In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the already strained relations between the governor of the country’s worst-hit state and its chief minister have just become worse. On Monday, Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari — who has turned the Raj Bhavan into a hub of controversy with a series of controversial moves, going back to the row, last November, over government formation in the state — wrote a letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, taunting him for his decision to keep religious places in the state closed. “Religious places in other parts of the country have been open for nearly three months and there are no reports of a surge in COVID cases,” Koshyari wrote. Having transgressed into the executive’s domain, the governor went further. “Have you suddenly turned secular yourself, the term you hated,” he asked Thackeray. But it’s Koshyari who needs to answer: Does the tone and content of his letter behove a constitutional functionary?
Since June, the Unlockdown Guidelines of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs have rightly allowed state governments considerable flexibility in deciding the resumption of several activities, including opening places of worship. Last month, the Maharashtra government invoked this discretionary provision when it informed the Bombay High Court that reopening religious places, even with safety guidelines, was not a practical solution. It cited reports of breach of safety protocols during the Ganesh Utsav. The state government was responding to a petition filed by a Mumbai-based NGO. Since then, the demand to reopen religious places in Maharashtra has grown louder, with the main Opposition party, the BJP, leading a state-wide agitation. This is a matter where decision-making must be guided by sound administrative protocols and scientific expertise. That the governor enclosed in his letter three representations, reportedly from BJP office-bearers, invites serious questions about the continuing politicisation of a high office.
Koshyari has been an RSS and BJP activist, and his earlier avatar arguably looms large over Monday’s letter. Perhaps the Maharashtra governor needs to be reminded of the document he swore allegiance to when he took oath of office on September 5, 2019 — the Constitution. Enshrined in its “Preamble” is a word he might disparage as a Hindutva follower, but one that propriety demands he accord due respect to — Secularism. Perhaps the governor should rewrite his letter to the chief minister, or be persuaded to do so.
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