Maharashtra Forest Minister Sanjay Rathod, who was not seen in public after his name was linked to the death of a woman in Pune, visited a temple in Washim district on Tuesday and later dismissed the allegations against him.
Talking to reporters after visiting the Pohradevi Temple in Washim, Sanjay Rathod claimed: "dirty politics" was being played following the woman's "unfortunate" death.
The Shiv Sena leader also expressed confidence that truth will come out following a probe into the matter.
The opposition BJP in the state, however, demanded the removal of Sanjay Rathod as a minister and a comprehensive probe into the woman's death.
The 23-year-old woman died after falling from a building in the Hadapsar area of Pune on February 8.
Some social media posts and the BJP earlier alleged that Sanjay Rathod was connected to the death of the woman.
On Tuesday, the minister travelled by road from his residence in Yavatmal to the Pohradevi Temple in neighbouring Washim, where he sought blessings and took part in rituals.
A large number of Sanjay Rathod's supporters thronged the venue, in apparent violation of the social distancing norms.
Later, in a brief interaction with the media, Sanjay Rathod said he and the Banjara community, to which belong, are pained by the woman's death and share her family's grief.
The minister said his family and the community should not be defamed by latching on to the incident.
"The death of Puja Chavan, who belonged to our community, in Pune was unfortunate. The entire community is pained by death. Me and our entire community is part of the Puja Chavan family's grief," Sanjay Rathod said.
But, the kind of politics that is being played following the incident is wrong and baseless, he said.
"I can tell you that there is no substance in what is being said in the media and on social media," said Sanjay Rathod, who is also the guardian minister of Yavatmal.
He said Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has ordered a probe into the matter and the police are doing their job.
"...I request you not to defame me, my family, and my community. Let's wait for the probe finding," he said.
When a journalist asked about him allegedly disappearing for two weeks, Sanjay Rathod said he was not in the public eye for 10 days, but continued to work.
"I was seeing the love of you (media) all on TV. I have old parents, my wife who has blood pressure issues, and children. Over the past 10 days, I took care of them when this love came my way. My government work was on, I did not stop doing that," he said.
On the images of him and the woman doing rounds on social media, Sanjay Rathod said his community loves him and several people get themselves photographed with him.
"I have been working in the social sector for 30 years. Don't put me in the wrong box just because of one incident," he added.
The minister said following his visit to the temple, he will resume work as earlier.
Meanwhile, Maharashtra BJP vice president Chitra Wagh alleged that Sanjay Rathod was responsible for the woman's death.
"The chief minister should immediately remove Sanjay Rathod from his post and order a thorough probe into the case. It was disgusting to see Sanjay Rathod trying to hide behind his community," she told reporters in Mumbai.
Chitra Wagh alleged that Sanjay Rathod and his supporters violated COVID-19 prevention norms at the temple. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray should take action against him, she said.
Leader of Opposition in the Maharashtra Legislative Council Praveen Darekar said, "The way Rathod organised a huge gathering at the temple in Washim is condemnable. We will raise the issue in the Assembly as well."