After the police registered a case of molestation against Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) MLA Jitendra Awhad, the former Minister said on Monday he was resigning his legislative post even as protests in support of Mr. Awhad erupted against the ruling Shinde-Fadnavis government in Mumbra in Thane district.
While Mr. Awhad said the molestation case was “a conspiracy” to defame him publicly, the NCP and the other Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) parties decried that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shinde-led Shiv Sena faction were stooping to a new level to silence the opposition by maligning them.
The Mumbra police had registered a case around Sunday midnight against Mr. Awhad under Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), following a complaint by a woman believed to be a BJP activist.
The complainant alleged that the NCP leader had ‘pushed’ her while he was making way for himself during the dispersal of a crowd after an inauguration event where Mr. Awhad shared stage with Chief Minister Eknath Shinde.
A purported clip after the flyover inauguration event shows the MLA brushing the woman aside (among others) in order to clear a path for the CM’s convoy.
This is second case lodged against Mr. Awhad—a three-term member of the Mumbra-Kalwa Assembly segment—in fewer than three days. The NCP leader was arrested last Friday (and later released on bail the next day) after he and his supporters reportedly stopped the screening of a Marathi film Har Har Mahadev at a Thane multiplex, alleging the film grossly distorted the history of Chhatrapati Shivaji.
Upset by the allegations, Mr. Awhad on Monday announced on Twitter that he was resigning as MLA. “Police lodged two false complaints against me including on charges under IPC 354. I am taking decision to resign as MLA. I will fight against such police atrocities against me. I cannot see the murder of democracy with my eyes,” he tweeted.
Speaking to reporters later, a visibly distraught Mr. Awhad said that while he could confront any number of phoney cases lodged against him under any section of the IPC, a case under sections 354 and 376 “were unacceptable” to him.
“Section 354 and 376 is very serious and I have no wish to be tainted by them. Maharashtra is going through a very bad phase politically. Three days before a false case was lodged against me. But that is a legal battle. Here, by lodging a case under section 354, they are trying to demolish my character. The allegation of molestation is unacceptable to me. You may even lodge murder cases against me…but this defamatory clause is being wielded in such a manner that it will lower my social standing,” he said.
Support builds for Mr. Awhad
While the NCP top brass, including State President Jayant Patil, Leader of Opposition in the Assembly Ajit Pawar and Baramati MP Supriya Sule, attempted to dissuade Mr. Awhad from resigning, protests erupted in Mumbra in his support and against the government.
Mr. Awhad’s wife, Ruta Awhad, who led the protests in support of her husband against the government, said the woman’s complaint was bizarre and that by her definition, every little push or shove that happened in crowded bazaars or railway station would qualify as ‘molestation’ attempts.
“If one is going to any political rally or programme and if she thinks she is a ‘touch me not’ kind, then she must not go there,” said Ms. Awhad, lashing out against the complainant by saying that she had “a motive” in defaming her husband.
Security was beefed up in the minority-dominated area as tyres were burnt at a number of places, while shops were shutdown to express solidarity with Mr. Awhad, known as a popular leader in his segment.
“Jitendra Awhad is being repeatedly targeted. He is a good and sensitive people’s representative. It is extremely unfortunate the level to which politics have plummeted in the State…he should not resign as resignation is not the solution,” said Ms. Sule.
She further said that in a large crowd, it was obvious there would be some jostling and that this was no reason for anyone to lodge an extreme case (secn. 354 of IPC) against Mr. Awhad.
Both Mr. Patil and Mr. Pawar rushed to Mr. Awhad’s residence to give him succour and try and talk him out of resigning his post.
“Such a thing has not happened in Maharashtra before… if the opposition’s voices are being suppressed in this manner just because the government has changed, then it is indeed shameful,” said Mr. Pawar.
“If you see the clip, it is evident he is just asking her [the complainant] to go on one side so the CM’s convoy can move ahead. Nobody knows who has influenced her to lodge such a complaint. We urge the police department to at least think before accepting such complaints in future,” said Mr. Pawar, adding that he would be drawing Mr. Fadnavis’ attention immediately to this matter.
Remarking that the FIR was a “clear conspiracy” against Mr. Awhad, Mr. Pawar said that CM Shinde himself ought to have come out and clarified there was no molestation whatsoever given that the incident happened right before his eyes.
Mr. Awhad has already penned a resignation letter addressed to the Assembly Speaker.
However, Mr. Pawar said that the final decision on Mr. Awhad’s resignation would be taken by NCP chief Sharad Pawar and that Mr. Awhad would respect the NCP chief’s decision.
Meanwhile, stating that his government had never done, nor intended to carry out any investigation out of any political malice, Mr. Shinde denied accusations of any political vendetta being behind the FIR against Mr. Awhad.
“The woman has filed a complaint. The police will probe as per the law. There is no pressure on them and neither is there any political vendetta behind it. The police will verify her claims,” said the CM.
The BJP hit out at Mr. Awhad’s ‘resignation antics’, with senior Girish Mahajan saying he ought to have more faith in the law instead of needlessly getting agitated. “Whether he wants to give his resignation or not, that is his affair. What is the need to get so agitated? He needs to have some faith in law. This drama must stop,” he said.