister Jayant Patil among others visited Matoshree.
Thackeray addressed Shiv Sainiks every year on Dussehra at Mumbai's Shivaji Park since Sena's inception. However, this year he could not attend the annual event, and his recorded address was telecast.
In this recorded speech, Thackeray, visibly very ill, appealed the workers to support his son and executive president Uddhav Thackeray, and grandson and Sena youth wing president Aditya Thackeray.
"I have collapsed physically," he had said.
Mumbai remains shut following Thackeray's death
With Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray's body being taken to Shivaji Park in central Mumbai for last rites, the city wore a deserted look as taxis as autorickshaws and private vehicles remained off the roads and shops and other commercial establishments chose to down their shutters.
Even as people thronged to catch a glimpse of the Sena patriarch and pay homage to him, shops, restaurants, hotels, theatres, malls and other commercial establishments remained shut and private vehicles, taxis, autorickshaws remained off the roads. Medical shops in the city as well as in neighbouring Thane were also closed.
Citizens also found it difficult to get milk and vegetables. "We did not get milk this morning and even the vegetable market is shut. I have never come across such silence in the city in my life ever," said Rama Arolla (50), a housewife from BDD chawl in Worli area.
About 20,000 police personnel are keeping a strict vigil in the metropolis to maintain law and order. "No violence has been reported in the city so far," a police officer said.
"Nobody has been asked to shut their shops or malls. Everybody closed their shops voluntarily. Autorickshaws and taxis also voluntarily stopped plying on the roads," the officer added.
Except civic body's BEST buses and suburban railways, no transport is available for the commuters.
"BEST and suburban railways are running additional buses and trains for people's convenience," a railway official said.
While the entire state has been put on alert, in Mumbai alone, over 20,000 city police, 15 companies of the State Reserve Police Force and three contingents of Rapid Action Force have been deployed.
"I appeal to people to remain calm and maintain law and order. Citizens should step out of the houses only if it is urgent." City Police Commissioner Satyapal Singh said.
Appropriate arrangements have been made at the Shivaji Park, where VIPs are also expected to reach to pay homage, Singh added.
Thackeray's newspapers sport full black front pages
Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray's favourite newspapers Saamna (in Marathi) and Dopahar Ka Saamna (in Hindi) were on Sunday published with a full black cover jackets and full black cover pages.
Thackeray was the founder-editor of both the newspapers, though the day-to-day affairs were managed by hand-picked and trusted executive editors.
This is the first time in Saamna's history — since it was launched Jan 23, 1988 — that its two main cover pages are printed in sheer black. On the jacket cover is a large smiling picture of Bal Thackeray, a heading in large font — "Aaple Saheb Gele" (Our Boss Departs) — and a small poem in Marathi below it.
The inside main cover has a flier headline: "Ishwari Avtarache Swargarohan" (A divine avatar goes to heaven), accompanied by the day's top story headlined: "Balasaheb navache vadal shaant zhale" (A storm cloud called Balasaheb is peaceful).
Dopahar Ka Saamna, which usually remained closed on Sundays, brought out a special edition as a tribute to Thackeray, said executive editor Prem Shukla.
It also sports a full black cover with a silhouetted right side visage of Thackeray with the headline: "Hinduon Ke Mahadev Ka Mahaprayan", and a small poem: "Jo uthe Ram/jo uthe Krishna/Bharat ki mitti roti hai/ Kya hua hamare Saheb ko/Yeh murti na zinda hoti hai."
The remaining inside pages have thick black bands with the stories in a grey background, or other colours depending on the editorial and pictorial content.
Saamna was founded as a party organ to convey Thackeray's views to the Marathi masses directly. Dopahar Ka Saamna was launched Feb 23, 1993, to woo north Indians settled in Maharashtra and also make Thackeray's views heard in New Delhi.
Shukla said this was probably the first time in Indian media history that two daily newspapers had published their front pages in full black as a tribute to the Shiv Sena founder and their editor Bal Thackeray.
Moreover, Thackeray's name also appeared as 'Editor' in its regular place, as it has been since the launch of both the newspapers.