Exposing fissures within the alliance, activists of the Shiv Sena, the BJP’s alliance partner in Maharashtra, attacked Sudheendra Kulkarni, former BJP leader and aide to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Monday morning — hours ahead of the launch of a book written by former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri.
Kulkarni, head of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) which organised the book launch, was stopped by Sena activists shortly after he left home in the morning. Protesting against the organiser’s decision to go ahead with the book launch despite Sena’s objections, the activists painted Kulkarni’s face black.
The attack led to widespread condemnation and forced Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to intervene and ensure that the event at Nehru Centre went off as scheduled. But the Sena appeared unrepentant, with MP and spokesperson Sanjay Raut saying the party had not called off its agitation and “agents of Pakistan” should be “kicked on the butt”. Yuva Sena chief Aditya Thackeray said the attack on Kulkarni was historic and democratic.
The Sena had Sunday threatened to disrupt the launch of Kasuri’s book, Neither a Hawk, Nor a Dove: An Insider’s Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy.\
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ORF then wrote to Fadnavis seeking additional security, while Kulkarni met Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray at his residence to request him to allow the programme take place. Fadnavis had said Kasuri would be provided full security.
“About 10-15 people surrounded my car in the morning when I left for work. They were wearing saffron sashes and shouting ‘Shiv Sena zindabad’ slogans. They even called me a desh drohi (traitor). They warned me against holding the programme on Monday evening,” said Kulkarni, wearing a green kurta and a saffron jacket, and a small tricolour blotted with ink on his lapel. He later held a press interaction alongside Kasuri, with paint still smeared all over his face.
A case has been registered against six to seven unidentified persons based on a complaint by Kulkarni’s daughter.
The incident comes days after the organisers of a concert featuring Pakistan ghazal singer Ghulam Ali in Mumbai called off the event after similar threats from the Sena, which has said events featuring Pakistan-based dignitaries and artists will not be allowed when Indian soldiers are being killed on the border.
Following the attack on Kulkarni, back-channel talks were held between Fadnavis and the top Sena leadership and the book launch took place in the evening. However, Raut still sent a terse letter to Fadnavis — and also released it to the media — in which he made claims about Kasuri being involved in anti-India activities.
Meanwhile, Aditya defended the Sena’s stand, calling Kulkarni a “Naxal sympathiser” and Kasuri a “foreign minister having links with anti-India separatists from the valley”.
“If Kulkarni says that the Shiv Sena has done it then we have done it. Who else in the state has the courage to do these things? Kulkarni should also check if there was ink flung on his face or whether his was face was blackened by tar,” Raut said. Raut claimed the party had warned Kulkarni there would be no compromise on the issue of Pakistan and alleged Kulkarni was a Pakistani agent. “Uddhav saheb had firmly told Kulkarni when they met yesterday that the party will not compromise on Pakistan,” Raut said, adding that those who espoused Pakistan’s cause needed to be beaten up.
“These are agents of Pakistan. They should be kicked on their butt,” Raut said. He also questioned the reason for inviting Pakistani politicians to the city. “Why do these Pakistani agents feel that people they are calling are peace doves. They are all vultures. They are wolves who are killing our people. They can’t see the violence that has been unleashed against our people. However their blood boils when their faces are blackened,” Raut said.
Arvind Sawant, Sena’s South Mumbai MP, said after the attack that he wasn’t certain who the attackers were. “But if they are Shiv Sena workers, it will only make us proud. It is unfortunate that Shiv Sena has to protest to make itself heard, despite being a part of the government. We are a part of the government, but we are not really treated like the government,” he said.
Kasuri said that as a political person, he understood the right to protest, but it was justified only as long as it was peaceful. “What happened with Mr Kulkarni was not right,” he told mediapersons.
The Sena and the BJP have had disagreements over several issues, ranging from the land acquisition bill to the ban on meat during the Jain festival of Paryushan to Sena’s stand on Ghulam Ali’s concert.
Leaders from the Sena and the BJP admitted Monday’s incident appeared to be part of a proxy war between the two parties. On Sunday, the Sena made its unhappiness apparent by boycotting all events featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mumbai because of what it called the “eleventh-hour and unceremonious” invite to Uddhav.
Sena leader and MLC Neelam Gorhe did not comment on the attack, but admitted the fissures between the alliance partners are alarming. “There is a lot of communication gap in this government — between the government and bureaucracy, the government and people, the government and other parties. Earlier, as alliance partners, Shiv Sena and BJP would always have a joint meeting before the state legislature sessions, but since the last one year, there has been no such meeting. We have pointed this out several times,” Gorhe said.
A senior Sena leader and a minister in the state government said on condition of anonymity, “Our expectation was that the CM should have supported what the Sena was saying. If there was sufficient discussion between the BJP and us, even yesterday’s incident when we ultimately had to boycott all functions would have never taken place. The CM is also not doing enough to rein in the situation.”
BJP Minister Chandrakant Patil rubbished the Sena’s claims the government is not open to discussion with allies. “There are cabinet ministers and ministers of state from the Shiv Sena who can freely discuss any issues. While being in the government, all parties, including the BJP, have the right to dissent, but it should be done by way of discussions within four walls rather than making it a slugfest,” Patil said.