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Resist identity politics

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent a busy Saturday in Maharashtra criss-crossing between Mumbai and Pune. While in Pune he laid the foundation of the Metro rail project, in Mumbai he did ‘Jal Pujan’ in the Arabian Sea, which marked laying the foundation of Rs 3,600 crore memorial for medieval ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji, who founded the much-celebrated 17th century Maratha empire. The two events marked great contrasts. While the Pune function showcased government’s development agenda, the function in Mumbai showed the inability of the political parties to get away from the politics of identity. 

Without taking away any credit from the contribution made by Chhatrapati Shivaji in mobilising people against the tyranny of the later Mughal rulers, especially their governors, and subsequently laying foundation of a Maratha empire which dominated politics of the country till almost advent of the British, the plan to build a memorial to him in the Arabian Sea serves no other cause than espouse the politics of identity. The entire project would be funded by the Maharashtra government, which has already set aside Rs. 2,300 crore for the first phase of construction. The whole project is estimated to cost the exchequer Rs 3600 crore. The project has raised controversy on two counts, one the harm it would cause to marine life and trade and two whether it’s worthwhile to spend such amount on a statue when it could have been spent on some other welfare measures especially given the high rate farmer suicides in the state. The first to protest against the project are fishermen as they fear that it will impact the business of over 3,500 them, who go out regularly in these areas to fish. 

A group of marine conservationists had filed a petition before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) seeking to stop the state government from constructing the project. The state government, on the other hand, has tried to justify the project listing benefits which would accrue to the fishing community when the memorial was ready. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis went public saying that the government will give fishermen monopoly to run the boat services and the jetty which will be constructed to ferry tourists to the memorial. The government has also said that the jobs which will be generated from the project will be given to the affected fishermen community on priority. The peaceful conduct of the ‘Jal Pujan’ function was only possible after the state BJP leadership roped in its ‘near estranged’ ally Shiv Sena’s boss Uddhav Thackeray to mediate with the fishermen community. 

One of the dominant fishermen unions of the area is controlled by Sena, which as the original propagator of the memorial idea, wants its pound of credit. The fact became clear when a Shiv Sena spokesperson issued a statement on the eve of the function saying, “It is a proud moment for every citizen of this country that finally the stone-laying foundation of this memorial for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj will take place. But one thing the government has to remember is that all those who have supported this cause, or tried for this cause, all the alliance partners of the ‘Mahayuti’ in Maharashtra, should be taken together. It is not a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) function. It is a government function and all parties should be taken together for such an event.” If the memorial brings better jobs for the fishermen community and improves their lives, its construction cannot be grudged. But if it is going to stand tall just as a statement of identity politics, building it certainly should be given second thoughts.
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