Mumbai: Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on Sunday cancelled a planned visit to the temple town of Pandharpur to perform a puja traditionally conducted by the state chief minister, following threats from various Maratha organizations agitating for job quotas. Fadnavis told reporters on Sunday this was to ensure the safety of about a million devotees gathered in Pandharpur.
A 21-day pilgrimage called waari participated by lakhs of people from all castes and communities culminates at Pandharpur in Solapur district every year on the occasion of Aashadhi Ekadashi, where the chief minister is given the honour of performing the puja to Lord Vitthal as the representative of Maharashtra.
The Maratha organizations have threatened to disrupt the puja if their community was not immediately granted job quotas. They also demanded deferring recruitment to 72,000 government jobs till quota in those jobs was granted to the Marathas. Last week, Fadnavis had told the Maharashtra legislative assembly that 16% of these jobs would be considered reserved for the Marathas and filled up as backlog, whenever the Bombay high court accepts quota for the Marathas.
The chief minister also said the police had intercepted phone conversations and messages indicating some organizations were trying to create trouble. “The intercepts reveal that some organizations are trying to create some sort of untoward incident by releasing snakes among people or causing stampedes that would endanger the lives of about a million devotees. For us, the lives of the devotees are important and so is their sentiment to offer their prayers in peace and harmony. That is why I have decided that I will not go to Pandharpur to perform the puja this year in the interests of the safety of devotees," Fadnavis said. Fadnavis added the government would do justice to the demands of the Marathas but asserted that those who had “held the devotees to ransom could not be the soldiers of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj".
On quotas, Fadnavis said “Everybody knows that it is the Bombay high court which is hearing the case which will take the decision, and the government has done everything it could to make a strong case for the quota". He accused “certain organizations and parties" of deliberately misleading the society in a bid to create social disharmony. Fadnavis added that the recruitment to 72,000 jobs could not be stopped since deserving members of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities would lose out on their chance to get government jobs. He said even the Marathas could apply for these jobs in the open category. “Whenever the high court grants quota, we will fill up 16% of these posts by Marathas to remove the backlog," he said.
In the past, there have been a few occasions when the chief minister could not perform this puja, most prominently in 1996 when the then chief minister Manohar Joshi (the only other Brahmin chief minster of Maharashtra apart from Fadnavis) called off the visit after Dalit organizations threatened to disrupt it after violence in Mumbai’s Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar.
Earlier this month, the Marathas, who account for roughly 32-35% of the state’s population, declared that they would intensify their agitation since the silent marches organised all over the last two years have not yielded any positive response from the government. Last week, the Maratha organisations announced that they would not allow the chief minister to perform the puja even as Fadnavis appealed for calm. Trouble started brewing in parts of Maharashtra from Friday itself when incidents of stone-pelting at vehicles and state transport buses were reported from Aurangabad. On Sunday, the Maratha protestors stopped the convoys of Maharashtra co-operation minister Subhash Deshmukh and water resources minister Girish Mahajan in Solapur district.