Hamara khoon khoon hai, tumhara khoon paani!

I did not know when I was a kid; I still do not know too well even now –– do I believe in a God and if I do, in which God. I go along with the family in their prayers and rituals but if I ever really prayed to anyone for something in my life it was to Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi.

“Huh?” asked my stupefied friend as I narrated my deepest thoughts to her one day. “What do you mean?”

So I told her. One day, during school exams, some or the other political party was demonstrating across the main squares of Nagpur, where I grew up. My father had to divert to take me to the exam center on time and we passed by the Jhansi Square which had an imposing statue of the Rani of Jhansi on a pedestal that must have been at least ten feet high. I do not remember now which subject it was but still recall the butterflies in my tummy that morning. As my father’s car stopped at the junction, I looked up at the statue and on impulse asked the Rani of Jhansi to help me answer the paper well.

To my utter surprise, the paper was easy and there was not a single question there that stumped me. That was the beginning of my worship of the Rani of Jhansi and no one could shake my faith in her. My father, an atheist, I remember, was highly irritated at that blind faith and told my mother, “At least if she believed in one of the regular Gods that would be normal. But what is this obsession with Jhansi Ki Rani!”

His irritation was justified – after all he had to divert every morning after that and take the longer route to drop me off and even stop at the junction for a few minutes while I prayed to the brave queen. But no amount of anger, ridicule or rationalism stopped me from dipping my head to Laxmibai each morning. For years later, I remember, I always diverted to pass by the statue whenever I was in doubt, though as I grew older I realised she was just a historical character and not the Goddess I had made of her in my mind. But my reverence for the Rani of Jhansi never ceased, even as I added others gods to my pantheon of those to be worshipped and believed in.

So I was much cut up and horrified when Nitin Gadkari, as Maharashra’s Minister for Public Works, in the late Nineties, brought Laxmibai down from her pedestal and parked her in an obscure corner of the street, unintrusive and unnoticed even today by many who wonder why the square is known as Jhansi Square.

Gadkari was building a flyover from the Nagpur airport to the city centre and he not just moved the Rani of Jhansi out of his way but had little qualms in dispatching Mahatma Gandhi, too, from the Gandhi Chowk to a small bylane off the main square. I remember furiously searching for Gandhiji when I noticed on one of my infrequent visits to that market area and I asked the local politicians if they had protested. They shook their heads. “He just did not give us the opportunity. It was all done overnight and was a fait accompli before we realised what had happened. When we tried to raise the issue later, he said he could let nothing stand in the way of development.”

I believed them simply because Gadkari had similarly bulldozed the homes of villagers in the way of the Bombay-Poona Expressway in the –- well you guessed it! -– interest of development. The Expressway had been conceptualised by Sharad Pawar but he could not get any work done on it during his tenure as Chief Minister because the rehabilitation of the villagers was posing a concern. Before he could sort it out his government was out and the Shiv Sena-BJP regime in. Gadkari today gets kudos for making the Expreswway happen but the fact remains that the resentful displaced villagers then turned dacoits on the Expressway and robbed and killed hundreds of motorists before the government realised they were no professional dacoits — merely, hungry and angry rural rustics who wanted to avenge themselves of motorcar owners for whom they were deprived of their livelihood. There are highway patrols now on the Expressway and the current government is still sorting out the issue of their rehabilitation.

I recount all this now only because the developers of the Bombay airport have applied to the Bombay Municipal Corporation to move the statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (by no means the only one in Bombay) some yards away from the airport as it is getting in the way of its expansion. And, yes, you guessed it right again, the Shiv Sena is threatening an agitation if this particular Chhatrapati Shivaji (installed in 1999) is found a new home on another crossing — though it will still be close enough to the airport to justify its naming after the Maratha warrior king.

The question I now ask is: was it ok to shift national icons like Mahatma Gandhi and Rani Laxmibai quite out of the way (they were the sole statues of these figures in Nagpur) and trample over the livelihoods of living, breathing people to bring about the development of roads when it is such an outrage to seek the shifting of just one of the many statues of Shivaji Maharaj in Bombay (there are more prominent ones at Shivaji Park and the Gateway of India, after all) in the interest of giving Bombay an airport of international standards?

I do not know how this controversy will pan out (after all its gives the Shiv Sena another issue to reinforce their raison d’etre and adds grist to their mill – they are unlikely to let go without at least a roar or two), but it just reinforces what I have always thought about the saffron parties: they believe hamara khoon khoon hai aur tumhara khoon paani!

While they are now baying for the blood of Afzal Guru and faulting the Congress for keeping him alive, do they forget that it is during their regime that some of the worst attacks like on parliament (in which Afzal Guru was involved) and Akshardham (with Narendra Modi presiding over Gujarat) happened? Of course, 26/11 surpassed all those attacks but we did see two home ministers and a chief minister resign after that. Vajpayee and Modi, however, continued to reign as PM and CM despite everything (and let me not rake the ashes of 2002 here again).

Yes. The saffron brigade does have two yardsticks for the same measure!

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