The Shiv Sena

The Shiv Sena is a Hindu nationalist party based in Mumbai and founded by Bal Thackeray in 1966. Although the modern Shiv Sena party is deeply involved in Hindu nationalist rhetoric, it started as a regional, pro-Marathi party in the state of Maharashtra. The roots of the Shiv Sena’s pro-Marathi origins is evident in the name – which translates as Army of Shivaji. Shivaji was a Marathi warrior responsible for the foundation of the Maratha Empire in the seventeenth century. In the earliest period of the Shiv Sena, the organisation was motivated by the economic plight and migration of non-Maharashtrians to Mumbai (Roy 139). In addition to the establishment of the Shiv Sena, Thackeray had launched Marmik, a Marathi language based newspaper that pushed many of the Maharashtrian issues that would also be espoused by Shiv Sena. By the 1980’s, Mumbai and Maharashtra had been experiencing decades of economic decline and a stagnant labour market.

According to Shiv Sena founder, Bal Thackeray, Maharashtrians suffered from economic and social discrimination. When including Thackeray’s claims with the economic conditions of the state, it led to increased support for Shiv Sena (Banerjee 113). Thackeray had used the economic situation as a way to vilify all non-Marathi Indians in Mumbai and the state of Maharashtra. In 1984, however, Shiv Sena and Thackeray had moved away from a pro-Marathi ideology to the broader ideology of “Hindutva” or Hindu nationalism. In order to rejuvenate the Shiv Sena and take advantage of the weak political situation in Maharashtra, the adoption of Hindutva gave the Shiv Sena a wider Hindu base in contrast to a narrower ethnic base. It also allowed the Shiv Sena to gain political prominence, as Nehruvian secularism (named after former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) became overshadowed by the Hindu nationalist ideology (Banerjee 85). Bal Thackeray and the Sena, as a result, began to focus their disdain and particular brand of Hindutva on India’s Muslim population.

In 1947, India had been partitioned into two states (and later three) on the basis of religion. Muslim-majority Pakistan (and later Bangladesh separate from Pakistan) and Hindu-majority India were divided into two dominions. The partition led to the displacement of approximately ten to twelve million people and resulted in a period of mass violence in both India and Pakistan. Like the 1940’s, the 1980’s was a period of tension and anxiety. Mainstay policies, such as secularism, began to look exhausted (Banerjee 85). As a result, Hindutva became more prominent. In order to understand the theory of nationalism theorised by Anthony D. Smith that was adopted by Shiv Sena, among other Indian far-right political organisations, some explanation of the form of nationalism espoused is required. The form of nationalism that Hindu nationalism fits is the theoretical model of Primordialism; primordialism can be explained in a way as a variant of “organic nationalism” (Smith 55). Primordialism is a strategy by which an ethnic group uses their language, religion, culture as markers of biological affinity (Smith 56). The basics of this nationalist strategy work with the Shiv Sena in both its pro-Marathi ideology and later Hindutva ideology. For the Shiv Sena, language was the original source of tension and grew to include religion, or wider-kin, according to primordialism. Other principles of primordial nationalism include an attachment to customs and territory (Smith 57): this too is supported by Thackeray and Shiv Sena’s push for policies to benefit Maharashtrians, rather than other Indians and Muslims in the 1960’s and 70’s. Anthony D. Smith’s monograph, Nationalism, uses the example of Pakistan and India as a case for primordial nationalism. In Nationalism, there is the discussion of Pakistan’s independence being driven by Muslim elites during the partition of India, as well as being driven by a desire to protect Muslim culture, traditions, and institutions (Smith 59).

As a Hindu nationalist organisation, Shiv Sena has not been averse to violence. While the Shiv Sena is a political party, it had been involved in inciting the Mumbai riots of 1992-93. Several instances – Jogeshwari, Behrampada, Dhavari, and Govandi – are some of the most notable acts that surround the period of the Mumbai Riots, where between sixty and sixty-seven percent of attacks by Shiv Sena targeted Muslim populations in and around Mumbai (Banerjee 35). According to Thackeray and Shiv Sena, Muslims are the enemies of the Hindu nation, supporting the primordial model of nationalism. As the Shiv Sena were founded upon a pro-Marathi ideology and named the “Army of Shivaji”, there is a sort of tradition that is notable. In the seventeenth-century,  Shivaji created an independent state from the Muslim Mughal Empire, starting in Maharashtra and eventually becoming the Maratha Empire. For Shiv Sena, this forms the early basis of the tradition of Muslims being their enemies. This is repeated in traditional “myths” of Islamic aggression against Hindus as a result of long-lasting Muslim rule of India and stories of Muslim rulers using brutality to maintain their dominance over the Hindus of India (Banerjee 36). Another example of how the Muslims were depicted as bloodthirsty is a slaughterhouse in Govandi/Deonar. A slaughterhouse was opened in this neighborhood in 1975, mostly employing Muslims, which resulted in the Sena using this as a political issue to state that Muslims are deliberately offending the Hindu people and faith as a result (Banerjee 49-50). This method of demonizing the Muslim populations of Maharashtra and India as a whole has also given the Sena an opportunity to use the matter of Hindu masculinity in their nationalist discourse.

The Shiv Sena have a discourse that is simple to understand once in the context of the Primordial nationalist theory. It maintains a narrative that Muslims are historical enemies of India and the Hindus, and the Sena maintains that Hindu masculinity is threatened by the Muslims. As a result, Shiv Sena has claimed that the Indian government is weak for maintaining a secularist system that damages Hindu tradition. Furthermore, Shiv Sena has characterised the government as impotent, effeminate, and castrated in order to be subservient to India’s Muslim community (Roy 141). The Shiv Sena espouse that due to the weakness of the Indian government, Hindu masculinity is rejuvenated through acts of violence against Muslims. This weakness is noted by the Shiv Sena in their reference to the authorities as Hijras (eunuchs), though it is disputed that the authorities actually sided with the Sena during instances like the Mumbai Riots in 1992 and 1993 (Banerjee 37-38). In the Shiv Sena organisation, the regeneration of masculinity is heavy in its rhetoric, attributing violence and aggression as masculine attributes. This can be noted in the rhetoric of referring to Shiv Sena militants as Shiv Sainiks (warriors), and their fight against Muslims as a dharmayudh (Holy War) (Roy 143). Another aspect of Shiv Sena’s nationalist rhetoric playing on masculinity is to draw on the necessity of protecting the women of their family. This is used by Shiv Sena in this particular instance by referring to the nation of India as Bharat Mata, or “Mother India” (Roy 146). While Shiv Sena is a majority male organisation and known to use hyper-masculinity with patriarchal constructs, the Sena also maintain a wing of women. For the Shiv Sena, it is possible that a woman can have “masculine traits”, and that masculinity and femininity are not necessarily limited to biological or gendered dichotomies (Banerjee 133-134).

While this development of women within the Shiv Sena may appear contrary to what Bal Thackeray originally espoused when founding the Shiv Sena, he lauded the role of women within the organisation (Sen 75). Despite this, Thackeray also maintained the position that women should maintain the more restricted roles of “everyday Sena women” as carriers of domestic and religious culture (Sen 75). There is a contradiction in what Thackeray espouses regarding the traditional role of women and the eventual role of women within Shiv Sena. Thackeray had many contradictions in regards to his writings and speeches regarding the role of women. As stated previously, Thackeray believed that women should carry the domestic and religious culture as necessary, but in his speeches, he made pleas to women to take up arms and defend themselves in the streets of Mumbai (Sen 77). Just as Shiv Sena used metaphors associated with lightning and fire to rejuvenate masculinity among Hindu men, Thackeray invoked the female goddesses Kali and Durga with the ideals of female militancy for Shiv Sena women, albeit to minimal effect (Sen 79).

While it may have been the goal of Bal Thackeray and Shiv Sena leaders to mobilise a militancy within Shiv Sena women, it appears to have failed. Instead, the Shiv Sena women used their political motivation to achieve objectives through continuous political engagement (Sen 108-109). As a result, the women of Shiv Sena provide a more pragmatic and utilitarian approach to Hindutva and Shiv Sena’s political participation. While Thackeray’s rhetoric may have been contradictory, it appears to have been suited to the situation when it came to Sena women. The call to arms may have failed when contrasted to how Hindu men responded, but it had an impact on how women approached politics within not only India, but also the male-heavy Hindutva movement. In fact, the role of Shiv Sena women is more aligned with Shiv Sena allies, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). The Shiv Sena’s penchant for violence is contrasted by the RSS’ cooperative and activist approach – which is more in line with what Roy has noted with the Shiv Sena women (Roy 145). The two parties both belong to the Hindu nationalist movement but have different approaches. With there being different approaches within the Shiv Sena organisation itself, though, there is a possibility for further change within the organisation, especially following Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012.











Bibliography & Further Recommended Readings

Banjaree, Sikata (1999) Warriors in Politics: Hindu Nationalism, Violence, and Shiv Sena in Mumbai. Boulder: Westview Press.

Heuze, Gerard (2000) “Populism, Religion, and Nation in Contemporary India: The Evolution of Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 20: 3-43.

Roy, Abhik (2006) “Regenerating Masculinity in the Construction of Hindu Nationalist Identity: A Case Study of Shiv Sena.” Communication Studies 57: 135-152.

Sen, Atreyee (2007) Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Smith, Anthony D. (2010) Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Aghadi women

Babri Masjid

Bal Thackeray

Bombay/Mumbai Riots

Hindu Nationalism

Partition of India

Mughal Empire

Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh


Srikrisna Commission


Related Websites


This article was written by: Rasim Music (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.