The Battle for the Shakhas

In Mumbai alone there are 237 such shakhas, corresponding to the 227 wards of the BMC

The Battle for the Shakhas

Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra

Nobody knows when the long-overdue elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) will be held, or indeed whether the election will even be held in the near future. The interested parties seem indifferent to a field test before the next general election, which some political observers anticipate may be advanced as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had done in 2004.

Tension between the rival factions of the Shiv Sena—the splinter group of Eknath Shinde and the ones that stayed on with Uddhav Thackeray—is palpable on the streets of Mumbai, and the city is apprehensive that the stray clashes between these cohorts, reported from Byculla and Thane for possession of Shiv Sena ‘shakhas’ (local offices) might escalate into a full-blown confrontation. In Mumbai alone there are 237 such shakhas, corresponding to the 227 wards of the BMC. There are many more in Greater Metropolitan Mumbai, which includes Kalyan and Thane, while in the rest of the state, the number is estimated to be around 10,000.

Many of these shakhas function from either rented premises or are owned by an influential Shiv Sainik in the locality. These shakhas, it is acknowledged, will be retained by the group on whose side the majority of the local Shiv Sainiks eventually go. There are hundreds of shakhas that were built through donations collected by Shiv Sainiks, who themselves would have contributed a substantial amount to the corpus.

These are the offices which are up for grab and could lead to clashes.The Uddhav Thackeray group has possession over the Shiv Sena Bhavan while the Shinde group, which enjoys majority support of the Shiv Sena MPs and MLAs, has had no difficulty in taking over the office space allotted to the Shiv Sena in Parliament House and the state assembly. They made a concerted bid to take over the Sena office at the BMC, but the issue is pending as the offices of all the parties in the BMC are locked for now. They will be reopened after the new council is sworn in.

Matoshree, the house of the Thackerays with which Shiv Sainiks have an emotional bond, remains a private property; while the Shiv Sena Bhavan, and several Shakhas too, are said to be properties of the Shivai Seva Trust, a public trust registered with the Charity Commission of Maharashtra. Any dispute over their ownership will have to be settled first before the Commission and then in the civil courts, and thus could be a longdrawn affair.

Meanwhile, belligerence on both sides has added to apprehensions. A Shiv Sena MP who has not yet switched his allegiance to the Shinde faction, Vinayak Raut, claims that Shinde and his men are in a hurry to lay claim on properties of the Shivai Seva Trust. “Shinde believes the Shiv Sena and its properties belong to him,” fumes Raut before daring rivals to lay their finger on any such property.

Wisely, however, both groups seem to have decided to hold fire and play the waiting game. While the ECI has recognised the Shinde faction as the official Shiv Sena and handed over the registered party symbol— the bow and arrow—to it, the rival group seems to have the public sympathy and support. To cement its position and acquire legitimacy, the Shinde group will have to either win or perform better than the rival faction in the election to the BMC as well as the assembly election due in October 2024. Another possibility is merger of the two groups closer to the election. For the moment, however, attention is centred on the BMC election, which will either cement or challenge the legitimacy and future of both these groups.

Dadar in the heart of the city is where the Sena Bhavan has stood as the party’s headquarters for long. It is not on government land and is owned by the Shivai Seva Trust. The Shiv Sena pays rent for using the office space. Following the split in the party last year, the Shinde group took up a large office space, also in Dadar, not very far from the Sena Bhavan.

Raut claims that 99 per cent of the Shakha offices are also Trust property. “They were set up in the late 1960s to help the party’s Lok Adhikar Samitis to keep an eye on vacancies in government offices and ensure that jobs and houses were first allotted to the Marathi Manoos (sons of the soil),” he points out.

Most Shiv Sena supporters at that time came from the lower rungs of society and the Shakhas not only helped the local youth get employment but also ensured that the unemployed and the needy are fed and clothed by those who were already employed. Besides the burgeoning textile mills and industrial units, the Bombay Port Trust and Air India were the other major employers in the city that offered regular and reliable jobs to the youth.

The shakhas also helped the sons of the soil in getting admission of their children in local schools and colleges. The Shiv Sena extended financial help on festive occasions and weddings besides extending assistance for hospitalisation, care for the elderly and infants. This explains the emotional bonds that people in the city developed with these shakhas.

As Shiv Sainiks started doing well and earning better, the shakhas became the place to unwind and meet neighbours, a kind of club for men and women to hang out in the evening. Says Vijay Avachre, an up-shakha pramukh (deputy local office head) from the eastern suburbs, “A shakha isn’t just a political party office. It is the hub of community life and cooperative social work designed by the then party chief Balasaheb Thackeray.”

This is also the reason why every village in Maharashtra, he says, is likely to have dedicated Shiv Sena workers working round the clock with people. Avachre reverentially recalls that these office spaces are deemed so sacred that people leave their shoes outside. These shakhas also help people negotiate with corporators, councillors and the police who they may not be able to approach directly.

The shakhas are not, however, meant to serve only those who vote for the Shiv Sena. Even others approach these shakhas when they need. When Aadhaar was rolled out first, the network of these shakhas was used to collect biometric details. It caused a political furore but the controversy died down as people pointed out that the shakhas had earlier been used to distribute PAN cards and even earlier, ration cards. They also regularly hold blood donation camps and health check up camps.

“We have given our lives in nursing the Sena see it grow; it is difficult therefore to see the destruction of the party by its own people. How could the elected MPs and MLAs betray the party and leave it? Weren’t they all elected because of their allegiance to the party and Balasaheb Thackeray?” ask several anguished Shiv Sainiks in the city.

But Arvind Sawant, Shiv Sena (UBT) MP has a fair idea why. “They used us to grow and now they want to crush us. They didn’t succeed with Uddhav, so they are trying to destroy the party through those who are either less discerning or clueless.”

Sena vs Sena divide, says Anil Parab, former transport minister in the MVA government, was engineered by the BJP. A street fight between Shiv Sainiks would benefit the BJP more while sons of the soil would suffer. “Why should we spill the blood of Shiv Sainiks,” he asks rhetorically.

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