Mumbai: There is a growing chorus among opposition parties in Maharashtra to reopen places of worship, which have been shut for five months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The opposition, cutting across party lines, has been echoing the demand of several religious organisations and temple trusts.
Parties such as the BJP and the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) are planning to participate in protests against the state government on the issue. Others such as the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), the Samajwadi Party and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen have also backed the demand to open up places of worship.
Political outfits that are part of the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi government, which has been conservative on opening up public places since the lockdown, have taken a more cautious line. However, individual leaders from these parties have written to the state government, requesting that religious places be opened.
The Union government had issued guidelines to reopen religious places in the first unlock phase in June. But while the Maharashtra government has given permission for shops, salons and malls to open with certain precautionary measures, religious places continue to remain shut in the state.
The demand to open temples has especially gained strength after muted celebrations of Bakrid, the Paryushan festival of Jains, and now Ganesh Chaturthi.
Religious organisations such as the Vishwa Warkari Sanghatana, the Trimbakeshwar Temple Trust, Raza Academy, and members from the Jain community, among others, have voiced demands for religious places to be opened.
‘If liquor shops can open, why not temples’
The BJP state unit has directed all its party workers to hit the streets on 29 August, in support of the demand put forth by various religious organisations to open the places of worship for devotees. The party is calling the agitation a “ghantanaad andolan” in which its volunteers will chant the slogan “Daar ughad, Uddhava, daar ughad (Open the door, Uddhav)”.
“The livelihood of a number of people around pilgrimage centres and main places of worship is only dependent on these temples. The state government should also think about that,” Maharashtra BJP president Chandrakant Patil said in a statement Wednesday.
Other opposition leaders such as Prakash Ambedkar, who heads the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, has said he will attend an agitation by members of the Warkari sect on 31 August at Pandharpur, home to the iconic Vitthal-Rukmini temple. Ambedkar’s push for opening temples has especially raised eyebrows as he has always distanced himself from the core Hindutva ideology.
“If you are opening everything else, why not this? The Warkaris go on a foot pilgrimage every year from Dehi and Alandi to Pandharpur, and there is a sentimental reason behind their demand,” Ambedkar told ThePrint. “If the government can open liquor shops, why not temples?”
He added: “We are against the insensible stand being taken by the government.”
Other political leaders such as Raj Thackeray, Samajwadi Party’s Abu Azmi and AIMIM’s Imtiaz Jaleel have voiced their demands to open temples, mosques and other religious places too. Jaleel has threatened to offer namaz on the road if mosques are not opened by 2 September, and has urged the Hindu community too to strongly demand opening up of temples.
MVA parties cautious, but their leaders support demand
Earlier this month, NCP’s Rohit Pawar, grandnephew of party president Sharad Pawar, demanded the opening of temples. In response to a tweet about the Tuljabhavani temple being closed for five months, Rohit, an MLA from Maharashtra’s Karjat Jamkhed constituency, tweeted, “Even I am of the opinion that temples and religious places should be opened. The livelihoods of many people in these areas are dependent on them. There are also people’s religious sentiments. So, I will definitely follow up on this.”
मंदिरं आणि धार्मिक स्थळं लोकांसाठी खुली करायला पाहिजेत, असं माझंही म्हणणं आहे. कारण त्या भागात असलेल्या अनेक व्यावसायिकांची रोजीरोटी त्यावर अवलंबून आहे. लोकांच्या धार्मिक भावनाही असतात. त्यामुळं याबाबत मी जरूर पाठपुरावा करील. https://t.co/RNAKWBWoH4
— Rohit Pawar (@RRPSpeaks) August 15, 2020
Officially, however, the NCP is non-committal on the demand. Speaking to the media, Health Minister Rajesh Tope, an NCP leader, said last week, “At religious places, people are sentimental. There can be crowding. I don’t think it will be possible to follow social distancing norms so easily here. If these norms are going to be strictly adhered to then no one is opposing opening them. But, if there are going to be any limitations or compromises then we shouldn’t hurry.”
Similarly, Congress’ Mumbai vice-president Amarjit Singh Manhas too wrote to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray last month asking for places of worship to be opened so that “citizens can share their heartfelt pain to their creator and seek help from Almighty…”
The Congress too has officially not backed the demand.
“There have been examples across the country where religious places have been opened and there was a spurt in Covid cases. Until the time the administration doesn’t get the confidence, it is difficult to think about it,” Maharashtra Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant said.
“If any of our leaders are expressing their demand to open religious places, it is in their own individual capacity,” he added.
While Shiv Sena leaders have been silent on the issue, the party in an editorial in Saamana said Monday it too wants religious places, which have an entire economy dependent on them, to be open, but the bitter decisions that the government takes are only for the benefit of people’s health.
“Even if the official line of MVA parties is cautious on this, their leaders like Rohit Pawar supporting the cause means they can take credit tomorrow when religious places are finally opened,” political commentator Hemant Desai said.
“Political parties have had a firm hand on the boards of some of these major temple trusts for several years,” he added. “So, other than supporting a popular sentiment, political parties also have vested interests in backing the opening of religious places.”
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