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18 November, 2012 - 15:16

India says farewell to firebrand Hindu leader Thackeray

Huge crowds gathered in Mumbai on Sunday to witness the funeral procession of Bal Thackeray, chief of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party and one of India's most divisive politicians.Thackeray, who called his followers "Hindu warriors" and was known for his fiery anti-Muslim rhetoric, died aged 86 on Saturday of cardiac arrest following a prolonged illness.Tens of thousands of people lined the route to catch a final glimpse of Thackeray, who made his last journey flanked by family and party members, still wearing his trademark sunglasses and covered in the national flag.Authorities placed large numbers of extra police on the streets in a bid to avert trouble following the death of the politician, whose party has a reputation for intimidation and violence.His body was being taken to central Shivaji Park, where the public could pay homage before his last rites and cremation later in the day."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.Commercial establishments across Mumbai were expected to remain closed until after Thackeray's cremation with some owners saying they feared they could be targeted by Shiv Sena supporters if they did not shut.Local 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."Many hated him. Many feared him. Many loved him for what he stood for," said a tribute in the Mid Day newspaper.Thackeray vociferously sought to defend the rights of local Marathi-speaking "sons of the soil" against so-called "outsiders" -- whether south Indians, Gujaratis, north Indians or Bangladeshis -- who came to the region for work.He was accused by an official probe of inciting violence against Muslims in riots that claimed more than 1,000 lives in Mumbai in the 1990s, although he was never charged.Loyalists had assembled outside his home late on Saturday, many of them sobbing, and the city came to a virtual halt when his death was announced.Despite Thackeray's polarising career, tributes poured in for the politician who gave Bombay the new name of Mumbai -- seen as 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.Police advised Mumbai residents to travel only in emergencies, as taxis went off the roads and shopkeepers and restaurants shut as news of his death spread through the city.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.He appeared to followers by videolink in October asking them to "take care" of his son Uddhav, the executive president of Shiv Sena, whose vote bank has weakened since Thackeray's nephew Raj set up a rival party.