India says farewell to nationalist leader Thackeray

Huge crowds thronged the streets of Mumbai on Sunday to witness the funeral procession of Bal Thackeray, chief of the nationalist Shiv Sena party and one of India's top politicians.

Thackeray died aged 86 on Saturday, triggering a virtual shutdown of the city.

Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the route to catch a final glimpse of Thackeray as his body was driven slowly through the heaving masses.

Authorities placed a massive police force on the streets in a bid to avert trouble following the death of the politician.

Thackeray won devotion from his working-class followers, who showered the hearse with flowers as it travelled to central Shivaji Park, where it arrived several hours late because of the vast turn-out.

"I will be privileged to pay respects to my god. We have lost our godfather," Ganesh Sawant, an office assistant in the city, told AFP.

Jyotsna Parab, a housewife, said her life would "never be the same" as she wiped away tears.

"I cannot accept that he is no more. This was a man whose entire world revolved around protecting our rights," she said.

Commercial establishments across Mumbai were expected to remain closed until after Thackeray's cremation in the evening.

Newspapers dedicated pages of coverage to the man who dominated the city's politics for decades.

"Mumbai loses its boss," ran the headline of the Mumbai Mirror, below a picture of an imposing, cigar-smoking Thackeray.

Thackeray vociferously sought to defend the rights of local Marathi-speaking "sons of the soil" against "outsiders" -- whether from other parts of India or Bangladesh -- who came to work in Mumbai, capital of Maharashtra state.

Tributes poured in for the politician who gave Bombay the new name of Mumbai in a bid to rid the city of its British colonial past and emphasise its Marathi roots.

"He was a consummate communicator whose stature in the politics of Maharashtra was unique," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said.

As his cortege progressed through Mumbai, police advised residents to travel only in emergencies.

Taxis stayed off the roads and shops and restaurants remained closed since news of his death spread across the city.

Several buses were damaged on Saturday evening, but there was no widespread unrest.

Thackeray was never a lawmaker -- preferring to dominate from behind the scenes -- but his party held power for five years from 1994 at state level and is still in the coalition ruling Mumbai's governing civic body.

Thackeray had been in frail health for months, with a trail of Bollywood stars visiting him in his final days.

He appeared to followers by video link in October asking them to "take care" of his son Uddhav, the executive president of Shiv Sena, whose political fortunes have ebbed since Thackeray's nephew Raj set up a rival party.

 

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