Mumbai: Protest erupted after Yashwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University (YCMOU) in Nashik asked its students, teachers and staff to participate in a ‘Mangal Akshata Kalash Poojan’, a ceremony to worship an urn with ‘auspicious rice’, held on Saturday in the run-up to the consecration of Ram Lalla idol at Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.
The varsity had issued a circular announcing that the vice-chancellor (VC) Sanjeev Sonawane would do the pooja at the event, which was organised on campus by the right-wing student organisation Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The invite drew opposition from various quarters, including Sambhaji Brigade, a Maratha organisation, which protested the ‘saffronisation’ of the higher education institutes. Following the controversy, the VC skipped the event.
The event was a part of ‘kalash yatra’ (urn procession), a country-wide outreach drive by various right-wing groups under the Sangh Parivar umbrella to raise awareness about the temple and the Ram Janambhoomi movement that led to the destruction of Babri Masjid. In Maharashtra, ABVP has been carrying urns brought from Ayodhya to education institutes in cities across the state.
“During this drive, we are talking about 500 years of Ram Mandir movement and multiple karsevas," said Amit Thombare, ABVP’s Western Maharashtra secretary, adding, “We requested that the pooja be done at the hands of VC as we needed a guest at the event. There’s no issue in holding the event on campus as many religious programmes including Ganeshotsav, Durga pooja and Satyanarayan pooja are also held.”
Religious programmes need not be held at educational institutions: Sambhaji Brigade
Sambhaji Brigade protested the event and submitted a memorandum to the VC. “There shouldn’t be any religious programme in educational institutes. Religion is a private matter and it shouldn’t be imposed on anyone. While other religious ceremonies such as Ganeshotsav are also held on campus, no circular is issued for them. No such directive will be issued if others make such a request,” said Santosh Gaidhani, Nashik district president of the organisation.
Gaidhani added that the university is furthering the RSS’s agenda through these events. “I am not against Ram, but this is a political issue. Many people lost their lives in the course of the Ram Janambhoomi movement. The temple is being constructed for political purpose,” he said.
The VC, however, claimed that the university didn’t have anything to do with the event and that it was completely organised by the student body. He also said that attendance at the pooja wasn’t mandatory and the circular was issued only “to provide information”.
“A delegation of ABVP and some of our staffers requested that they want to practice their faith. We permitted them because they followed our rules and regulations and our own staff was a participant. It isn't a political programme, nor a religious one, but a part of their faith. In any case, the university hosts other religious events such as setting up of a Ganpati idol,” said Sonawane.
When asked if the university has ever allowed activities of other faiths being carried out on its premises, Sonawane pointed out that a congregational namaz (Islamic prayer) was held on campus to pray for the health of former VC R Krishna Kumar, who had passed away in 2014 after suffering from from pancreatitis. “We will let anyone who follows our rules, and refrains from hurting others’ sentiments use the premises to practise their faith,” he said.
Sonawane also claimed that he had agreed to join the pooja in his ‘personal’ capacity and not as head of the educational institute. “Reading the circular, it might come across that [I am joining in my official capacity], but it’s a question of interpretation,” he said.