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Loudspeakers & ‘Maha Aartis’ — why temple-mosque politics keeps making a comeback in Maharashtra

Temples-mosques are dominating political discourse in Maharashtra. Parties in the state have time and again raised these issues in a bid to underscore their commitment to Hindutva.

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Mumbai: A mob of Shiv Sena workers Saturday gathered at Khar, outside the Mumbai residence of Amravati MP Navneet Rana and her MLA husband Ravi Rana, trying to break the barricades and enter their house.

At the same time, a large number of Shiv Sainiks gathered outside Matoshree, the residence of Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray in suburban Bandra, sloganeering against the Rana family.

The aggressive demonstrations were sparked by the Rana couple’s proclamation to chant the ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ outside Matoshree. Independents who pledged their support to the BJP in 2019, the Rana couple has now been arrested on charges of sedition in light of the controversy.

The BJP has criticised Navneet and Ravi Rana’s arrest, asking if the Thackeray-led Maharashtra government equated reciting the Hanuman Chalisa with sedition, while Opposition leader Devendra Fadnavis Monday held a press conference to chant the hymn, and dared the government to book him for sedition.

The controversy has its roots in Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) president Raj Thackeray expressing objection to the use of loudspeakers in mosques earlier this month, giving the Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government an ultimatum — to take action by 3 May.

The proclamation issued by the MNS — backed by the BJP — has sparked a political tussle in Maharashtra, with the MNS, the BJP and the Shiv Sena all trying to emphasise their Hindutva agenda.

But this turn for the political discourse is not new in Maharashtra.

Over the last four decades, the Shiv Sena and the BJP have repeatedly resorted to ‘temple and mosque’ politics to buttress their Hindutva commitment, both as allies and adversaries.

“What is happening now is a contest between the BJP and the Shiv Sena on whose Hindutva is more real,” said political analyst Prakash Bal. “It is just politics of convenience.”


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Hindutva in Maharashtra politics

Leaders from across political parties told ThePrint that the use of loudspeakers in mosques was an issue that came up either before elections, or was raised by Hindutva outfits such as the Bajrang Dal and the Vishva Hindu Parishad [VHP].

It was only in the 1990s that the issue acquired political patronage, when Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray took it up in a bid to reinvent the party.

This is around the same time that the Shiv Sena embraced the larger Hindutva agenda, leaving behind its identity of just being an outfit for the sons of the soil.

The Shiv Sena was conceived as a nativist movement in June 1966, but, by the 1980s, Bal Thackeray realised that the party needed more ideological ammunition in order to be able to expand beyond Mumbai. This is why the Sena officially adopted Hindutva as an agenda at the party’s second adhiveshan (session) held at Mahad in the Konkan region in 1985.

A fiery orator, writer and illustrator, Bal Thackeray then employed his abilities to highlight the Shiv Sena’s new-found Hindutva agenda with his speeches and columns.

Soon after, the party fought its first election on the saffron plank — a bypoll to Mumbai’s Vile Parle assembly seat. Sena’s Ramesh Prabhu won this seat and retained it in 1990. Political observers believe the 1980s Vile Parle bypoll was the electoral battle that led Hindutva into the mainstream of Maharashtra politics.

This is what culminated in the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in 1989.

BJP national general secretary Vinod Tawde told ThePrint, “When Balasaheb and Pramod Mahajan [BJP leader who was the key architect of the Sena-BJP alliance] met in 1989 before the election, Pramod ji said the next decade would be the decade of farmers. At the time, Balasaheb had said, the next decade would be the decade of Hindutva.”

“Throughout the 1990s, when Hindutva became a part of politics for the first time, Balasaheb was the sole Hindutva icon, until Narendra Modi ji emerged,” Tawde added.

Bal Thackeray’s ‘Maha Aartis’

Political analyst Bal said of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance: “Shiv Sena was not a Hindutvawadi party. The BJP was. But the BJP had no presence in Maharashtra. So, it piggybacked on the Shiv Sena and fuelled Bal Thackeray’s image as ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ because it helped the BJP grow stronger too. That was the politics of Pramod Mahajan.”

After the mid-1980s, Hindutva outfits started organising ’Maha Aartis’ at temples to counter the practice of Muslims offering namaz outside mosques, and the use of loudspeakers for the azaan.

Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena organised such ‘Maha Aartis’ on an especially grand scale around the time of the 1992-93 riots.

In its report on the 1992-93 riots, the Srikrishna Commission identified ‘Maha Aartis’ as among the factors that provoked violence in Mumbai.

While many Shiv Sena leaders take pride in objecting to namaz being offered on public roads, some cite that it was the Sena-led govt (1995-1999) that increased Mumbai’s Floor Space Index (FSI) — a ratio that defines the extent of construction allowed on a given plot.

This move, some party leaders say, benefitted Muslims who no longer had to offer namaz on the streets outside a mosque.

The 1990s decade was also when Bal Thackeray questioned the use of loudspeakers in mosques for the first time.

“In the 1990s, it was Balasaheb who first started the discourse on loudspeakers, but the Shiv Sena is far from Hindutva now. It is largely silent on this issue because it has aligned itself with so-called secular parties and is now scared,” BJP MP Manoj Kotak told ThePrint.

Shiv Sena MP Vinayak Raut retorted, “Balasaheb would say that any places of worship should not come in the way of development, be it mosques or temples. Balasaheb had also spoken about the loudspeakers at that time. Even today, the Shiv Sena has not wavered on Balasaheb’s ideology. We are simply saying that the issue is a national one and the Centre should take a decision on it.”

Temple-mosque politics, then and now

Recalling the emergence of strong Hindutva sentiment in the run-up to the 1993 Mumbai blasts, a BJP leader who spoke to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity, said, “There was a certain disenchantment with the way Muslims were extreme in their religion, blasting the azaan and blocking roads during namaz.”

It was only after the blasts that a more mature sentiment settled in — of not viewing every Muslim as an anti-national — and the strong manifestation of Hindutva politics ebbed towards the end of the decade, the BJP leader added.

The ‘temple-mosque’ politics, however, did resurface from time to time, when the political parties espousing it had a point to prove.

For instance, in 2003, the BJP and the Shiv Sena organised ‘Maha Aartis’ across Mumbai and its satellite towns during the 10-day Ganesh festival. This was within a fortnight of bomb blasts at Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazar.

Gopinath Munde, the then BJP Maharashtra president, had said that the ‘Maha Aartis’ were to protest the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government’s failure to curb terrorism in the state.

In 2010, the Shiv Sena responded to criticism for violating noise pollution norms at its annual Dussehra rally by carrying a strongly-worded Saamana editorial about the use of loudspeakers in mosques also being a cause of noise pollution.

Ever since the BJP and the Shiv Sena snapped ties in 2019, and the latter tied up with the Congress and the NCP to form a government in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena has maintained that the BJP-ruled Centre should take steps to address the issue.

In 2020, amid a row over a Mumbai Shiv Sena functionary encouraging an azaan competition, the Sena carried an editorial in Saamana, urging the Centre to curb the use of loudspeakers in mosques.

Shiv Sena MP Vinayak Raut said the ongoing loudspeaker row has been stirred by the MNS only to create trouble for the Maharashtra government. “It [MNS] is 100 per cent a pawn of the BJP,” Raut said.

BJP leader Vinod Tawde, however, rejected the charge. “The MNS wants to fill the Hindutva space that the Shiv Sena vacated by allying with Congress and NCP,” he said. “It is not to benefit the BJP.”

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)


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