Devendra Fadnavis cancels visit to Pandharpur temple over Maratha community protests, says 'fears for lives of devotees'

Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on Monday skipped the annual puja at the Lord Vitthal Temple in Pandharpur town due to protest threats by Marathas seeking reservation for the community in government jobs and instead performed rituals at his home in Mumbai.

As part of a long-standing tradition, the sitting chief minister every year offers prayers at the temple dedicated to Lord Vitthal and Rukmini at Pandharpur in Solapur district, located around 400 km from Mumbai, on the occasion of 'Ashadi Ekadashi'. The auspicious day of performing puja is decided as per the lunar calendar and this year it falls on 23 July.

'Fear for lives of devotees visiting temple'

Some Maratha community leaders had threatened to disrupt Fadnavis' visit to Pandharpur on Monday if their demands, including reservation in government jobs and education, are not accepted.

In view of the protest threats, Fadnavis, who had been performing the puja at the temple for last three years, on Sunday cancelled his visit. Fadnavis said such things were very disappointing.

 Devendra Fadnavis cancels visit to Pandharpur temple over Maratha community protests, says fears for lives of devotees

File image of Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. PTI

"Police have intercepted some messages, like 'will release snakes among devotees', 'could create a situation that would lead to stampede', among others. Such kind of plans are being worked out and it is highly disappointing," he told reporters in Mumbai.

Explaining the reason for calling off his visit, Fadnavis had said he feared for the lives of nearly 10 lakh people expected to be at the temple town in Solapur on Monday on the occasion of 'Ashadi Ekadashi'.

Fadnavis said such a move was a shame for a "progressive" state like Maharashtra.

"The puja is beyond any politics. But some 10 lakh people are there. Efforts are being made by some organisations and people that could create a life-threatening situation in Pandharpur," the chief minister said.

"Nobody can stop me from performing the puja. I have Z-plus level police protection. I can do it under police protection but then I fear that lives of devotees could be in danger and hence I have cancelled my visit," Fadnavis said on Sunday.

The chief minister said only the court can take a decision on the issue of grant of reservation to the Maratha community. He also said if throwing stones at him can get the reservation for Maratha community, he was ready for it and that he took the decision of not to offer prayers at the temple to avoid any law and order problem.

"Some (pro-reservation) organisations are aware of it; still they are instigating the community. If throwing stones at me can get the reservation for Maratha community, then I am ready for it," he said.

On Thursday, Fadnavis had announced in the Legislative Assembly that the Maharashtra government would allot 16 percent of the 72,000 posts it is going to fill to the Maratha candidates in the form of backlog if the Bombay High Court allows quota for the community.

What is the Maratha agitation about?

Marathas are the most influential community in Maharashtra, — including Kunbis — and account for nearly 32 percent of the state's population. The demand for reservation for Marathas began bubbling in 2016 after a similar demand was made by Jats and Patidars in the northern states in 2015.

An article in The Wire noted that economic liberalisation, lack of jobs and the burgeoning agrarian crisis have deeply affected the Maratha community over the years. Most farmer suicides in the state were from Maratha families.

The Maratha protesters believe that the rich and affluent people from their community did nothing to emancipate the poorer sections of Marathas, while others like tribals, Dalits and those included in the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) used their quota and overtook them in wealth and stature.

Moreover, when Fadnavis, a Brahmin, became the chief minister, the Maratha sentiment was hurt in that Maratha ministers had to now take orders from a Brahmin in a state that has a history of anti-Brahmin movements.

The previous Congress-NCP government introduced the 16 percent reservation for Marathas in Maharashtra, which was stayed by the Bombay High Court. In 2014, the BJP government approached the Supreme Court, but the latter refused to interfere. The case in now pending in the Bombay High Court.

The Maratha community leaders had earlier taken out several rallies in various districts to highlight their demands. Last year, a huge rally was organised in this regard in Mumbai.

On Sunday, Fadnavis made a jibe at the protesters and said that those who held devotees to "ransom" could not be called true followers of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. "Those who hold devotees to ransom cannot be called followers of late Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj," he said, pointing at organisations which claim to draw inspiration from the 17th century Maratha warrior king.

The Maratha community believes that despite repeated assurances, nothing concrete has been done till now.

With inputs from PTI

Updated Date: Jul 23, 2018 12:47:18 IST