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Prejudice finger at food-rage MPs

New Delhi, July 23: A Shiv Sena MP who stuffed a chapatti into the mouth of a fasting Muslim last week is passing it off as a “spur-of-the-moment” response to the quality of food served at the New Maharashtra Sadan near Connaught Place in New Delhi.

But conversations with employees of the Sadan, the Maharashtra government’s guesthouse in the capital, brought out complaints of prejudices that are usually associated with the Sena’s brand of politics.

The group of 11 Sena MPs not only thrust the chapatti into the mouth of the catering supervisor but had also spewed venom against people from other states working at the Sadan, an employee said.

According to one of the employees at the Sadan, on Kasturba Gandhi Marg, the MPs got angry when they learnt that around 40 per cent of the staff were non-Maharashtrian.

“They shouted and demanded to know what non-Maharashtrians were doing in Maharashtra Sadan. They said all such staff should immediately be removed,” said the employee, who did not want to be named for fear of retribution.

Around 80 employees, including security personnel, work at the Sadan.

Another employee said: “The Shiv Sena MPs were abusive when they learnt that people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar also work at the Sadan. We thought their attitude was limited to Mumbai but now they want to spread it in the capital too.”

The employee, who hails from another state, said he picked up Marathi and spoke with the guests in that language. “But these MPs said that I do not have any right to work at the Sadan as I am not from Maharashtra. It’s so unfortunate,” the employee said.

The MPs initially claimed they did not force Arshad Zubair to eat the chapatti and were only drawing attention to the poor quality of the food served at the canteen. Arshad works as a catering supervisor for the IRCTC, the Indian Railways subsidiary that has been catering for the Sadan for the past few years.

Rajan Vichare, the Sena MP who is seen in the footage stuffing the chapatti into the catering supervisor’s mouth, initially denied he had done so. “I did not know the person’s name, caste or community,” he had said earlier in the day.

However, once the footage was widely beamed, Vichare, who represents Thane in the Lok Sabha, said he regretted the incident. “I came to know that the employee was a Muslim only after seeing TV footage and I regret it,” he said.

A Delhi police officer said a case would be registered only after receiving a formal complaint from either the IRCTC or the victim. “That the MPs did not know of his religion cannot be a defence. The issue is human dignity. They had no right to behave like this with anyone,” the officer said.

In his complaint to IRCTC officials, Arshad had said: “The MPs caught me and put the chapatti into my mouth. I was wearing a formal uniform as prescribed by the IRCTC and everybody here knows my name as Arshad as I was wearing the name tag. Even then, they inserted the chapatti into my mouth, which caused my fast to break.... I was hurt with the thing they have done as religious sentiments were concerned.”

IRCTC deputy general manager Shankar Malhotra sent a mail to the resident commissioner of Maharashtra, Bipin Mallik, saying Arshad had been deeply “pained and hurt as religious sentiments are attached”.

Mallik had expressed shock and apologised to the IRCTC and Arshad. He said the Maharashtra government was examining the issue and assured them of “appropriate action”.

The incident had taken place on July 17 when the MPs gathered at the media conference hall at the Sadan and complained about the poor housekeeping and catering service. Some TV journalists from Marathi channels were present there.

One of the security personnel at the Sadan recounted how the MPs and their supporters have barged into the resident commissioner’s office and vandalised it.

“They smashed the wall clock and shouted slogans against him for allowing the IRCTC to run the canteen, instead of giving it to someone from Maharashtra. They asked all the staff to shout ‘Jai Maharashtra’,” he said.

“One of the MPs shouted that the canteen at the Sadan would be run by a caterer from Maharashtra and nobody else,” said another employee.

The canteen is now shut as the IRCTC has pulled out, alleging “manhandling of staff and use of abusive language and religious biases” by the MPs.

Other sources said the Sena MPs were waiting for a chance to vent their ire born out of a perception that they were slighted while rooms were being allocated. The MPs were apparently particularly cut up with a decision to allocate a bigger room to an MP from the BJP, the Sena’s ally. The MP had served in Mumbai in his earlier role as a government official but was elected from Uttar Pradesh.

Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray said the uproar was an attempt to “silence” his party’s voice. “We are proponents of Hindutva but we don’t have hatred for other religions,” Uddhav said.

The BJP termed the incident “unfortunate”, adding that it should not be politicised. “We are deeply hurt by the unfortunate incident that took place in Maharashtra Sadan. The MPs should ensure they maintain a decent character in public life, which would keep their dignity intact in front of the masses,” BJP national spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said.

“The MP who was involved in the incident has regretted his actions. While we believe that the incident was very unfortunate, it should not be politicised which is equally unfortunate,” Hussain added.

Nalin S. Kohli, a BJP spokesperson, also attempted a balancing act. In a blog, Kohli said emotions tend to get “strong” if the quality of food served in a hotel or a guesthouse is “inedible”. “In a civilised society, good conduct is expected from all citizens, even more from those who occupy high offices or are elected representatives of the people. Hence any incident that displays a lack of civility on the part of eminent persons can be expected to cause public outrage.

“That the quality of food being served at Maharashtra Sadan was a matter of concern and even consternation was no secret. In trying to prove a point, an MP appears to have crossed the line and is said to have tried to forcibly feed an employee to prove his point about the quality of food being served,” he said.

Kohli added: “Every Indian, irrespective of the faith they practise, enjoys the freedom to do so. Any impediment to this cannot be permitted.”

With the Maharashtra polls a few months away, BJP sources said the last thing they wanted was the alienation of the Hindi-speaking voters in the state.