Eknath Shinde on backfoot as govt pressures Ramleela organisers to violate tradition

Desperate for a suitable venue for his Dussehra rally, the CM wants Ravan Dahan to be held a day early—which looks embarrassing for his BJP allies

Chief minister of Maharashtra Eknath Shinde (photo: Mandar Deodhar/The India Today Group via Getty Images)
Chief minister of Maharashtra Eknath Shinde (photo: Mandar Deodhar/The India Today Group via Getty Images)

Sujata Anandan

For nearly half a century, Ramleela troupes from North India have been making their way towards Mumbai during Navratri. They put up a nine-day enactment of the Ramayana, and on the tenth day — Vijaya Dashmi — there is a grand display of fireworks as Ravan goes up in flames.

The show is mostly held for the nearly 60 per cent Mumbai population of Uttar Bharatiyas, who are generally lower middle-class migrants seeking work in the metropolis and lacking the means to travel back and forth between their home state and the city for all festivals.

The event is often the only entertainment they may get through the year, and the Azad Maidan in South Mumbai—where the show is typically put on—is packed to capacity, making it impossible to negotiate the grounds during the performances.

Now the Ramleela troupe has received notice from the Maharashtra chief minister’s office that they must hold this year’s Ravan Dahan a day early and not on Vijaya Dashmi like people all over the country would be doing! Why?

Chief minister Eknath Shinde has ended up losing a lot of ground to his rival Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena (UBT). This year, as usual, Thackeray will be holding his rally at Shivaji Park, the Shiv Sena’s traditional rallying ground, while Shinde’s faction of the Shiv Sena has nowhere to go.

Last year, the two Shiv Senas and their leaders engaged in a bitter dispute over who has rights to hold the party’s Dussehra rally at Shivaji Park.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), under pressure from the Maharashtra government, would not grant permission to Uddhav Thackeray. He ultimately approached the Bombay High Court, which accepted his plea that it was a tradition of his father’s party which had held Dussehra rallies at Shivaji Park for over half a century since its existence, and that he should be allowed continuity of the same.

The Shinde government ended up with some egg on its face.

The Shinde faction later held its own show at the Reclamation grounds at the Bandra–Kurla Complex—in the immediate backyard of Matoshree, the Thackerays’ residence, and just a few kilometres from where Uddhav Thackeray was conducting his own show. 

Each claimed to have got the bigger crowd, but it was obvious Shinde’s people had been bused in from all corners of Maharashtra, while Thackeray’ s supporters were mostly sympathetic Mumbai residents.

So this year, the Shinde faction decided to get a head start on the Thackeray faction, reaching out for permissions three weeks earlier than the SS (UBT). 

But then, out of the blue, the Shinde faction caved and withdrew its application—leaving the ground free for Uddhav Thackeray again!

Political analysts at the time said that Shinde had got nervous on two counts:

(1) Thackeray could approach the High Court again and there being no change of status between the two parties between last year and now, the court could rule in favour Thackeray's favour again, which would be a major loss of face for Shinde mere months before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

(2) Moreover, between last Dussehra and this one, it is clear that Thackeray has landed on his feet after the split, notwithstanding the delays in deciding the legitimacy of Shinde’s MLAs. With the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party fully on board with the SS (UBT) now, as part of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Aliiance (INDIA), Thackeray can definitely make better numbers than Shinde and can cause him more embarrassment.

But now Shinde seems to have made another major mistake.

This year, the Reclamation grounds are no longer available as they have been given over to the bullet train project.

The Chowpatty Sands at Marine Drive, which was another favourite venue for Bal Thackeray in the event of the non-availability of Shivaji Park, is also out of bounds. The area is extensively dug up for the metro rail projects and access for even pedestrians, let alone cars and other vehicles, is nearly impossible. In addition, the Chowpatty Sands, open to the sea on three sides with anchored ships visible in the distance, has always posed a security threat to political leaders and the police usually advice not to risk the same.

That leaves only two grounds for a second political rally in the city on the same day, both much smaller than the other three.

The Cross Maidan between Churchgate and the Victoria Terminus is too tiny for a rally of the nature of the Shiv Sena’s Dussehra celebrations, and is generally used for art and other exhibitions.

The Azad Maidan is larger and has seen morchas and demonstrations over the years, but is out of bounds during Navratri owing to the thronging crowds at the Ramleela shows.

So, Shinde has now passed a diktat: The Ravan Dahan should be held a day earlier by the Ramleela Mandal to clear the ground for his party’s rally on Dussehra.

Protests have erupted over this arbitrary decision, not least from the Maharashtra Ramleela Mandal, whose vice president Sandeep Shukla has gone on record to state that his organisation is facing tremendous pressure from the Eknath Shinde–Devendra Fadnavis government. “This will disrupt not just our 48-year tradition at the Azad Maidan but also goes against the folklore and heritage of Ramleela shows and its historical conventions through the centuries,” Shukla said.

Ranjit Singh, also an office bearer of the Mandal, which invites artistes from all over India to perform in Mumbai, says, “Year in, year out they describe themselves as Ram bhakts. But when it comes to observing a centuries’ old tradition, they are putting obstacles in our way.”

Now both the Shiv Sena and the Indian National Congress have come down heavily on both Shinde and his allies in the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Uddhav Thackeray, in his inimitable tongue-in-cheek style, said, “Today’s Ravan needs to be worth Rs 50 crore (a reference to the amount said to have been paid to Shinde’s MLAs for switching sides) to be taken seriously.”

He added, “They do not acknowledge this Ravan. They only know about khokasurs and dhokasurs (devils who have accepted khokas, ie, crores and are betrayers)”.

Mumbai Congress president Varsha Gaikwad minced even fewer words: “In logon ke liye Ram ka naam sirf vote batorne aur logon ko dhamkane ke liye hota hai. Lekin Rambhakti ki sanskaron ko sanjoye rakhne wale Ramleela aayojakon ko kehte hain ki Ravan ka dahan ek din pehle kar lo taaki hum Azad Maidan mein khud ke jhoote bhashan kar lein. Logon ki aastha inke liye mehej ek vote tantra hai, aur kuchh nahin.” (For these people [the saffron parties], Ram’s name is used only to gather votes and threaten others. But the Ramleela organisers who are keeping the culture of Rambhakti alive are told to do the Ravan Dahan a day early so that we can heap false praises on ourselves at Azad Maidan. Peoples’ faith for them is merely a vote-gathering exercise, nothing else.)

"This is an insult to Indian culture and disrespects the faith of millions of people," she continued. "People expect the festival to end where it all began. Wherever Ramleela begins, people expect the end of Ravan to happen at the same place as tradition. But this government expects the Ravan Dahan to be done one day prior or moved out of the grounds. This kind of attitude does not suit well for people who proudly proclaim to be upholders of Indian culture."

All this is happening, of course, despite the fact that the Mandal applied for permission for its Ravan Dahan (on 24 October this year) months in advance and was granted the go-ahead by the BMC.

Shinde, in his game of oneupmanship against Uddhav Thackeray, might have well and truly overstepped the mark this time, and guaranteed great embarrassment for the BJP.

What happens next is being closely watched by all.

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