On either side of a freshly paved road, heavy land-levelling machines are at work to flatten out 650 acres of land. A massive under-construction stage can be seen in the distance on one side of the road, and an array of saffron flags as far as the eye can see on the other. We are in Meerut. This is the site of ‘Rashtroday’, what the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is calling its ‘biggest ever event’, to be held on February 25.
The event, according to the RSS, will see a congregation of 3.1 lakh swayamsevaks (RSS volunteers) from the 14 districts that form Meerut pranth (province). The RSS had opened registration for the event in October 2017, and claims that it has enrolled 3.1 lakh people for the event, of which 1.7 lakh are new enrolments.
“It was a massive registration drive. We had over 5,000 volunteers going door-to-door in all districts of Meerut pranth. We went to all the 10,580 villages in the region and now have registered members in all these villages,” said Ajay Mittal, RSS Meerut pranth prachar pramukh.
According to Surya Prakash Tonk, Meerut pranth sangh chalak, the event is aimed at reinforcing a sense of national pride. “The aim is to instil national pride in the society. We want to increase the breadth and depth of our reach and ensure that all classes of society are included,” he said.
The congregation of 3.1 lakh swayamsevaks will be held in a 650-acre open space. “The land is owned by the Uttar Pradesh Housing and Development Board and we have been granted permission to use it for the event,” said Mittal.
The UP Housing and Development Board has given the land free of charge. “The orders came from Lucknow. So, we had to give the land. Question of charging rent does not arise as we do not have any such provision,” said a senior officer at the board.
Several volunteers gathered at the make-shift administrative office at the site of the event have been engaged in organising the event on a day-to-day basis for the past several months. “It has become a routine for me now. To get up in the morning and get to work. I don’t know what I will do once this event is over,” says Vishal Gupta, an RSS volunteer, with a laugh.
Gupta is a garment trader, a vocation that requires him to travel a fair bit to meet vendors and set up deals. “I used to visit Chennai every 15 days for my business. For the past three months, I have been so involved in this event (Rashtroday) that I have not been able to go to Chennai. Business has suffered, but, I don’t mind it one bit,” he says.
According to Mittal, thousands of workers like Gupta have been involved in organising the event. “They have all worked selflessly. The number of workers will go into lakhs if we count the number of homes which will be sending food packets for the swayamsevaks,” Mittal said. According to Mittal, six lakh packets of food will be prepared by Hindu households for distribution to swayamsevaks.
Gupta and Mittal are distracted as they are called towards the under-construction stage, about a kilometre away. “Come, let us lift up the horse,” Gupta says to me. The horse Gupta referred to is part of a massive cut-out depicting a scene from the epic Mahabharata where Krishna is seen offering advice to Arjuna. The cut-out will form the base of the stage which, according to RSS functionaries, will be 200 feet in length, 100 feet in width, and 35 feet high.
As Mittal oversees the setting up of the stage, he tells me, “Sarsanghchalak (chief of RSS, Mohan Bhagwat) will be speaking to swayamsevaks from this stage. He will also take a tour of the entire 2.5 kilometre stretch from the stage to the point where the last swayamsevak will be present.”
Bhagwat is currently on a 12-day tour of Uttar Pradesh visiting prominent cities across the state, and meeting RSS workers. The biggest of those meetings, or event, has been reserved for Meerut — the centre of Western Uttar Pradesh’s turbulent politics.
Given that the Lok Sabha elections are a year away, or less, if rumours are to be believed, does an RSS event of this scale come with an eye on the elections?
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On record, BJP leaders and RSS members talk about the relationship between the two in ambiguous terms. “The BJP is a political party. The RSS is a social organisation. If the RSS is organising an event, it does not have a political agenda. There is no connection between elections and this event,” said Laxmikant Bajpai, former BJP state president and four-time MLA from the Meerut city constituency.
However, it is well-known that the during poll campaigns, the BJP derives it grassroots strength from RSS cadres. “The RSS cadre is crucial to the BJP. We rely on them heavily for our campaigns. So, naturally, if the RSS cadre is strengthened by events of this kind, it will benefit the BJP,” a senior BJP leader from Western UP said on the condition of anonymity.
According to the BJP leader, the electoral arithmetic of Western UP makes it important for the BJP-RSS to go the extra mile. “The Muslim population in Western UP is 35%. If we add the Dalit population, they combine to constitute around 50% of the population. The Muslims will, in all likelihood, not vote for us. So, it is vital for us that all Hindus consolidate,” the leader said.
What the BJP leader is hinting at is ensuring that at least a section of the Dalits vote for the BJP, as they are believed to have done in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 Vidhan Sabha elections giving the BJP a rousing mandate in Western UP in both elections. However, since 2017, after the BJP came to power in the state, a string of Dalit-upper caste clashes and a growing independent Dalit social rights movement —the Bhim Army and other smaller organisations — has been a cause of worry for the BJP-RSS.
According to Satish Prakash, a Meerut-based Dalit intellectual and political activist, the RSS event is aimed at wooing the Dalits, with an eye on Lok Sabha elections. “The politics of Western UP is such that Dalits and Muslims cannot be ignored. There is very little chance that any Muslim will vote for the BJP. Therefore, they are trying their best to get a section of the Dalits to vote for them because they know that they will perform badly in Western UP otherwise,” said Prakash.
According to Prakash, the RSS has been forced to hold an event of this scale in Western UP due to the strength of the Dalit rights movement. “Since the BJP has come to power in UP, the number of atrocities against Dalits have gone up. The Dalits, particularly in Western UP being financially stronger than in other parts, are reacting strongly to it. That is why the RSS has been forced to hold an event of this scale in Western UP,” he said.
Surya Prakash Tonk brushes this conjecture aside. “It may be your job to see politics in what the RSS does. But, the RSS is a social organisation. That is all.”
Mittal, however, is more candid and admits that the Saharanpur Dalit-Thakur clashes of May 2017 have proved a setback. “What happened in Saharanpur definitely increased the divide between Dalits and non-Dalits,” he said. “Dalit humare hath aur paon hain. Abhinn ang hain. Unko sath leke chalna chahte hain (The Dalits are our hands and feet. They are an integral part of us. We want to take them along),” Mittal added.
The RSS’s efforts to reach out to the Dalit community in Western UP received a setback with less than a week to go for the event, when Dalit organisations tore down posters of the event which they claimed hurt Dalit sentiments. One of the posters read, “Hindu dharma ki jaise pratishtha Vashishth jaise Brahmin, Krishna jaise Kshatriya, Harsh jaise Vaishya aur Tukaram jaise shudra ne ki hai, vaise hi Valmiki, Chokhamela aur Ravidas jaise asparshon ne bhi ki hai (Just as the likes of Vashishth, a Brahmin; Krishna, a Kshatriya; Harsh, a Vaishya and Tukaram, a shudra have increased the prestige and status of Hinduism, in a similar way untouchables like Valmiki, Chokhamela and Ravidas have increased the prestige of Hindiusm).”
“Aaj bhi ye log humein asparsh bolte hain (Even today, they refer to us as untouchables)”, said Mohit Jatav, Meerut district president of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). “The BJP-RSS see that they are losing ground in Western UP and in their desperation, are trying to use Dalit icons,” Jatav added.
Surya Prakash Tonk explains that the controversial sentence in the poster was actually said by Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar. “We held a press conference that very day and explained. That entire sentence was said by Dr. Ambedkar. It is not our creation,” Tonk said.
However, as The Wire had pointed out earlier, the RSS’s use of Ambedkar is selective. “This sentence was said in a context 90 years ago. If the RSS wants to quote Ambedkar, why doesn’t it quote him on what he said about Manusmriti? Why don’t they quote his book, Annihilation of Caste?” said Satish Prakash.
In the present, members of Dr. Ambedkar’s profession — lawyers — are threatening to disrupt the RSS event for entirely unrelated reasons. Lawyers from 22 districts of western UP, who are currently on strike for their long-standing demand of a high court bench in the region, are contemplating taking their agitation to the RSS event. “Some lawyers are of the view that we should disrupt the RSS event. We have been demanding a high court bench in western UP since the 1960s and nothing has happened. We feel that we need to make our voice heard and the RSS even could be a perfect platform,” said Pramod Sharma, secretary of the Meerut Bar Association. However, a final decision is yet to be taken, Sharma added.
Kabir Agarwal is an independent journalist whose writings have appeared in The Kashmir Walla, The Times of India, Mint, Al Jazeera English and The Caravan. He can be found on twitter @kabira_tweeting.