On Friday afternoon, the Bombay High Court rejected petitions that challenged tree felling in Aarey colony in suburban Mumbai to make way for the construction of a metro car shed.
Within hours of the verdict, bulldozers arrived in Aarey and trees began to be cut under the cover of darkness.
Among the first to react to the news was Aaditya Thackeray, the 27-year-old son of Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray and leader of the party’s youth wing. He described the tree felling in Aarey as “shameful and disgusting”.
“How about posting these officials in PoK [Pakistan occupied Kashmir], giving them charge to destroy terror camps rather than trees?” he said on Twitter.
For all the sound and fury, social media users were quick to point out that Shiv Sena is part of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government in Maharashtra. The state environment minister belongs to the party. The Shiv Sena even runs the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which cleared the proposal for the tree felling.
According to some reports, it was municipal corporation officials who supervised the tree cutting on Friday.
But this did not stop Shiv Sena leaders, including corporator Sheetal Mhatre and deputy leader Priyanka Chaturvedi, from arriving at the site in Aarey on Saturday to join the protests being staged by Mumbai residents. At least 29 protestors were arrested by the police, which also detained Chaturvedi.
Chaturvedi claimed there was no contradiction in her party protesting against tree felling cleared by the Shiv Sena-run municipal corporation. “This is not just political in nature,” she said. “This is about a city that is already facing many issues.”
Shiv Sena leader and Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Raut also defended Aaditya Thackeray. “It is only environment related,” he said. “Why should he [Aditya Thackeray] not raise this issue?”
Harshil Chordia, a member of the Yuva Sena, the Sena’s youth wing, pointed out that Aaditya Thackeray first came out against tree felling in the Aarey Colony in 2016.
Reiterating his position on September 10, Aaditya Thackeray said that the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited’s decision to chop trees in Aarey did not serve the interests of the citizens of Mumbai. A few days later, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis defended the move, claiming the metro car shed was being built on government land and not forest land.
Chaturvedi, however, claimed there was no serious differences between the allies. She said the party was playing the role of a “conscious alliance partner” by taking a stance against the tree felling.
“In an alliance, we share a common ideology and a common agenda but we will also take a stand when there is need for a course correction,” she said.
Maharashtra is due to election a new state government on October 21. Aditya Thackeray has become the first member of his family to file his papers for an election: he is contesting from Mumbai’s Worli constituency.
Political observers say the protests are driven by Aaditya Thackeray’s desire to craft an image as a new generation leader in tune with the aspirations of young people.
In 2015, he had proposed that shops and restaurants be allowed to function all night in non-residential areas of Mumbai, to allow the city’s nightlife to thrive.
“He has been trying to bring about change from within the party,” said Harshal Chordia of the Yuva Sena. He claimed Aaditya Thackeray’s support for the Aarey protests came from an understanding of environmental concerns.
“He is not a 45-year-old pretending to be a youth leader,” Chordia said. “He wants to use his family’s power to bring about change in Mumbai.”
Kumar Ketkar, a veteran journalist and Rajya Sabha MP from the Congress, saw Aaditya Thackeray’s statements as an attempt to appeal to the elite and keep the Shiv Sena relevant in Mumbai. Ketkar pointed out that the party’s identity was largely limited to Mumbai. With the BJP consolidating power in the state, the Shiv Sena was feeling insecure.
“If they lose Mumbai then they lose their raison d’être,” said Ketkar.
Could Aaditya Thackeray’s politics hurt the alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena? Ketkar said it was unlikely.
“[Shiv Sena] will get some mileage out of the protest but that’s all,” he said.