There is a Complex Plan Behind Hindutva's Use of Dalit Iconography

The BJP's politics of social engineering aims to create a united universe of nationalism and poses an ideological challenge to the 'separation' thesis of the Ambedkarite movement.

File photo of BJP president Amit Shah paying tribute to Babasaheb Ambedkar. Credit: bjp.org

Under strict monitoring by the Sangh-BJP strategic command, the dispensation headed by UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, it seems, has finally decided to execute a complex plan – a plan that old timers would call the politics of ‘social engineering’ in the state.

If everything transpires according to this script, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, riding this strategy, might emerge as ‘the first national leader of backward classes’ by the time we approach the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The chain of events that have unfolded during the last one and a half months, has betrayed a certain pattern that reveals a covert as well as overt dimension of this plan.

The plan is premised on a two-fold structure. First, it involves installation of statutes of those Dalit and Other Backward Classes (OBC) icons who have been routinely overshadowed by the dominant Ambedkarite narrative of Dalit-Bahujan discourse and politics.

Second, this exercise will be combined with the strategy of installing statutes of warriors of upper caste lineage such as Rana Pratap – who are marketed as ‘anti-Muslim nationalists’ – and also of leaders like Chhatrapati Shivaji, who are not of such upper caste lineage. Among non-Ambedkarite icons, priority will be given to King Suheldev, who has lately emerged as a deity of the Rajbhar community, and Nishadraj Guhya, who is known to fire the political imagination of the community of boatmen in and around the Allahabad region. It would not be surprising if Jhalkari Bai, a Lodhi warrior who fought alongside the Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmibai, also finds herself on the list of statue-worthy leaders, primarily because Lodhis have been the mainstay of the BJP’s support among UP’s OBCs.

Since these statutes will be placed inside the memorials and parks built by Mayawati, they will serve a dual purpose.

First, they will pose an ideological challenge to the ‘separation’ thesis of the Ambedkarite movement based on  Babasaheb’s saying that though born a Hindu, he would not die as one. This thesis creates a radical ambience under the influence of which a discourse has gained strength over the years.  This discourse argues that since ex-untouchables are not the part of the Hindu fold, it is better that they separate from it either through conversion or by accepting the creed of rationalists. The co-existence of Dalit-Bahujan icons with minor ex-untouchable and OBC icons alongside a few anti-Muslim Hindu martial personalities is intended to refute that claim and that cultural yearning for a space outside of the Hindu normativity.

Second, it will construct, at least in the form of memorials, a palpable image of an anti-Muslim focus and a united universe of nationalism driven by Hindutva. One should not forget that the politics of iconography provides a number of instances whereby the anti-Muslim aspects of folklore and hagiographies can be appropriated to achieve a certain purpose. The constructed history of King Suheldev is a case in point, which is being put to use by Sangh parivar strategists. They are trying to make a Hindu conqueror out of the king, who, as they say, had defeated Salar Masood Ghazi Khan, or Ghazi Mian – a historical personality who, over centuries, mutated into a Sufi figure revered by Muslims as well as Hindus in many parts of UP. The RSS has reasons to be uncomfortable with this kind of syncretism.

BJP National President, Shri Amit Shah unveiling Raja Suheldev’s statue & addressing Shaurya Sammaan Sabha in Bahraich (UP) on February 24, 2016. Credit: bjp.org

Only at their own peril can the secular forces forget that post-1974, the RSS has painstakingly honed the strategy of appropriation, the first victims of which have been the likes of Phule and Ambedkar. The names of these two are not only included in Pratahsmaran (the morning prayer) of shakhas, but they are also unproblematically declared to be ‘Hindu reformers’.

The spadework for this social engineering was done by Dattopant Thengdi. However, the RSS couldn’t have done it without the path-breaking lecture delivered in Pune by the then sansanghchalak, Balasaheb Deoras in 1974. In his inimitable style, Deoras declared that varna vyavastha – roughly, the caste-based hierarchical framework – had become redundant for Hindu society, and that no energy should be wasted in rebuilding this moribund system. In a way, the utterances of Deoras contradicted Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s thesis of Integral Humanism, which argues that the varna system should be seen as a source of social egalitarianism. Nonetheless, the 1974 lecture promptly became a key policy document of the Sangh parivar and has since guided the organisation. The strategy of ‘social engineering’ is one among many such innovations born out of it.

The significance of the attempt to tweak the existing Ambedkarite iconography cannot be fully understood without a political reading of the plan’s covert sub-text. Only a discerning eye can detect the BJP’s deliberate in-action policy in the developments that recently unfolded in the Saharanpur’s Shabbirpur village. In this part of western UP, a former untouchable community has been reeling under violent attacks perpetrated with impunity by members of the Rajput community. The upper caste aggressors know that the state administration will not come to the rescue of this particular section of scheduled castes. The BJP would have swiftly neutralised the situation had the attacks been levelled against any scheduled caste community other than Jatavs, who have consistently refused to vote for BJP in recent elections. Clearly, the BJP considers other smaller scheduled caste communities part of their newly consolidated ‘Hindu votebank’ even as the party wants to send a stern massage to Jatavs, the most numerous and politiciced of the Dalits. The message is a warning of the dire consequences the community faces unless it falls in line in becoming part of the ‘Hindu whole.’

Paradoxically, the rise of the Bhim Sena, because of its over-the-top emphasis on the ‘Great Chamar’ identity, has added to the efficacy of Hindutva design. Sensing opportunity, the ever-alert BJP has begun to play a game that might give the party a three-fold advantage. By criminalising its leader, Chandrashekhar ‘Ravan’ Azad, the party aims to provide a feel-good effect for the upper castes. At the same time, by allowing a certain playing field to the Bhim Army, the party aims to create problems for Mayawati’s yet to be challenged sway over the Jatavs.

Third, the BJP wants to use the loud assertion of the ‘Great Chamar’ slogan to drive the non-Jatav communities towards Hindutva. The rise of Jatavs as a dominant caste among the scheduled castes in the past decades has put the BJP at a vantage point for unleashing its anti-Jatav propaganda. Just like Yadavs among the OBCs, Jatavs too have ended up helping the Hindutva cause by usurping mostly all benefits of reservation as well as benefits accrued from their proximity to political power. The impression is then pushed that they simply do not care for smaller and poorer communities.

The last two-and-a-half decades have seen the slow but definite decline of the Lohiaite and Ambedakrite variety of social justice politics. The social engineering of the Sangh parivar has always been at loggerheads with this kind of politics. It has always been a fight between anti-brahmanism, that is inherent in the slogan of social justice, and the Deoras dictum of a ‘level playing field for every caste under the great Hindu tradition’.  The turn of events in lthe past three years tells us that the scales within the Sangh have tilted heavily in favour of the followers of Deoras. But it begs the question whether Lohiaites and Ambedkarites will let the Hindutva ‘Vijay Rath’ pass without giving it a last scare.

Abhay Kumar Dubey is a professor at CSDS, Delhi and directs its Indian Language Programme