Places of worship in Maharashtra have remained closed since the last week of March when the lockdown was enforced across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than six months have passed and despite repeated demands from political and religious outfits, the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance government in Maharashtra has refused to reopen temples, even though bars, liquor shops and restaurants have been reopened.
For the last one week, the main opposition party BJP, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and Bahujan Vanchit Aghadi supporters have staged protests in several cities demanding that the places of worship be reopened. On Tuesday, Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshiyari sent a letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray in which he pointed out to repeated demands from several sections of society for reopening of temples.
The latter was laden with sarcasm. The Governor wrote: “I wonder if you are receiving any divine premonition to keep postponing reopening of places of worship time and again, or have you suddenly turned secular yourselves, a term you hated?... You have been a strong votary of Hindutva, you had publicly espoused your devotion to Lord Rama by visiting Ayodhya after taking the charge as Chief Minister, you had visited the Vitthal Rukmini Mandir in Pandharpur and performed the pooja on Ashaadi Ekadashi.”
A furious Uddhav Thackeray promptly replied to the Governor: “Why has this question come to your mind? Do you feel that merely opening of temples means Hindutva and not opening means secular? As Governor, you took an oath of office and secrecy, as per the provisions of the Constitution, which is based on secularism. Do you agree with that secularism?.... The Governor must have personal experience of divine premonition. I have absolutely no idea. I am not that big. I am studying what is happening in other states and trying to implement what is better for Maharashtra.”
Nationalist Congress Party supremo Sharad Pawar wrote a letter to the Prime Minister taking serious exception to the Governor’s sarcastic letter. He said he was “shocked and surprised with the intemperate language” used by the Governor. “I have not discussed this matter either with the Governor nor with Uddhav Thackeray. However, I felt that I must share my pain with you and the public at the erosion of standards of conduct by the high constitutional office of the Governor…..Unfortunately, the Governor’s letter to the CM invokes the connotation as if it is written to the leader of a political party.” Pawar defended Thackeray’s decision not to reopen temples, “in view of crowds at prominent places of worship, (where) it is impossible to maintain safe distance between people.”
In my view, the Governor should have maintained decorum and should not have used such language in his letter, and the Chief Minister, too, should have practised restraint while replying to the Governor. Both have transgressed the limits of Constitutional decorum.
The ground reality, however, is quite different. There have been protests demanding the reopening of temples in Maharashtra. It began from Shirdi, where the world-famous Sai Baba temple attracts thousands of devotees each year, but the shrine has remained closed since last six months. This has affected the local economy which was thriving because of devotees. Thousands of people working in lodges, hotels, restaurants, and shops in and around Shirdi have been rendered jobless. Only the main priest is allowed to enter the main shrine every day and the temple is closed to devotees.
On Tuesday, protesters gathered outside Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai, raised slogans and performed ‘aarati’ of Ganpati Bappa praying to him to instil good sense in Uddhav Thackeray’s mind. The protesters have been saying that if bars and restaurants can reopen, and if cinema halls can be reopened from October 15, then there is no logic behind closing down places of worship. The management of religious shrines say they are much conscious about the need to maintain social distancing and they intend to implement these rules strictly for devotees.
There have been protests in Pune and Nagpur too. Most of the devotees want the temples to reopen before October 17, when the nine-day Navratri festival begins. In his letter, the Governor had pointed out that temples have been reopened in Delhi from October 8, and yet there has been no spike in the number of Covid cases in the national capital.
The problem with Uddhav Thackeray is that the people of Maharashtra are unhappy with his government. They are also unhappy with Shiv Sena. Uddhav Thackeray claims that he did not allow the reopening of temples due to Corona, but the common man in Maharashtra is saying that Uddhav Thackeray has put Maharashtra on top among the states where the Corona pandemic is raging.
In Maharashtra alone, there have been 15.4 lakh Covid cases detected, out of which 12.8 lakh people recovered and 40,514 people have died of Covid. The all-India figures are: total 72.4 lakh cases detected, 63 lakhs recovered and 1.11 lakh people died of Covid. Surely, Uddhav Thackeray has much to answer.
People are also questioning why the Pandharpur temple was opened for CM Uddhav Thackeray and his family to perform annual pooja on July 1? Does this mean that the chief minister’s pooja carries weight, and the common man’s prayer is of no consequence? My view is that places of worship in Maharashtra must be allowed to reopen with strict Covid guidelines, similar to the ones being enforced for bars and restaurants.
Uddhav Thackeray may have his personal differences with the Governor, but he must keep the welfare of his people in mind. He should take a leaf out of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s book. Yogi allowed the reopening of nearly 40,000 temples in UP, including the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple and the temples of Mathura, way back on June 8. Did that cause a spike in Covid cases in UP? The facts speak otherwise: Only 4.39 lakh Covid cases and 6,438 deaths in UP.
Uddhav Thackeray should not make the reopening of temples an ego issue. This is a matter of faith and sentiment for crores of people in Maharashtra. He should not doubt the intentions behind this demand.
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