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New Delhi: In what appears to be a camouflaged attack on its ally Bharatiya Janata Party, former chief minister of Bihar Jitan Ram Manjhi said that he doesn’t believe in Ram.
“I don’t believe in Ram. Ram was not god. Ram was a character created by Tulsidas and Valmiki to spread their message,” NDTV reported Manjhi as saying at an event to mark Ambedkar Jayanti on April 14.
His controversial comments came on the heels of large-scale communal clashes in many states during visibly-aggressive Ram Navami processions. The Dalit leader who floated his own party, Hindustan Awam Morcha (HAM), a few years ago is considered to be an important ally in the ruling alliance led by chief minister Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) and BJP.
Elaborating his point, Manjhi added, “They (Tulsidas and Valmiki) wrote the Ramayana and there are many good lessons in their writings. We believe that. We believe in Tulsidas and Valmiki, not Ram.”
“If you believe in Ram, then the story we always heard is that Ram ate fruit tasted by Shabari. You will not eat the fruit we bite into but at least eat what we touch,” the former chief minister said, as he hit out at Brahmins, accusing them of oppressing Dalits.
“There are only two castes in this world – rich and poor,” he said.
Manjhi, who belongs to the extremely-backward Musahar community, is currently the most-important Dalit leader in the state after the death of former Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan. He has shared a love-hate relationship with the chief minister Nitish Kumar.
Manjhi shot to fame after Kumar decided to appoint him the chief minister for a brief period but was removed soon amidst complaints by various party leaders against Manjhi, who appeared to assert his independence.
He was ousted from the party, following which he dabbled with the Rashtriya Janata Party-Congress alliance between 2018 and 2020, before joining the JD(U)-BJP-led alliance again. His son Santosh Manjhi is currently a minister in Nitish Kumar’s cabinet.
Manjhi’s remarks on Ram are now being seen by observers as yet another attempt on his part to assert his significance in the ruling alliance. His comments assume greater importance at a time when BJP, as the single-largest party in the assembly, has been able to call the shots in both governance and the ruling alliance.
Recently, one saw even the chief minister Nitish Kumar hitting out at the speaker and BJP’s senior leader Vijay Kumar Sinha in the assembly floor, when he accused the latter of indulging in “unconstitutional conduct” and scuttling a criminal investigation.
The saffron party also waged an open war against its own ally Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) recently. The VIP practically dissolved when all its three MLAs joined the BJP, leaving its leader Mukesh Sahani in the lurch. Sahani is also expected to lose his Vidhan Parishad seat once his term ends in July 2022, as BJP has given all indications to withdraw support to him.
As a small ally with only four MLAs, even Manjhi-led HAM would be concerned about these recent developments and BJP’s increasing influence in the Nitish Kumar-led state government. Kumar had a long history of keeping his political independence largely intact despite being in alliance with the BJP. From time to time, he has taken political stances that are different from those taken by the BJP, especially on issues that may lead to Hindu-Muslim polarisation.
However, after the 2020 polls reduced his party’s stature in front of BJP, he has been careful enough to avoid political confrontations. His conspicuous silence when VIP was ruthlessly crushed by the BJP, or his 45-degree bow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Adityanath’s swearing-in ceremony in Lucknow, are instances which indicated the Bihar chief minister’s dwarfed stature in front of the saffron party.
Against this backdrop, Manjhi’s comment on Ram at an event that marked Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary is not only a strong political message to the ‘upper’ caste-led BJP, but may well be specially directed to emphasise the diversity of the ruling alliance.