BJP-Shinde govt faces flak, derision for offering govt reservations to ‘Govindas’

On the occasion of Janmashtami celebrations, Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde, on his part, made a curious and telling remark, ‘I broke my dahi handi two months back with 40 people’

Eknath Shinde and Devendra Fadnavis (File photo)
Eknath Shinde and Devendra Fadnavis (File photo)
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Sujata Anandan / Mumbai

For a party that prides itself on turning even national days into an event, the BJP-led Eknath Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena got it wrong not once, not twice, but three times in a row, with regard to Independence Day, Sadbhavna Diwas (August 20) and the ‘Govindas' who participate in the dahi handi celebrations on Janmashtami.

But it is with regard to the latter that the Maharashtra government faced furious opposition from a whole gamut of people, particularly sports people and sports organisers.

The Shinde government announced a Rs 10 lakh cover for the Govindas – children anywhere between the ages of three to 18 years who make up the human pyramids that reach for the dahi handi pots, tied high above the ground. Sometimes these could be strung up to the seventh-floor level between buildings, necessitating taller pyramids, with often the youngest children making up the topmost layers, the older ones the base. Often, it is these young children who lose their balance and fall to the ground, resulting in serious injuries or even death.

Over the years, this village celebration gained a lot of ground in Mumbai, particularly after the Shiv Sena was formed in 1966 and Bal Thackeray made his first appearance at a neighbourhood dahi handi celebration to egg on the participants to reach for the money in the pot.

Soon, however, Thackeray realised the potential of wooing children this young over to his party and the Shiv Sena began to routinely sponsor these events. Other political parties joined in, and it was a matter of time before the dahi handi turned from a friendly exercise into a fierce political competition.

Most of the children participating in the dahi handi celebrations come from poor families in the slums. A share of the prize money which runs into lakhs often means a lot to their parents even if they risk life-long injury or death of their children. The kids are never provided a harness and that is part of the thrill of the game.

Amidst a clamour by human rights activists to stop this form of exploitation by various political parties, the Supreme Court a few years ago came down heavily on the mandals holding the competition and restricted the height of the pyramids to 20 feet. This meant the dahi handi could not be tied over and above the third storeys of various buildings. It also barred minors from participating in the event, trying to bring some discipline to the game.

But unlike kho-kho or kabbadi that have recognition from sports bodies and the sports ministry, dahi handi is not seen as a sport by anybody and continues to remain in the realm of the informal.

For two years during the lockdown, there were no dahi handi celebrations, and this year, Janmashtami was being looked forward to with great enthusiasm. Further, the Shiv Sena split had raised excitement about which group would get the maximum crowds.

So when the Eknath Shinde-led Maharashtra government announced reservation for Govindas in government jobs, in a bid at oneupmanship over Uddhav Thackeray's Shiv Sena, it met fierce resistance not just from sportsmen and sports associations but also from socially backward groups who have been seeking reservations and have been repeatedly denied the same either by the governments or the courts.

While they did not object to the Rs 10 lakh insurance cover given to each child participating in the dahi handi celebrations, what has met with huge disapproval is the fact that this game requires little more than climbing over the shoulders of the taller children at the lower levels and balancing on the top to break the pot with a huge rod.

Sports people have said there is no recognised sports association that governs dahi handi. Moreover, it is a mood sport, with children allowed to participate if it takes their fancy or that of their parents and there is no consistency about it. Today, it is an overtly political event, scoring brownie points off rival political parties which fund the pots and the uniforms for the Govindas in their own colours to distinguish who they belong to.

But most importantly, serious sportsmen train for years from a young age and are put through gruelling schedules before they can qualify for a national or international event. Rural sports like kho-kho and kabbadi have gained recognition but the dahi handi celebrations continue to be just a friendly neighbourhood game for just one day in a whole year.

“Next, the government will offer reservations to those winning hopscotch or pitthu,” said one sports organiser dismissively. (Pitthu is a game where multiple tiles are piled up to be dislodged by a ball and players must rebuild the pile before the opposing team hits one of them with the ball, in which case the next team takes over the ‘batting'.)

Former MVA minister Chhagan Bhujbal went on record to say, “We are not against ‘Govindas’. But sportspersons of international stature must be given jobs first.”

While government sources refused to comment on the controversy, they admitted that they might have mismanaged both the singing of the national anthem and celebrations of Sadbhavna Divas which is usually held on former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's birthday. But the Shinde government did not wish for acknowledgement of the latter and so, while schools and colleges were preparing to celebrate Sadbhavna Diwas on Saturday, they received a message late evening on Wednesday stating they must celebrate the day on Thursday, August 18, which left them ill-prepared for the same.

Something similar happened with regard to singing of the national anthem collectively across the state. The orders went out on August 16 that all people must do so on August 17, leading to a grand failure of the very first event organised by the Shinde government.

Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena was aggressive at its dahi handi celebrations, with Aaditya Thackeray visiting all the popular spots, as did deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. Aaditya received huge crowds even in Thane, Shinde's home turf.

Incidentally, unable to destroy the Shiv Sena so far, Shinde has made a rather curious, if telling, remark that has since gone viral – "I did not need today for dahi handi. I broke my dahi handi two months ago with forty people.” And receiving prize money in crores, one presumes.

One does not know who is having the last laugh.

(With inputs from Santoshee Mishra)

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    Published: 20 Aug 2022, 8:20 PM