This is a piece of history that the Shiv Sena recounts with pride and often repeats ad nauseam.
In December 1992, when the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was felled by a frenzied mob of karsevaks, senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sundar Singh Bhandari tried to blame Shiv Sainiks for the act that would set off a cycle of communal riots.
Undeterred by the likely legal fallout, then Shiv Sena chief, the late Bal Thackeray, had said that if his Sainiks had indeed demolished the mosque, believed to have been built at the site of a Ram temple by Mughal emperor Babar, he was proud of it.
As the Shiv Sena settles into its unlikely alliance with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), it has to deal with the baggage of the past. One of these legacy issues is the Sena’s commitment to Hindutva, which is unlike the ‘secular’ character of the Congress and the NCP.
NCP chief and former union minister Sharad Pawar set the cat among the pigeons when asked about the ground-breaking ceremony of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya to be held in the first week of August in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Pawar questioned if building the temple at the site, where Lord Ram was believed to have been born, would control the Covid-19 pandemic. He also stressed on the need to focus efforts on containing the economic fallout of the lockdown.
Apart from plain-speak, this is being attributed to Pawar’s calculated efforts to expand his party. Despite its national pretensions, the NCP is seen as an outfit of the land-holding, dominant Maratha community in Maharashtra. The NCP is trying to expand its base among sections of Dalits and Muslims, which are traditionally aligned to the fast-shrinking Congress, as evidenced by Pawar’s statements on the investigations into the Elgar Parishad in Pune and the subsequent violence against Dalit protestors in Bhima-Koregaon.
These communities are uneasy at the rising tide of Hindutva assertion, of which the Ram temple is an important item on the checklist.
Congress leaders admit they need to strike a balance between a commitment to secularism, holding on to its base in Muslims, who are being poached by the NCP and parties like the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), while also staying in the government.
On the other hand, the Shiv Sena, despite its new allies, cannot afford to discard its commitment to Hindutva, which it has often aggressively espoused in the past.
Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, who is the executive editor of party mouthpiece Saamna, claimed credit for the party and its late supremo as architects of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Raut, seen to be one of the driving forces behind the formation of Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, added that if invited for the function, chief minister and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray would certainly attend.
Shiv Sena legislator Pratap Sarnaik has also jumped the gun by writing to the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust, seeking that Uddhav be included in the list of invitees. However, taking Pawar’s logic further, former NCP MP and advocate Majeed Memon opined on Twitter that the head of a secular democracy should “refrain from promoting a particular religious activity”.
Uddhav has visited Ayodhya thrice in the recent past, including after the completion of the 100 days of the MVA government, incidentally with a Congress minister, Sunil Kedar, in tow.
The opposition BJP has tried to capitalise on this incongruence between the allies, and questioned how the Shiv Sena, which claims to retain its Hindutva credentials despite being part of the MVA, can tolerate an “insult” to the cause of Lord Ram by Pawar. Its youth wing has announced that they will send 10 lakh letters to Pawar with ‘Jai Shri Ram’ written on them.
Though Shiv Sena leaders state that the Ram Temple is not part of the common minimum program on the basis of which the MVA has been stitched together, they admit that the contradictions in the alliance on the issue are becoming obvious.
Though Pawar’s statement calling for the containment of the coronavirus pandemic to be prioritised over politics of religion and totems is practical, the Shiv Sena may be seen as betraying the larger cause of Hindutva for the sake of power. The Sena may be caught in the BJP’s ploy to divert attention from the ongoing public health and economic crisis.
The BJP may also seize this opportunity to exploit ideological contradictions in the MVA over issues like the uniform civil code and the Bharat Ratna to Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, they confess.
As the Hindutva project picks up pace, the Shiv Sena will come under intense pressure to validate its commitment to Hindutva, as the Congress and to an extent, the NCP, try to safeguard their base among religious minorities. These cross-currents may cause an obvious churn in the MVA.
Incidentally, compared to the BJP, the Shiv Sena is a latecomer to the creed of political Hindutva.
Responding to the rising tide of majoritarian assertion as the Sangh Parivar rolled out its project to create a political Hindu, the Shiv Sena formally adopted Hindutva in the 1980s.
For the Shiv Sena, the Ram Janmabhoomi protests came at an opportune time, as it was changing its credo from being a nativist party upholding the cause of Marathi-speakers in and around Mumbai, to a Hindutva outfit. This was essential for its expansion across Maharashtra, where the jobs for sons-of-the soil issue had little resonance, and also to reach out to growing non-Marathi voters in Mumbai.
In 1987, the Shiv Sena chief openly solicited votes for Hindutva in the by-elections to the Vile Parle assembly seat in Mumbai, which its Dr Ramesh Prabhoo won. Incidentally, his opponent, the Janata Party's Pranlal Vora, was supported by the BJP. Hindutva enabled the Shiv Sena and BJP to ally in 1989 after an electorally unsuccessful attempt in 1984.
Earlier, the Shiv Sena had also clashed with the minority community at disputed religious sites like Mahikavati, Durgadi, IC Colony in Mumbai, and Haji Malang. Living up to its urban middle-class origins, the Shiv Sena, through the cartoon weekly Marmik, launched by Bal Thackeray and his brother Shrikant, also carried anti-Muslim content and rhetoric.
As the Ram Janmabhoomi movement took shape across India, it was the Shiv Sena, and not the BJP that led the charge in Maharashtra, with Bal Thackeray emerging as the ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’, a title originally given to Savarkar.
The role played by the Shiv Sena during the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai has been well-documented. Incidentally, during the early days of the Ram Mandir movement, the late Shiv Sena supremo had called for a hospital to be built at the disputed site.
However, Muslim leaders from the Congress say that for a party which does not have a strong commitment to any ideology, Hindutva or an anti-Muslim sentiment for the Shiv Sena is like a shawl, which can be worn and removed at will. This, they note, is unlike the hardline elements from the Sangh Parivar, for whom Hindutva is hard-wired into their psyche and hence, like a second skin, which cannot be discarded.
As the Shiv Sena lives out the contradictions in its alliance with the NCP and the Congress, the dexterity and skill at wearing and discarding this shawl will be put to the test.