Systematic incitement plan in Maharashtra

Recurring communal incidents over the last six months, with three places reporting clashes within 48 hours across different regions in Maharashtra, portend a disturbing pattern of using religion to fuel political interests. Because they are localised, there is no mass outrage about governance, but they’re potent enough to spread divisions across the State, finds Abhinay Deshpande

May 26, 2023 01:46 am | Updated 10:26 am IST

 At the entrance of the Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik district. 

 At the entrance of the Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik district.  | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

Salim Bakshu Sayyad, 68, who hails from a family with a tradition of selling dhotis and puja-related garments, claims that every year on May 13, his ancestors have faithfully presented fragrant dhoop (frankincense) to Shiva, the Hindu god, on the first step leading to the revered Shri Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik district. The annual ritual, in the town that is the source of the Godavari river, involves a sandal procession (a sandalwood powder offering) that starts from a local dargah of the Muslim saint Hazrat Sayyed Gulab Shah Wali Baba to commemorate his Urs (death anniversary). It passes by the temple, about 200 metres away.

“I don’t remember when it started. From my great-grandfather to my grandfather to my father and now myself, we have faithfully observed this ritual for generations,” Mr. Sayyad said, of the temple that is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas, major worship sites of Shiva. A video of the Sayyad family standing outside the main gate of the temple went viral. But the temple authorities are now accusing him and his family of forcible entry.

This was one of the three incidents of communal face-off in three different regions of Maharashtra — Vidarbha, Western Maharashtra, and the north — in just 48 hours. All involved a temple, a mosque, a procession, and a social media post that went viral. Most locals don’t care about them, but social media propaganda carries the venom wide and far. Over the past three months there have been six incidents across the State.

Friction in Trimbakeshwar

The annual practice that Mr. Sayyad and his family observe symbolises the mutual respect between communities in the temple town of Trimbakeshwar, which has a total population of barely 15,000, with 250 to 300 Muslims. The current management of the temple that was built on an existing one by Peshwa Balaji Bajirao (1740-1761), denies such a practice ever existed.

Also read: Maharashtra govt. constitutes SIT to probe Nashik temple incident 

They accuse the Muslims of trying to forcibly enter the temple on the evening of May 13. Now, Mr. Sayyad finds himself entangled in a legal situation. He, along with three others — Aqeel Yusuf Sayyad, Salman Aqeel Sayyad, and Matin Raju Sayyad — all family members, are facing criminal charges under Section 295 (injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult a religion) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), following a complaint by the temple authorities.

The flare-up, 185 km north of Mumbai, has become, as of May 16, a matter of investigation by a special investigation team (SIT) announced by Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who also holds the Home portfolio.

On the day after the SIT was announced, members of the Sakal Hindu Samaj, a coalition of right-wing organisations including the Bajrang Dal and the Vishva Hindu Parishad, sprinkled gomutra (cow urine) on the temple steps as a ‘purification’ ritual. Police were deployed at the dargah with the Sayyad family’s home within the compound. Rattled by the sudden friction, they have said they will discontinue the tradition.

Mr. Sayyad, a cancer survivor and current torchbearer of this custom, said he carries a chaddar, flowers, sandalwood powder, and dhoop on his head, and the group pause at the uttara mahadwar (northern main door) of the temple to present dhoop, before retracing their steps to the dargah for jubilant celebrations, which includes the distribution of food.

The Trimbakeshwar temple, built by Peshwa Balaji Bajirao.

The Trimbakeshwar temple, built by Peshwa Balaji Bajirao. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

‘Only Hindus’

While Mr. Sayyad and his family say that they will cooperate with the investigation and are not worried as the practice has been passed down many generations, the current trustees of the temple, appointed in 2018, held a battery of meetings before lodging a complaint with the police. They question why the family tried to enter the premises despite knowing that only Hindus are supposed to go in and pray. A notice (in Hindi, Gujarati, and English) on the wall of the main entrance read: “No entrance except Hindu”.

“We know them [the Sayyad family] for several years now, but we have never seen such a custom. It was started only last year, and we have a video of it which shows some of them [Muslims] entering the temple premises through the main entrance. However, this year, they couldn’t succeed,” claims Prashant Vinay Gaidhani, a trustee and a priest at the temple.

He said several tourists who visit from outside the country come to the temple, but never enter. “However, on May 13, they [the Sayyad family] insisted on entering the temple to offer dhoop to the lord after it was closed for the day. The temple closes at 9 p.m. and a group of 23 to 30 Muslims gathered at the main entrance at 9.45 p.m. Security personnel stopped them and they went back after a few minutes,” Mr. Gaidhani said.

The trustees say they possess comprehensive records documenting every practice and tradition followed at the temple from the time of the Peshwas and assert that no record has been found to support the claim of Muslims offering dhoop. “If they can substantiate their claim, we will be happy to face legal charges. However, I can say that their intentions are unclear and they want to defame this revered Jyotirling,” stated the priest, adding that there is no historical precedent of joint Hindus-Muslim participation in any ritual at Trimbakeshwar.

However, the Sayyad family, elders in the town and former trustees of the temple (2012-2018), state that there was no record of the custom as the family never entered the temple, and offered dhoop from outside.

“He is our Trimbak Raja. We have faith in him and our family owns shops which depend on his devotees,” said Mr. Sayyad’s son Nadeem, who also drives an auto to eke out his daily living. “All my customers are Mahadev’s devotees. We address and greet people with ‘Mahadev’ and ‘Jai Sri Ram’. We have no other intentions, and it’s a clear misunderstanding. They are unnecessarily giving it a political colour. The villagers are with us,” Mr. Nadeem said, showing pictures and videos of Hindu gods on his mobile phone.

Now, Aniket Shastri, who heads the Maharashtra unit of the Akhil Bhartiya Sant Samiti, a body of seers, claims that there is a Ganesh idol, other deities, and symbols below the mosque, and has asked for an excavation.

The Hazrat Sayyed Gulab Shah Wali Baba mosque. 

The Hazrat Sayyed Gulab Shah Wali Baba mosque.  | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

Communal harmony throttled

While the ruling combine of the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is quick to pander to its right-wing Hindu supporters in the aftermath of the incident, the Opposition alleges a deliberate plot to dial up communal tensions in the name of Hindutva.

Shiv Sena (UBT) leader and former Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray told The Hindu in an exclusive interaction, “The custom of Muslims offering reverence at the Trimbakeshwar temple is being turned into a controversy. This was communal harmony. You (BJP) first decide whether you want to play Hindu-Muslim politics or patriotism.”

Calling it a manufactured controversy, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar said that in the video that spread like wildfire, all that is seen is Muslims going up to the gate, and questions the rationale of the SIT. “If such things are happening — anywhere in India, but especially in a State like Maharashtra — how can we accept this?” he said.

Mr. Fadnavis said that there are people trying to disrupt the peace in the State, but, “Anyone who tries to distrub the law and order situation in Maharashtra will be dealt with firmly. These are deliberate attempts and it will not be tolerated at all. Our police are on alert mode 24x7.”

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray said that the issue at Trimbakeshwar is for the locals to take a call on. “Outsiders must not intervene. If a tradition is on for years, then it is not right to stop it. Is our religion so weak that it will lose its purity and divinity if someone from another religion enters a temple?” he said.

Akola action

On the day when Mr. Sayyad’s family was accused of ‘forcibly’ entering the Trimbakeshwar temple, the otherwise peaceful town of Akola in north-central Maharashtra experienced unrest — after nearly 30 years — over a provocative post on social media about Prophet Muhammad, allegedly by Karan Sahu, a member of the Chhatrapati Sena, a local right-wing group.

The violence at Akola spanned seven hours resulting in the death of a passerby, Vilas Gaikwad, 40. The confrontation escalated as both groups engaged in extensive vandalism, including arson, even setting vehicles ablaze. Many were injured, including two policemen. Over 300 were booked and 100 arrested.

According to locals, Mr. Gaikwad, who belongs to the Dalit community, was driving an autorickshaw with KGN (Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti) written on it. He was allegedly stopped by the angry mob which mistook him for a person from the Muslim community and started attacking him.

In the aftermath of the incident, political accusations and suspicions rose. The Opposition blames the current dispensation for fomenting communal riots under the guise of Hindutva. The BJP’s senior leader and Rural Development Minister Girish Mahajan, who visited the riot-affected area to assess the situation, deemed the incident ‘pre-planned’ and promised strict action would be taken against the culprits.

Shevgaon trouble

Simultaneously, Shevgaon in Ahmednagar district faced communal violence during a procession organised to commemorate the anniversary of the 17th century Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Sambhaji, son of Shivaji, on May 14.

During the procession, violence erupted between the Hindu and Muslim communities. According to eyewitnesses, the situation escalated when the procession reached the Shivaji Chowk area around 8.30 p.m. and the participants raised the volume of the music systems near the Jama Masjid.

“When the police and members of the Muslim community asked the organisers to turn the volume down as it was time for namaz, they refused. This triggered intense arguments that quickly escalated into stone pelting, arson, and vandalism,” an eyewitness said, requesting anonymity.

Several people, including policemen, were injured in the alleged communal violence, and according to reports cases were booked against more than 250 individuals with the police arresting over 150 from both communities.

Internet services were temporarily suspended in both Akola and Shevgaon in an effort to curb the spread of rumours on social media, with the district authorities imposing Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) which prohibits unlawful assembly of people, to maintain the law and order.

The Akola and Shevgaon incidents were replays of similar clashes that rattled Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar (Aurangabad) and Mumbai in March this year during Ram Navami. They too highlight the fragility of communal harmony in the State.

In the same month, communal violence flared up at Savarade village in Kolhapur district following a WhatsApp status by a Muslim youth objecting to the renaming of Aurangabad, and on April 4, violence broke out in Jalgaon district during a religious procession with loud music in front of a mosque, which also resulted in stone pelting.

“This is a pattern indicating polarisation ahead of the crucial civic body, Assembly and Lok Sabha polls and every party is trying to prove their commitment to the cause of Hindutva,” political analyst Hemant Desai said, adding that three parties — the BJP, the Shiv Sena, and the Shiv Sena (UBT) — are competing to prove their stance.He added that the current dispensation is making attempts to prove that the Uddhav-led Sena’s Hindutva ideology is now diluted.

Right now, Mr. Desai said, Hindutva ideology dominates the political landscape, to the exclusion of agriculture, unemployment, development, and the economy.

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