The power of non-political players on state leaders
On April 17, 14 people died from heatstroke at an event where the Maharashtra Bhushan award was conferred on the spiritual leader Appasaheb Dharmadhikari in Navi Mumbai. Over 20 lakh followers had turned up at the event. A probe was ordered after the incident, which is progressing at a snail’s pace
A couple of months ago, Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide, a radical Hindutva leader from Sangli generated controversy when he made derogatory remarks about Mahatma Gandhi’s parents. Opposition parties carried out protests in several parts of the state seeking his arrest. But despite widespread criticism, Bhide was not arrested, though a case was filed against him in Amravati. Bhide has significant following in parts of western Maharashtra. In the past, opposition leaders have demanded his arrest in the Bhima Koregaon case as well.
On April 17, 14 people died from heatstroke at an event where the Maharashtra Bhushan award was conferred on the spiritual leader Appasaheb Dharmadhikari in Navi Mumbai. Over 20 lakh followers had turned up at the event. A probe was ordered after the incident, which is progressing at a snail’s pace.
These instances indicate the enormous influence certain non-political players have in the state – thanks to their large following, politicians try to be in their good books. Some of them have been recognised for their good work, such as the de-addiction campaign by Dharmadhikari or anti-dowry initiative of Appasaheb More in north Maharashtra. There are also spiritual leaders such as Dr Jayant Athawale who pushed the envelope and formed the Sanatan Sanstha, headquartered in Ponda, Goa. He has courted controversy by pushing an aggressive Hindutva agenda -- his followers were arrested in connection with murders of rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. The outfit does not shy away from opposing ‘love jihad’.
Politicians gather around them and often seek their blessings for their clout on various sections of the electorate.
HT profiles some of the most influential non-political personalities in Maharashtra.
Dr Jayant Balaji Athavale
Place of origin: Raigad district
Outfit: Sanatan Sanstha
Area of influence: Around 17 states, prominently Maharashtra
Political/ ideological affiliation: No direct affiliation but Athavale promotes Hindutva
Prominent politicians seen with him: BJP and Shiv Sena leaders regularly attend Sanatan Sanstha programmes
Dr Jayant Athavale, a consultant psychiatrist and a clinical hypnotherapist, established Sanatan Sanstha, a right wing organisation, in 1991, with an aim to propagate spirituality. He has lakhs of followers as his organisation conducts spiritual activities in 17 states and runs two ashrams in Goa and Panvel, Navi Mumbai.
Athavale has not been active in social life since 2007. “He has not been meeting anyone since 2013, owing to old age,” said Chetan Rajhans, spokesperson for Sanatan Sanstha.
The Sanstha and its affiliate, Hindu Janjagriti Samiti, became a part of public discourse after 10 of their alleged members were arrested in connection with the assassination of rationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. Six of their alleged activists were also charged for involvement in the Margao blast in October 2009, but were acquitted later.
In 2008, the Maharashtra ATS sought a ban on the organisation for the first time.
In 2011, governments of Goa, Maharashtra and Karnataka, sent independent proposals seeking its ban, which was turned down by the central government citing lack of any incriminating evidence. In 2017, the state government sent a revised proposal to the Narendra Modi-led government recommending a ban.
Outfit: Srikshetra Bhagwangad, Kherwadi village, Beed
Area of influence: Parts of Beed and Ahmednagar districts, where Wanjari community has strong presence
Political ideology: No direct connections
Prominent politicians seen with him: Leaders from across parties are seen participating in his events, such as Pankaja Munde, Dhananjay Munde and Suresh Dhas
Namdev Maharaj Shastri or Namdev Sanap, who belongs to the Wanjari community, is the successor of Bhagwan baba, after whom the Bhagawan gad is known. He was a community saint of the Warkari sect, who had set up a temple on a hill. After his death in 1965, the hill was named after him. He is worshipped by sugarcane workers in Beed and other districts of Marathwada. The Dussehra rally at Bhagwangad started by him more than 75 years ago was an annual event until recently when it was discontinued about five years ago. Former deputy chief minister Gopinath Munde was a regular at the event until his death in 2014. The Wanjari community has strong presence in central and north Maharahtra.
Political leaders from Beed and Ahmednagar feel that the stand taken by the ‘gad’ plays an important role in politics, particularly during the elections. “The mahant’s role in the dispute between the Munde cousins was crucial. The ‘gad’ has favoured Dhananjay, especially after Pankaja started holding the annual event on Dussehra at Savargaon, the home village of Bhagawan baba after her differences with Namdev Shastri,” a local BJP leader said.
Dr Appasaheb Dharmadhikari
Place of origin: Revdanda
Outfit: Shree Samarth Aadhyatmik Prasadik Seva Samitee and Nanasaheb Dharmadhikari Pratishthan
Area of influence: Raigad, Thane, Palghar and parts of Mumbai
Political/ ideological affiliation: Not committed to any ideology directly
Prominent politicians seen with him: CM Eknath Shinde, deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis, Shiv Sena (UBT) president Uddhav Thackeray, MP Sunil Tatkare
Dattatreya Narayan, alias Dr Appasaheb Dharmadhikari, is a social worker, spiritual preacher and son of a spiritual leader Nanasaheb Dharmadhikari from Raigad district. The state government’s highest civilian award -- Maharashtra Bhushan – was bestowed upon him by union home minister Amit Shah in a grand function on April 16. The ceremony was held in an open ground in Navi Mumbai, where 14 followers died due to heatstroke.
While Appasaheb has lakhs of followers in the state, he is influential mainly in Konkan and parts of Mumbai and MMR. Thane and Palghar districts have 24 assembly constituencies, and the Raigad district has seven; thus, outside Mumbai, 31 assembly constituencies fall in the area. Additionally, there are around six Lok Sabha constituencies, including Thane, Kalyan, Bhiwandi, Palghar, Raigad and Maval.
While the outfit does not follow any single political ideology, the followers take orders from their leader Appasaheb Dharmadhikari. This makes Dharmadhikari and his followers ‘a special and influential group’ to the political parties. So, proximity with Appasaheb translates to a sizeable chunk of vote bank support during elections.
In the past, the Peasants and Workers Party in Raigad district disintegrated when it fell out with Dharmadhikari. Conversely, Sunil Tatkare, NCP MP from Raigad, became successful by maintaining good relations with him. For decades, CM Eknath Shinde has been his follower and often seeks his guidance. Deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and his family often attend their functions.
Place of origin: Ratnagiri
Outfit: Jagadguru Narendracharya Maharaj Sansthan
Area of influence: Coastal districts of Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg, Raigad, Mumbai and other parts of the state
Affiliation to any party of leaders: He has followers among all parties and their leaders
Prominent politicians seen with him: Union ministers Narayan Rane, and Nitin Gadkari, deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, local leaders from Konkan such as state minister Uday Samant and Shiv Sena (UBT) legislator Bhaskar Jadhav
His journey as a godman began in 1989 when he implemented the alcohol prohibition drive among youth in Nanij, coastal Ratnagiri. He resigned from his position of a gram sevak (1985-1992) and founded Jagadguru Narendracharya Maharaj Sansthan in April 1994.
The organisation has acres of land in Nanij on a hilltop, from where it runs a free ambulance service and an English medium school, where 462 students are enrolled. The organisation also runs a free food camp for devotees. It is active in 18 to 20 states, they claim.
He holds preaching rallies in Mumbai and other parts of the state where thousands, and in some cases, lakhs of devotees attend. “Maharaj has followers in almost all the political parties. Union minister Nitin Gadkari attended Ram Navami utsav at the Nanij math in April this year. Maharaj enjoys an influence among the voters and that is the reason no local politician, regardless of party, can distance himself from the Swamiji,” a close aide said.
In October 2016, a social activist Mukta Dabholkar slammed the then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis for attending the birthday celebration of Narendra Maharaj. Dabholkar runs the Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti, along with her brother Hamid. She said, “Narendra Maharaj was held guilty in a departmental inquiry for corruption and was terminated from government service years ago. Criminal cases have been registered against his followers for threatening anti-superstition activists.”
Manohar Kulkarni alias Sambhaji Bhide Guruji
Place of origin: Sangli
Outfit: Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan
Area of influence: Sangli, Satara, Kolhapur, Pune and parts of Karnataka, such as Belgaum
Political/ ideological affiliation: No direct affiliation but Bhide propagates Hindutva
Prominent politicians seen with him: Narendra Modi, Devendra Fadnavis, Eknath Shinde, late R R Patil
Once a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak, Bhide split from the Sangh Parivar following differences of opinion with former RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras and formed Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan in the late 1980s. A strong votary of Hindutva, his outfit aims to create youths who can propagate the thought of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ as envisaged by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
Bhide emerged as a figure of some reckoning after communal riots erupted in Sangli-Miraj in 2009, following a controversy over the tomb of Afzal Khan, a general of Mohammad Adil Shah of Bijapur, who was killed by Shivaji. The riots broke out ahead of the assembly elections and as a fallout the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won a few seats in the Sangli-Satara belt.
In 2008, his followers ransacked cinema halls where the film ‘Jodha Akbar’ was being screened – he was arrested for spreading unrest. In 2014, he hit national headlines when Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the right wing leader as one of his inspirations, during an election rally for assembly polls in Sangli. On January 2, 2018, he was booked for inciting violence against Dalits in Bhima Koregaon.
Place of origin: Nashik
Outfit: Shree Swami Samarth Sevamarg, Dindori, Nashik
Area of influence: Nashik districts and parts of northern Maharashtra
Political/ ideological affiliation: None
Prominent politicians seen with him: Chhagan Bhujbal, Girish Mahajan, Dada Bhuse, Seema Hire and Devyani Pharande
A spiritual leader and social worker, Annasaheb More participated in Dindori based Shree Swami Samarth Sevamarg’s activities like de-addiction, women’s empowerment, anti-dowry movement, mass community marriages and agricultural empowerment, self-employment for the youth etc. Their spiritual teachings are based on the Swami Samarth Maharaj of Akkalkot, Solapur district. Followers of More are called ‘Sevekari’. More is not associated only with state level high profile political leaders but all local leaders across the political parties such as NCP leader and minister Chhagan Bhujbal, Shiv Sena minister Dada Bhuse, BJP minister Girish Mahajan; MLAs like Seema Hire, Devayani Pharande attended functions organised by More.
Mahant Sunil Maharaj
Place of origin: Washim
Outfit: Represents the Banjara community
Area of influence: Pohradevi area of Washim district, in Vidharba
Political ideology: Shiv Sena (UBT)
Prominent politicians seen with him: Earlier it was Sanjay Rathod, and now Uddhav Thackeray
He is a prominent figure in the Banjara community and claims that there are 90 lakh Banjaras in the state and 12 crore in the country that follow him. Prior to 2022, he had demanded that Banjara minister Sanjay Rathod, who had to quit the Uddhav Thackeray cabinet amid a controversy, be reinstated. Rathod had faced allegations in Pooja Chavan’s death case. Chavan, a social influencer, died under mysterious circumstances. At the time Rathod’s association with the deceased was discussed. When the Uddhav Thackeray government was toppled, Rathod joined the Eknath Shinde faction and was made a minister. Sunil Maharaj who used to support him, joined the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena (UBT) in September 2022. The Shiv Sena is planning to field him for Lok Sabha elections from Yavatmal constituency.
This year, he performed a pooja praying for Uddhav Thackeray’s long life. The constituency has a large number of people from the Banjara community, on whom he can wield a strong influence.