After the BJP carried out the ‘bhoomi pujan’ for the Ram temple in Ayodhya in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Maharashtra unit of the party has launched an agitation to demand the reopening of all temples across the state. They are calling it the ‘ghanta naad (tolling of the bells) andolan‘.
What is this agitation about?
The Maharashtra BJP hit the streets across the state at 11 am on Saturday (August 29) for a daylong agitation, ringing bells and blowing conch shells to demand the unlocking of all temples that were shut down after the outbreak of the pandemic.
The agitation was coordinated by rightwing activist Acharya Tushar Bhosale of the Adhyatmik Samanvay Aghadi, a platform of religious trusts and organisations that has been floated to press the demand. The platform, which enjoys the backing of the BJP, has threatened to intensify the agitation if the government does not respond.
But surely it is unsafe to open up spaces where people can congregate in large numbers in the middle of the epidemic?
The BJP’s political agenda is to use the agitation for the reopening of temples to corner its former ally Shiv Sena on the Hindutva question.
By taking up what it hopes can be an emotive issue, the party seeks to earn goodwill amongst religious trusts and temple organisations across the state, project itself as the one true standard bearer of Hindutva, and to show up the Shiv Sena as being captive to the political compulsions of its coalition with the NCP and Congress, and of abandoning its original priorities in order to cling to power.
Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has taken a conservative position on reopening the economy and public spaces, preferring to first gain greater control over the transmission of the virus. The BJP sees an opportunity to paint the Chief Minister’s reluctance to rush into a full reopening as a betrayal of Hindus – state general secretary Shrikant Bharatiya said on Saturday, “Naam mein Shiv hain, par Shiv Hari ko hi bhool gaye (The Shiv Sena has ‘Shiv’ in its name, but it has forgotten Lord Shiva and Hari).”
And what is the BJP saying officially?
Former Chief Minister and Opposition leader Devendra Fadnavis said the BJP wanted all places of worship to be reopened for reasons of both faith and sustenance of livelihoods.
“If the Maha Vikas Aghadi (Maharashtra’s ruling coalition) has opened up liquor shops, malls, gymnasiums, why not temples?” Fadnavis asked.
“Apart from the religious aspect or personal faith, we cannot overlook the fact that places of pilgrimage or worship are linked to the livelihoods of several lakh people. Due to Covid-19 and the lockdown, these poor and lower middle class sections who survive on daily earnings, have suffered.”
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What is the position of the state government, and of other political parties?
The Maha Vikas Aghadi government’s primary concern is obviously to contain the growth in the numbers of novel coronavirus infections – it fears that crowds will be difficult to manage, and temples could become hotspots of infection, and make the Covid-19 crisis worse. Maharashtra still has the largest number of active infections in the country (1,81,050), making up nearly a quarter of India’s total active caseload of 7,52,424, according to Union Ministry of Health figures on Saturday.
Apart from the big four political parties, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has been aggressive in demanding the opening of mosques. Syed Imtiaz Jaleel, the AIMIM’s Lok Sabha MP from Aurangabad, has warned that they would be compelled to open mosques if the government fails to take a decision soon.
Somewhat surprisingly, the president of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) Prakash Ambedkar too, has threatened to launch an agitation if the government does not allow the reopening of places of worship of all religions. But Ambedkar, a grandson of Dr B R Ambedkar, has argued that not opening places of worship impacts livelihoods.
“I am not promoting any religion or faith. My concern is the economy. Lakhs of livelihoods are linked to activities in and around places of worship. There are small shops selling articles of worship like flowers and sweets near temples, churches, gurdwaras, mosques. The business of board and lodging of pilgrims and worshippers provides employment to many,” he said.