When Independent lawmaker couple Navneet and Ravi Rana announced last week that they would recite the Hanuman Chalisa outside Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s residence “Matoshree”, Shiv Sainiks protested in the city and outside the legislators’ residence. Subsequently, the police arrested the couple — Navneet is an MP while Ravi is an MLA — and charged them with sedition.
But a section of senior Shiv Sena leaders and other political leaders are wondering if the party walked into a trap set by the BJP as religious identity politics takes the centre stage in the run-up to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) polls.
A Sena leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Indian Express, “I believe Ravi and Navneet Rana got undue mileage because of our youth wing’s protest outside their residence. Had we ignored their threat to read the Hanuman Chalisa outside ‘Matoshree’, nobody would have noticed it. But then some leaders in our party felt it was necessary to teach (the legislators) a lesson and send out a loud message so that nobody ever dares to challenge the CM at ‘Matoshree’, which is sacrosanct and the private residence of the Thackerays.”
The party functionary added, “It was also a message to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which has given an ultimatum to the government to bring down loudspeakers at mosques by May 3.”
MNS chief Raj Thackeray, who earlier this month raised the loudspeaker demand, has developed a bonhomie with several top BJP leaders and has even lauded the efforts of the Yogi Adityanth government in transforming Uttar Pradesh. Though both parties have ruled out the possibility of an alliance, reports suggest that the BJP is trying to use the MNS to put the Sena under pressure in Marathi-dominated areas.
Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi president Prakash Ambedkar said, “The Shiv Sena has walked in the BJP-NCP trap. This is evident from the turn of developments. Both the BJP and the NCP are fighting against the Shiv Sena. Both want to tarnish the image of Sena and Uddhav Thackeray.”
But the Sena has stuck to its stated position — it is not against Hindutva but won’t take a challenge to the Thackerays lying down. “Nobody has banned Hanuman Chalisa in Maharashtra,” said Sena MP Sanjay Raut. “Our objection was why were Rana couple insisting on reciting it outside ‘Matoshree’.”
BJP insiders also wondered about their former alliance partner’s disproportionate reaction to the legislator couple. “The Ranas are not a force to reckon with. They are independent MLA and MP. They don’t belong to any mainstream political party. Just two individuals standing outside ‘Matoshree’ reciting Hanuman Chalisa would have fizzled out within 10 minutes.”
The Sena’s reaction has provided BJP with the opportunity it was looking for. The saffron party has planned a statewide campaign against the government on the Hanuman Chalisa issue.
“Are all roads leading to ‘Matoshree’ subject to prohibitory orders?” asked Leader of the Opposition and former CM Devendra Fadnavis. “The roads are for the public. It does not belong to anybody. How can you stop individuals? Why is the Shiv Sena so afraid of Ravi Rana and Navneet Rana? They detained Navneet Rana in police custody overnight in violation of court norms. They arrested and slapped sedition charges, which is ridiculous. What is their crime? Is it a crime to recite the Hanuman Chalisa? If we don’t chant Hanuman Chalisa in Maharashtra should we do it in Pakistan?”
BJP general secretary Chandrashekhar Bawankule has also spoken out against the ruling party’s “extreme steps”. He added, “There was nothing to get provoked. I make an ardent appeal to Sena workers to come to my house. I will provide drums and bells to recite the Hanuman Chalisa. I will also provide tea and snacks and prasad.”
The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have largely stayed away from the controversy and let their ally fight its own battle.
A senior Congress minister, requesting anonymity, told The Indian Express, “Shiv Sena always takes pride in displaying its muscle power. Politically speaking, Sena’s image taking a beating helps the Congress and the NCP when it comes to expanding our electoral bases. The tripartite coalition based on common a minimum programme is a temporary arrangement to keep BJP out of power.”
Exercising utmost care not to rub Sena the wrong way, NCP leader and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar said, “Any communal unrest does not augur well for the development of Maharashtra and its people. The people should shun communal agenda.”