Hindutva: BJP’s ammo in its fight against Shiv Sena
Amid heavy rain in Mumbai, chief minister Uddhav Thackeray on Monday afternoon drove to Pandharpur, the town in western Maharashtra that houses the temple of deity Lord Vithhal, which is visited by millions of devotees in the month of Ashadh as per the Hindu calendar. Thackeray’s travel to Pandharpur to perform the puja at the temple on Tuesday, which is traditionally done by chief minister of the state every year, comes at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to corner the Shiv Sena and question its Hindutva credentials over the curbs imposed on the annual wari (processions of devotees) to Pandharpur and the closure of places of worship due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The BJP alleges the Shiv Sena has diluted its commitment to Hindutva for political expediency—to come to power in Maharashtra with “secular” parties like the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Influential fringe groups like Shivprathisthan Hindustan led by controversial Sambhaji Bhide have also hit the ground over the curbs on the wari and sought the reopening of temples, which may add to the Sena’s difficulties.
Like last year, the state has imposed curbs on the Ashadi pilgrimage to Lord Vithhal temple at Pandharpur due to the pandemic. Instead of millions of warkaris (as followers of Warkari sect are called) walking to Pandharpur with palkhis of saints, 10 palkhis will be taken by bus to the temple town in Solapur, with 40 devotees each.
Last week, Warkari leader Bandatatya Karhadkar who tried to walk to Pandharpur in violation of these orders, was detained with some associates near Pune. “I do not agree with the excuse about the Covid-19 pandemic. Corona is a hoax meant to loot and scare people,” said Karhadkar, when contacted by HT. “The (Shiv Sena’s) Hindutva has lost its edge… the NCP has suppressed everyone. Thackeray seems to be helpless,” he claimed.
Bhide, who has been accused of involvement in the 2018 Bhima-Koregaon riots, met Karhadkar at Karad, where he has been detained, to express solidarity. Bhide’s statements about Covid-19 mirror those of Karhadkar. Bhide, has kicked up a controversy by calling Covid a “hoax” and claimed that the wari must be resumed to end the pandemic globally.
“The government could have allowed 50 warkaris to undertake the pilgrimage to Pandharpur. This is a centuries-old tradition that was not disrupted even during the reign of the Mughals, Nizam and the British,” said Acharya Tushar Bhosale of the BJP’s Adhyatmik Aghadi (spiritual front), while attacking the move to detain Karhadkar.
Bhosale alleged that the Shiv Sena had diluted its commitment to Hindutva to ally with the Congress and NCP.
The Shiv Sena, which was born as a sons-of-soil political party in 1966, made a sharp turn towards majoritarian politics in the 1980s. The use of political Hindutva helped the Shiv Sena cultivate right-leaning voters and the late Sena chief Bal Thackeray emerged as a right-wing mascot. This helped it grow into a pan-Maharashtra entity by expanding outside its traditional stronghold in the Mumbai-Thane belt, where its Marathi manoos agenda had a strong resonance. Now, as an ally of the Congress and NCP, the Shiv Sena is compelled to walk the tightrope on issues of religious assertion and identity to avoid alienating its voters.
In October 2020, Governor BS Koshyari had written a scathing letter to Thackeray questioning the government’s decision to not open temples, and had asked him whether he had “turned secular” by abandoning Hindutva. This had prompted the chief minister to retort in a similar vein, stating that he did not need a certificate to validate his pro-Hindutva credentials. Reminding Koshyari that he had taken oath as the governor of the state on the constitution, Thackeray said secularism was the core principle of this constitution.
“Bars and wine shops are open, but places of worship are closed. They can be opened at least once a week on particular days like Monday for Shiva temples,” said BJP spokesperson Atul Wagh. “The Shiv Sena is not a Hindutvawadi (pro-Hindutva) but an opportunist party... They strike compromises for power,” he said.
A Shiv Sena leader from western Maharashtra, Bhide’s stronghold, said, “The organisation operates like a proxy front by making statements and undertaking activities that the BJP can’t take up directly.”
Earlier this year, in the elections to the Pune graduates constituency in the legislative council, the organisation had supported the BJP nominee.
A Sena leader admitted the BJP’s campaign about the Pandharpur yatra and the temples was putting the party in a quandary. “The BJP-ruled Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh have called off the kanwar yatra over Covid concerns. We may also have to strike a balancing act on issues like the UCC and the family planning policies, which are being seen as reflecting the demographic concerns of the majority community,” the leader said.
Arvind Sawant, Shiv Sena Lok Sabha MP and spokesperson, lashed out at the BJP for playing petty politics to cover up for the Central Government’s failures in tackling the Covid crisis, inflation, rise in fuel prices, unemployment and farm distress.
PG Jogdand, political analyst and former head, department of sociology, University of Mumbai, said this was part of the larger attempts by the BJP to corner the Shiv Sena and Uddhav on the issue of Hindutva.