Not unknown to controversy, senior NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal has this time ventured into a caste minefield, leaving not just him but also his party squirming.
Last week, speaking at a meeting of the Samata Parishad (an OBC outfit founded by him in the early 1990s) in Mumbai, Bhujbal questioned the rationale behind putting up portraits of Goddess Saraswati in schools. Instead, he said, social reformers such as Jyotirao Phule should be honoured in schools and colleges.
“In schools, we have portraits of Saraswati and Sharada. Have you seen Saraswati? Has she taught you? If at all Saraswati taught, it must be to those 3%… we were kept out,” Bhujbal said.
While Bhujbal did not specify, the 3% remark was seen as directed at Brahmins. The upper caste community comprises 3% of Maharashtra’s population. The politically dominant community are the Marathas, forming 33%, while OBCs such as Bhujbal himself make up 40%. Dalits comprise 13%, tribals 8% and denotified tribes another 3%.
In his speech, Bhujbal said: “Social reformers like Savtribai Phule, Jyotiba Phule, Dr B R Ambedkar opened the doors of education for OBS, Dalits.”
Bhujbal’s remarks have been met with strong reaction by various right-wing student organisations and mainstream parties. Apart from this, a police case has been registered against the NCP leader under Section 506 (2) (criminal intimidation) of the IPC. A former aide, Lalitkumar Tekchandani, has accused Bhujbal and two other unidentified people of issuing death threats to him after he shared videos of Bhujbal’s speech.
Chief Minister Eknath Shinde said, “We are not going to remove portraits of Saraswati from schools. We will go by public sentiments.”
Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis said Saraswati was the Goddess of learning. “Those who don’t subscribe to our culture, Hindutva make such statements.”
The NCP has largely washed its hands of the statement of one of its most seasoned leaders, coming amidst the festive season, leaving it to Bhujbal to do damage control. On Sunday, the 74-year-old visited the Kalika Temple in Nashik, which has idols of Goddesses Kali, Laxmi and Saraswati, for aarti.
Seeking to put the controversy behind him, Bhujbal said, “I was not asking anybody to bring down Saraswati portraits. My concern was as to why portraits of great social reformers were not put up in schools… How and whom one worships at home is an individual’s right and freedom, but why bring it to school?”
An NCP leader regretted that Bhujbal used the wrong words to make his point, and while OBC leaders including him are known for anti-Brahminism, he should not have dragged the Goddess into the argument.
“Social reformers in Maharashtra have always attacked casteism and religion. In that sense, Bhujbal has not done anything different. But then there are other ways to make your point. There are individuals who don’t believe in any religion or God. One can be an atheist. But why question someone else’s belief?” the leader said.
Bhujbal insists his remarks have been wrongly perceived. “I am not against Hindu gods or goddesses, I have just suggested that social reformers should find a place in schools,” he said.
His close aide in the Samata Parishad said, “The backward classes, Dalits and tribals have been subjected to atrocities by upper castes, landlords. Caste sentiments still prevail. So, what he said was not entirely wrong. But I admit he should not have named Saraswati.”
A steadfast OBC leader
Bhujbal, who belongs to the Mali (gardener) community and is an engineering diploma holder who once helped his grandmother sell vegetables, has often faced controversies in his political career spanning over four decades. However, among politicians with few lasting loyalties, his commitment to OBC politics has never wavered.
Reflecting the contradiction of Maharashtra politics, where the Shiv Sena represents as much Maratha chauvinism as Hindutva politics, Bhujbal began his politics with the Sena in the 1960s, inspired by Bal Thackeray, and made his way slowly up the ranks – from BMC corporator to two-time mayor of Mumbai, to the lone Sena MLA in the Assembly in 1985 and 1990.
In 1991, Bhujbal held true to his politics again when he quit the Sena to join the Congress citing Thackeray’s opposition to the Mandal Commission recommendations for OBC reservation. It was in the Congress that he found his new political master, Sharad Pawar. When Pawar formed the NCP, Bhujbal moved with him, reportedly even turning down promises of CM post if he stayed.
Bhujbal was entrusted by Pawar with the NCP state president’s role to consolidate OBCs in 1999. Later, when the Congress-NCP came to power in 1999, he was made Deputy CM and given the Home portfolio.
His politics came full circle when, as Home minister, Bhujbal did the unthinkable and ordered the arrest of the all-powerful Bal Thackeray for inflammatory writings in the Sena mouthpiece Saamna. Although Thackeray got bail immediately, Bhujbal had earned his stripes.
In 2003, Bhujbal had his first brush with the law when he had to step down as Deputy CM following allegations against him in the multi-crore bogus stamp scam popularly known as the Telgi scam.
Many at the time believed it would be the end of his political career. However, he survived and within a year, returned as PWD Minister. Later, he got a second shot as Deputy CM from 2008 to 2010.
At the height of the Modi wave in 2014, the NCP fielded Bhujbal from the Nashik Lok Sabha seat. While he lost, he made it to the Assembly six months later from the Yeola constituency.
In March 2016, he was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate on charges of receiving kickbacks to award government contracts as PWD Minister, including for the Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi built at a cost of Rs 870 crore. Bhujbal spent two years in jail before release. A year later, he contested from Yeola again in the Assembly polls, and retained the seat.
While compared to his fiery past, Bhujbal is much more mellow now, he retains the streak when it comes to OBC politics, especially as a counter to the BJP. He has often taken on the BJP-RSS, accusing it of divisive politics and spreading communal hatred.
NCP leaders admit they often advise him caution, but he is not intimidated on account of the cases against him, dismissing the same as “political vendetta”.