Maharashtra: With Haji Malang, Eknath Shinde is lighting a fire for personal gain
For the past two years, the BJP and Shiv Sena have been trying their hardest to create a communal conflagration by unleashing Sakal Hindu Samaj goons on mosques, 'mullahs', and Muslims in general
As Lok Sabha elections draw nearer and the saffron forces leave no stone unturned to vitiate communal harmony in Maharashtra, the state with its syncretic culture and socialist ethos still does not cede much ground to them.
For the past two years, the BJP and the Eknath Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena have been trying their hardest to create a communal conflagration by unleashing Sakal Hindu Samaj goons on mosques, 'mullahs' and Muslims in general. And while there has been some retaliation, the minority community still refuses to take the bait and oblige the saffron parties with a full scale conflagration and the resultant polarisation.
Of the three parties in the Maha Yuti government in Maharashtra, the BJP, of course, is the natural repository of the Hindutva vote. The Ajit Pawar faction clearly maintains its secularist credentials with Ajit even risking its wrath by avoiding the RSS like the plague. But it is Shinde’s party that falls between two stools, not knowing whether they are fish or fowl, or even a red herring.
Despite its tilt toward Hindutva, Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena was essentially about regional ethos and aspirations of locals — for Marathi asmita (pride) and protection of local resources against migrants. But today, as Uddhav Thackeray redefines his party’s Hindutva as devotion to one’s religion without having to showcase it by shedding Muslim blood, he draws more than just the Marathi manoos to his side. Muslims, Parsis, even Dalits and, of course, liberal Hindus believe that it is Uddhav’s party they can live with and even vote for.
That leaves Shinde floundering for a vote bank. He cannot be sure even those people who seem to support him even in Thane, his home turf, will actually vote for him and not Uddhav. He cannot beat the BJP at its Hindutva game and he does not have the stature and confidence of Ajit Pawar to draw a line between himself and extreme saffronisation.
And his acrimony with the BJP is getting very personal, with his son being the MP from Kalyan, which is one of half-dozen seats that the BJP wishes to wrest from Shinde and Ajit Pawar. Among the others are South Mumbai, currently with Shiv Sena (UBT), and Maval with the Shinde group, whose current MP defeated Ajit’s son Parth Pawar in 2019, but the seat is once again in Ajit's sights for his son this year.
Shirur is currently with Sharad Pawar’s NCP — whose current MP Amol Kolhe defeated the Shiv Sena in 2019 and is now being eyed by both Shinde and Ajit — and Satara is with NCP as well, wrested from the BJP after a by-election in 2019 when MP Udayanraje Bhosale suddenly quit the NCP to join the BJP. Ajit has no intention of ceding it to the BJP.
But of all these seats, the BJP is focused on Kalyan because that is the seat that it had to surrender after Bal Thackeray bullied them with tantrums that brought former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to his door, begging him not to break their alliance over the seat dispute in 1997.
The BJP‘s younger leaders have not forgotten the humiliation they had to face as Thackeray made them wait days for a decision, but since then, the seat has always been with the Sena, even when its former MP quit to join the NCP in 2009.
But now the Sena is split, and Shinde does not have the stature of Bal Thackeray to force the issue. So he must find his own level to fight the BJP for the seat, and then fight for his son to win the constituency again.
Thus, he has now lit upon the eight century-old Haji Malang dargah atop a hill in Kalyan, which was Bal Thackeray’s first stop on his route to embracing Hindutva. Since the early 1980s, Thackeray always created a fracas at Haji Malang, though he never succeeded in getting the Muslims and Hindus who prayed together at the shrine to riot with each other.
His foot soldier in this enterprise was Anand Dighe, Shinde’s mentor, who used to visit along with Thackeray. But soon after the Shiv Sena came to power in 1995, Thackeray lost interest in visiting the dargah annually during Dassehra, and no one heard of it again.
Now, Shinde says he wants to turn the dargah into a temple for Macchindranath, which may have few takers — one of the temple trustees is a Hindu Brahmin family, which has been administering the dargah for 14 consecutive generations. Its patriarch Chandrahas Ketkar is highly critical of Shinde, saying he is raking up the issue only for political mileage.
Ketkar also points to a 1954 Supreme Court judgment on a petition for its trusteeship that said in its syncretic culture, the shrine could not be governed by Hindus or Muslims exclusively and had to follow its own traditions, which is allowing both Hindus and Muslims to pray together at the same shrine. In short, there is no way either can turn it exclusively into a mosque or temple.
Shinde has taken a calculated risk, but he is neither Bal Thackeray nor Anand Dighe, who managed to draw maximum political mileage by just visiting the shrine, albeit with menace. Neither can he surpass the BJP on the Hindutva stakes, and if he falls between two stools, the BJP will walk away with the political gains.
But blood being thicker than water, Shinde seems to not care about setting the state on fire for his offspring.