Sambhaji Bhide: The BJP’s pet rabble-rouser in Maharashtra

Meet Manohar Kulkarni, alias Sambhaji Bhide, aka Guruji, who the BJP is banking on to deliver the Maratha vote in Maharashtra

Sambhaji Bhide (in saffron turban) with his supporters (photo: Getty Images)
Sambhaji Bhide (in saffron turban) with his supporters (photo: Getty Images)

Sujata Anandan

After lying low for almost three years while Uddhav Thackeray was chief minister of Maharashtra, it is no coincidence that Manohar Kulkarni aka Sambhaji Bhide is back to stirring the communal pot with BJP-leaning Eknath Shinde in the driver’s seat.

The latest stink he raised is a highly objectionable set of comments on Mahatma Gandhi. Bhide insinuated that Gandhi was the bastard offspring of his parents’ Muslim landlord, with a claim of ‘documents to substantiate’ his allegations.

This little keg of gunpowder exploded loudly enough for former chief minister and current deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to officially disown Bhide, founder of the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan (SPH), as no ally of the BJP and “fully condemn” his remarks.

“I am making it clear that Sambhaji Bhide or anyone else cannot make such statements as it creates anger among the people, who will never tolerate such an insult, whether of Gandhiji or of Veer Savarkar,” said Fadnavis, adding that the “police will take appropriate action”.

The promised police action, of course, is yet to be taken—just one of the reasons why observers see Bhide as a BJP agent. It’s not the first instance of him being openly inflammatory in western Maharashtra, nor the first time he has been let off by the law.

Observers also see his recent shenanigans as an indication that the BJP desperately needs the Maratha vote from the Sangli–Satara–Kolhapur belt of south-western Maharshtra, where Bhide and his cohorts have the most traction.

The Marathas from this part of Maharashtra have been traditionally loyal to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Sharad Pawar. Comprising 33 per cent of the overall voting population, they are crucial to the BJP here, because it is maxed out in other regions.

The BJP is also getting desperate because the other key players, the Shiv Sena (UBT) and the Congress, have joined hands with the NCP in the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA).

So, failing its first attempt to woo the Marathas with ‘reservation’ (a project that incidentally also featured Bhide prominently), it is back to ‘uniting Hindus’ by portraying Muslims as the common enemy—the oldest trick in the BJP–RSS playbook.

Independent research initiative Hindutva Watch points out in a recent report that Maharashtra has seen the highest incidence of anti-Muslim hate speech in India in 2023—recording 74 instances in the state. (The next three in this dubious honour roll have around 25 incidents to their credit, all in poll-bound states.) And this campaign, observers believe, is spearheaded by Hindutva activist Sambhaji Bhide as proxy.

Bhide, 90, spent 25 years as a pracharak for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) before he was cut loose to further the agenda through his own outfit.

His adoptive name too is suggestive of his function in this political landscape: no Brahmin in Maharashtra names his child Shivaji or Sambhaji—both anathema to the community for their egalitarian, anti-Brahminical ethos. Is it strange then that the 14- to 19-year-old youths he inducts are Maratha, Dalit or from OBC communities, but never Brahmins like himself?

Giving the lie to the state BJP’s claim, Bhide was also acknowledged as his personal guru by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015. Addressing a rally in Raigad, Modi said, “I am deeply beholden to Bhide guruji.”

Calling Bhide a mahapurush (a great man) and tapasvi, (a sage), Modi recalled his own years of training in the RSS: “We used to hold up Bhide guruji as an example.”

Bhide set up his SPH as a separate organisation in 1984 with the objective of converting “one lakh Hindus to the same blood group as Shivaji and Sambhaji”. In other words, his mission is to herd the Maratha, Dalit and OBC youth—earlier steeped in the unifying vision of Phule–Shahu–Ambedkar—into the Hindutva fold.

Where Shivaji attempted to integrate all castes into the mainstream of civil life and surrounded himself with trusted Muslim generals and advisors in a secular administration, Bhide is like a pyromaniac on hire, who turns up to fan communal flames wherever possible.

Bhide has also been in the news for insulting, on different occasions, the Buddha, Saibaba of Shirdi, Raja Rammohan Roy, Jyotiba Phule (a ‘bootlicker’ in Bhide’s reckoning) and 20th century reformer Periyar.

He doesn’t spare women either. In one of his video-graphed public addresses, he is heard calling for the heads of Hindu women (to be chopped up with a sickle) for consorting with Muslim men. On a visit to Maharashtra chief minister Eknath Shinde’s office, he also asked a woman journalist to apply a bindi before she dared question him.

Bhide is also police-proof. He was one of the first accused of instigating the Bhima–Koregaon clash of 1 January 2018, which triggered a bizarre conspiracy case where the Pune police alleged a plot to assassinate the prime minister and dredged the country for 16 ‘culprits’.

The late Father Stan Swamy of Ranchi died in prison without a trial; 15 others with scant or planted evidence against them are still in custody. Bhide remains at large.

Western Maharashtra was Shivaji’s core territory, the two seats of his descendants being Satara and Kolhapur. Bhide, it is acknowledged in political circles, has vitiated the social fabric of the region where a socialist ethos maintained harmony in the face of rath yatras and mosque demolitions.

Now militant Hindu youth burn Muslim-run establishments in Satara (something that didn’t happen even during the 1993 Mumbai riots), the seat wrested from the BJP by Sharad Pawar in 2019.

Kolhapur, which sent a Muslim NCP candidate to the assembly last election, was the only non-

Muslim-majority area to do so. Now MLA Hasan Mushrif is being intimidated with Enforcement Directorate (ED) raids, while a BJP-sponsored Hindu Sakal Samaj targets mosques, maulvis and Muslim youth.

Two of Shivaji’s present-day descendants—Udayanraje Bhosale and Yuvraj Sambhajiraje Chhatrapati, the great-great grandson of the reformist Shahuji Maharaj—are politically active in these districts. Both were appropriated by the NCP and given tickets to the Lok Sabha.

Bhosale won four times. Sambhaji lost in 2009 and let the BJP nominate him to the Rajya Sabha. His cousin followed suit. Now both sound disenchanted with the ruling party—for, having politically isolated the two scions, it is these two seats that the BJP–RSS are actively targeting.

This time, though, the BJP’s reliance on Bhide to deliver the crucial Maratha–OBC–Dalit voters may backfire. Disillusioned youth are deserting Bhide. Some of them have caught on that his ‘social work’ is just a front for a communal agenda and keeps them from education and earning.

Ashok Shirole is one: “He does not groom anyone for jobs, he does not help any of his supporters to secure admissions or get loans to set up enterprises; he does not even allow anyone to seek opportunities on their own. What’s the use of endlessly circling around him?”

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