Come election, come Aurangzeb: Why a visit to a grave is haunting Sena

Often deployed by parties to score points, the convenient spectre of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb now finds itself dragged into the grubby political fight in Maharashtra ahead of the BMC elections.

What has set off the latest round is a visit by controversial AIMIM leader Akbaruddin Owaisi to Aurangzeb’s open-air, nondescript grave near Aurangabad, marked by a small sweet basil plant.

With the BJP and MNS waiting to trip the Shiv Sena – which is in a ruling coalition with the Congress and NCP – over any matter Hindutva, the visit has come in handy.

And the bait, in the form of AIMIM, couldn’t be more biting for the Sena.

In Maharashtra, where politics revolves around Chhatrapati Shivaji, and hence his rivalry with Aurangzeb, the Mughal Emperor is seen as the very antithesis of Maharashtrian pride and Maratha valour. The Sena, on the other hand, has built itself as a repository of both.

In this political incarnation, Aurangzeb’s grave, and by extension Aurangabad, has played a crucial role. While the city was built by Malik Ambar, a regent of the Nizam Shahi dynasty, it was renamed Aurangabad in 1610 by Aurangzeb when he made it his capital.

In the late 1980s, Aurangabad became one of the first major cities outside the Mumbai-Thane belt that the Sena set its eyes on. The city’s 30% Muslim population made it fertile ground for polarisation, and soon after riots that led to the killing of over 25 people, the Sena won the elections to the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation in 1988.

On May 8, 1988, Shiv Sena supremo late Balasaheb Thackeray announced the renaming of the city as Sambhaji Nagar after Sambhaji, the son of Shivaji who was killed by Aurangzeb. In 1995, the corporation passed a resolution to do so, and the Shiv-Sena led government in the state issued a notification seeking suggestions and objections from people on this.

The notification was challenged in the High Court by then AMC corporator (of the Congress) Mushtaq Ahmed. While the plea was dismissed by the court stating that no decision had been taken, the renaming has remained a contentious issue and resurfaces ahead of every election.

With the Shiv Sena now in power, both the BJP and the newly resurgent Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) have been looking to pin the party down on the issue of Aurangabad, knowing very well its hands are tied being in an alliance.

In March 2020, as a placatory gesture, the MVA government had cleared a proposal to rename the Aurangabad airport as Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj Airport. However, this has not yet got the go-ahead from the Centre.

Into this has stepped Akbaruddin Owaisi.

The Sena can’t afford to ignore the AIMIM as the party already has a strong base in Aurangabad, being the second largest party in the Municipal Corporation and winning an MLA seat in 2014. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, four-term Sena MP Chandrakant Khaire had been defeated by the AIMIM’s Imtiaz Jaleel.

MNS chief Raj Thackeray’s decision to hold a public rally in Aurangabad earlier this month was also a well-crafted move to hurt the Sena where it hurts.

Sena insiders see a coordinated move in Akbaruddin Owaisi’s visit to Aurangzeb’s grave and the MNS challenging the party in Aurangabad. They also see the BJP’s hand in the MNS’s sudden belligerence.

The Sena has been at the forefront in criticising the AIMIM leader’s visit to the grave. MP Sanjay Raut said it was meant to vitiate the atmosphere in the state and that “followers of the 17th Century Mughal Emperor” would meet the same fate as him.

But the BJP wants the Sena to do more, questioning its “hesitation” in taking action against those who visited Aurangzeb’s tomb. “We will not tolerate anything that glorifies Aurangzeb in any way. Those who are trying to do so should face some action,” Leader of Opposition Devendra Fadnavis said.

The Congress has raised a logical question, on what charges can be brought against someone for visiting a grave. But logic is not what this debate is about.

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