On September 6, 2019, The Indian Express’s Mumbai edition carried a report with the headline ‘Maharashtra to convert 25 forts into heritage hotels, wedding venues.’ The report said that Maharashtra government has decided to lease out 25 forts out of 353 forts in the state. The decision to lease these forts was taken in state cabinet meeting held on September 3. The story reads, “Besides residential hotels, officials said that the plan is to convert some of these destinations as venues for wedding and entertainment shows. In recent times, palace and fort hotels have become popular as venues of destination wedding’.
The report kicked off a controversy with opposition leaders slamming the government’s decision, following which the Maharashtra government’s secretary, tourism minister and even the chief minister rejected the allegations of the opposition about allowing marriages to take place in the forts. However, the truth is something else.
NewsClick accessed a copy of the state government’s Tourism Policy of 2016. At the end of page number 15 and start of page number 16, the government’s ideas about forts development are presented. “The DoT (Department of Tourism) invites the tour operators to form separate tourist activities around the fort and the fort circuits,” it reads. In the options of development given under this policy, number four clearly says, ‘Forts will be promoted as exclusive wedding destinations.’ This is part of the policy document.
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So, Maharashtra government has already decided to give forts on lease for development ‘as wedding destinations.’ It is clearly mentioned in the state’s policy itself and the policy is in public domain.
The opposition leaders have condemned this move of the state government, and accused them of selling the legacy of Shivaji. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Anil Shidore first took to Twitter and slammed the Maharashtra government for converting forts into wedding destinations. Following him, Nationalist Congress Party MP Dr Amol Kolhe, too, criticised the state government for ‘selling forts which are the legacy of King Shivaji’. After these two, the entire opposition leadership targeted the state government for trying to monetise Shivaji’s legacy.
As the government scrambled to take the situation in control, the first explanation came from the secretary of the tourism department Vinita Vaid-Singhal. She described the categories of the forts and denied The Indian Express report saying that, “… so there is no question of these forts being given for marriage ceremonies or other functions. One shall not misinterpret the decision with false report by one newspaper.”
After Singhal, Bharatiya Janata Party leader and the current Tourism Minister Jaykumar Rawal issued a statement through a video byte on Friday, September 6. He said, “Opposition is trying to mislead the people by spreading rumours. There is no question of forts being given for marriages. Where is such proposal? Who said that? This should not spread and people should be given real information about the policy of state government, which is actually about developing forts.”
Not just Rawal, on Friday evening, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis also tried to defend the government by saying that there is an attempt to spread misinformation about the government’s policy. “I assure that not a scratch will be allowed on the forts and monuments related to King Shivaji. The decision concerns almost 200 to 300 forts in state where there is no history, so we are trying to develop it. One should not interpret that marriages would be allowed there or some functions would be allowed there. It is wrong.”
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The government’s tourism policy which is in the public domain is contrary to what they are claiming. The claims made by the top ministers including the CM just portray that they are trying to push the decision to convert forts into wedding destinations under the carpet.
In Maharashtra, fort is a sensitive topic, politically as well as emotionally for the people. The idea of monetising the forts by turning them into wedding venues is not something that would get public support. As such, the state government seems to be hiding more than telling truth.