(Eds: Adds reactions, BJP protests) Mumbai, Oct 13 (PTI) Maharashtra Governor B S Koshyari and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray were engaged in a bitter exchange of words over reopening of places of worship in the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic with 'secularism' and 'Hindutva' figuring prominently in their discourse.
The spat between the two constitutional functionaries started after Koshyari wrote a letter to Thackeray about representations received by his office demanding reopening of places of religious worship, shut since March-end in view of the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent lockdown.
In his letter on Monday, Koshyari told Thackeray that it is 'ironical that while on one hand the state government permitted opening of bars, restaurants and beaches, our gods and goddesses have been condemned to stay in the lockdown.' Responding to the letter by Koshyari, Thackeray on Tuesday wrote to the Governor, saying the state government will consider his request to reopen these places.
The CM said a decision on reopening places of worship, a demand being vociferously made by the opposition BJP, will be taken after careful consideration of the COVID-19 situation in Maharashtra, which tops among states in the number of cases and deaths.
In his letter, whose tone and contents evoked criticism from ruling allies the Congress-NCP, Koshyari had mentioned that he has received three representations from delegations demanding that places of religious worship be reopened.
In response, Thackeray pointed out the 'coincidence' that all the three letters Koshyari mentioned were from BJP office-bearers and supporters.
An RSS veteran, Koshyari had a long stint in the BJP before be entered the Raj Bhavan here in September 2019 when the national party was still ruling the state.
While in the BJP, the 78-year-old had served in various capacities and was also the chief minister of Uttarakhand.
In the letter to the Maharashtra CM, whose party Shiv Sena is wedded to Hindutva, Koshyari asked, 'Have you suddenly turned secular, the term you hated?' Responding to this question, Thackeray wondered if to Koshyari, Hindutva meant merely reopening places of religious worship and if not opening them was to him being secular.
'Isn't secularism a key component of the Constitution, by which you swore while taking oath as the state governor,' Thackeray said.
'I don't need your certificate for my Hindutva,' Thackeray said, referring to Koshyari's letter.
'While considering the sentiments and beliefs of the people, it is also important to take care of their lives and it is wrong to impose and lift lockdown suddenly,' the CM wrote.
Koshyari said in the last three months, delegations of religious leaders, individuals, NGOs and political leaders had met him to demand reopening of places of religious worship.
The governor also reminded Thackeray that the Sena leader had been a strong votary of Hindutva and had 'publicly espoused his devotion to Lord Ram' by visiting Ayodhya after taking over as the chief minister last year.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut appeared critical of the Governor over his letter and backed the chief minister on the row.
Koshyari should only see whether Maharashtra is being run as per the Constitution or not and there is an elected government in the state to look after rest of the things, Raut said.
The Rajya Sabha MP also harped on the Shiv Sena's commitment to Hindutva.
'Nobody should have a question in mind about whether one is Hindutvavadi or not. It only needs to be seen whether the government is being run as per the Constitution or not,' the Rajya Sabha member said, without naming Koshyari.
Raut said besides being the chief minister, Thackeray is president of the Shiv Sena and son of party founder the Bal Thackeray, who had 'propagated Hindutva in the country'.
'Hence, Uddhav Thackeray or us need not take lessons on Hindutva. Our Hindutvais firm and based on a strong foundation,' he said.
Latching on to Prime Minister Narendra Modis remark that the threat of COVID-19 still persists, Raut said in view of the health concern, it is Thackeray's responsibility to take care of people's safety, and the governor should have rather appreciated the chief minister for doing so diligently.
Peeved over the contents of Koshyari's letter to Thackeray, NCP president Sharad Pawar on Tuesday wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing shock over the kind of language used in the Governor's missive.
In his letter to Modi, Pawar, whose party is a key ally in the Sena-led MVA government, said he was pained by the erosion of standards of conduct by the high Constitutional office of the Honourable Governor.
The former Union minister referred to the huge crowds some temples in the state like that of Lord Vitthal in Pandhapur, Siddhivinayak in Mumbai, Sai Baba in Shirdi and others, witness on normal days.
In such places, it is almost impossible to maintain safe distance between people. Keeping this in view, the Government of Maharashtra had decided to stagger the decision regarding opening up of places of worship, Pawar said.
Shiv Sena's ally Congress also disapproved of the comments in Koshyari's letter, saying they go against the constitutional principle of secularism.
Speaking to reporters here, state Congress chief and revenue minister Balasaheb Thorat said Koshyari is also the Governor of the BJP-ruled Goa where places of worship are still closed on account of coronavirus.
'What the Governor has said goes against the principle of secularism in the Constitution. We think this is not right.
Does the President approve of the language used in the Governor's letter?' Thorat asked.
Meanwhile, the BJP on Tuesday held protests outside temples in various cities in Maharashtra demanding reopening of places of worship.
In Mumbai, BJP workers led by MLC Prasad Lad and Leader of Opposition in Legislative Council Praveen Darekar tried to enter the famous Siddhivinayak Temple. Lad, Darekar and others were detained by the police and later released.
In Thane, BJP workers, led by MLAs Niranjan Davkhare and Sanjay Kelkar, rang bells as part of the 'ghanta naad' protest which was held in front of ancient Ghantali temple.
In Pune, BJP activists staged a demonstration outside the famous Tambadi Jogeshwari temple.
In Aurangabad city, BJP workers performed puja and sang devotional songs outside a temple. PTI VT ENM SPK ND AW COR BNM GK NSK KRK RSY RSY