Token Representation in the Ram Temple Trust Cannot Meet Rising Dalit Aspirations

The Sangh parivar has concertedly campaigned to reshape Dalit imagination of their contribution to Hindu history. But the gesture falls short with upper-caste hegemony in the BJP.

The decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party government headed by Narendra Modi to nominate Kameshwar Chaupal, a Dalit BJP leader, to the Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra, cannot be seen merely from the prism of Dalit appeasement, or as part of its efforts to woo the Scheduled Castes.

Instead, it has to be viewed in conjunction with efforts over the past three and a half decades to reshape myths and legends of the oppressed community and give them a greater sense of ‘belonging’ in the Hindu order. But, are such symbolic gestures enough, or is it time for the party to campaign for greater social inclusion at a societal level and make structural changes to provide greater representation to the community?

Although out of the varna system, Dalits are not Shudras – a position shared by different castes classified as Other Backward Castes (OBCs) – and dubbed Ati-Shudras, the Sangh parivar has concertedly campaigned among Dalits to provide a narrative of the community being partners of caste Hindus in the past. Towards this end, the saffron fold has attempted to reshape Dalit imagination of their contribution to Hindu history.

From a time when Dalits related little to Hindu traditions and aspirations – religious, social or political – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its allies have made considerable strides in fostering the belief among significant sections of Dalits, that they too were part of Hindu history and struggle against Muslims during the period which Modi has often termed ‘bara sau saal ki ghulami‘ or 1200 years of slavery.

The decision in 1989 to get Chaupal, then a little-known RSS activist from Supaul district in Mithilanchal region of Bihar, to lay the first brick during the immensely politically significant Shilanyas ceremony on November 9, was a well-thought decision. Chaupal was picked by the top brass of the RSS-VHP, notably Moropant Pingle and Ashok Singhal, with the intention of sending a political message to the Dalits. Singhal and other leaders declared after the conclusion of the event that the “foundation of Hindu Rashtra had been laid and that too by a Dalit.”

Also read: Review: ‘I Could Not Be Hindu’ Is a Unique Testimony to the Sangh’s’ Casteism

A member of the RSS from his youth, Chaupal was inducted into the BJP thereafter and unsuccessfully contested Lok Sabha elections twice, once in 1991 from Rosera against Ram Vilas Paswan and again in 2014 from Supaul when Ranjeet Rajan trumped the field. He was also fielded in assembly polls twice by the BJP in 1995 and 2000 before being inducted into the Bihar legislative council in 2002.

These repeated instances of the BJP leadership attempting to promote Chaupal are a signal to the Dalit community that he had not been chosen to lay the first brick for the Ram temple merely as tokenism. Instead, the party continued to promote him. The message was direct – the Sangh parivar ‘takes care’ of Dalits who become part of the saffron fold.

The Sangh parivar has been concerned about Hindu consolidation from the time of V.D. Savarkar but beyond the stray temple-entry campaigns, to provide Dalits with the right to enter temples, little organisational initiatives were taken by the first two sarsanghchalaks, KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar. This changed in 1974 after Balasaheb Deoras became the chief. The first signs of the new thrust were at the annual Vasant Vyakhanmala (or the Spring Lecture Series) in Poona when Deoras was asked to deliver a lecture and he chose Social Equality and Hindu consolidation as his subject. Coming from the head of the RSS at a time when social equality was a catchphrase, the topic he framed evoked interest.

Deoras asserted that “social inequality amongst us (Hindu society) has been a reason for our downfall.” In his address, he emphasised on need to end caste divisions and recommended introducing reforms within Hindu society. But, it took a long time before any reforms could be made even within the RSS and the thinking of its top brass.

The en masse conversion of Meenakshipuram’s Dalits to Islam in February 1981 rang alarm bells within the Sangh parivar. Deoras again took the lead to argue that the incident was a result of upper caste discrimination and unless corrective steps were taken, many similar incidents could recur elsewhere. To cut the long story short, the decision to get Chaupal to lay the foundation at the shilanyas ceremony was a part of the efforts at social inclusion. It was carried a step forward, chiefly with K.N. Govindacharya as its prime mover, during the 1991 Lok Sabha elections when he coined the keyword of social-engineering and provided political opportunities to many new leaders from the OBCs.

Also read: The Two Faces of Hindutva’s Dalit Agenda

Almost three decades later, the induction of Chaupal in the Trust is aimed at reiterating the BJP’s sensitivity towards social inclusion. Yet, this gesture falls short in today’s context when rising upper castes hegemony is noticeable within the BJP, a fact borne by a phenomenal rise in upper-caste BJP MPs.

The savarna mentality within the BJP and RSS rears its head repeatedly. With Yogi Adityanath at the helm in Uttar Pradesh and his belligerence, which emboldens upper castes, being promoted by the party for electoral gains, the BJP and its allies are possibly failing to sense the new churning in Dalit politics and within the community.

Tokenism may have worked for the BJP in the past, especially when it weaned away non-dominant Dalit sub-castes from the BSP fold, but there is no guarantee that rising Dalit aspirations will be met by these symbolic gestures and nominations.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.