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Patna (Bihar): A recent interview by Sahitya Akademi award winning writer and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Daya Prakash Sinha, in which he compared Ashoka and Aurangzeb, has triggered a political row between the BJP and its alliance partner, Janata Dal (United).
This is the latest among a series of events highlighting a clear division of ideology between the two parties. It seems the JD(U) is in no mood to let the Ashoka issue go, until the BJP takes a tough stand against the writer.
On January 17, JD(U) leader Upendra Kushwaha wrote a letter to BJP state chief Sanjay Jaiswal and said, “We will continue to protest until his award is not withdrawn.”
Eighty-seven-year-old Sinha is a retired IAS officer and currently national convenor of the BJP cultural cell and vice-president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. He has been awarded the Padma Shri, as well as the Sahitya Akademi award for his drama Samrat Ashoka.
The drama is based on the life of King Ashoka, an emperor of the Maurya dynasty. He ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from 268 to 232 BCE.
In an interview, he compared King Ashoka’s alleged cruelty with Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. “When I was researching for the drama, I was surprised when I found many similarities between Ashoka and Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Both had committed sins in their early life and then preached hyper-religiosity so that people would focus on religion and forget about their sins,” he was quoted as saying in a Navbharat Times interview.
Sinha also called Ashoka “kamashok (amorous)” and “chandakosh (cruel)”, citing Buddhist books.
JD(U) sees it as an attack on Nitish
Soon after buzz started over the interview, JD(U) criticised the writer and demanded that his Padma Shri award be revoked.
Rajiv Ranjan Singh, national president of the JD(U), tweeted, “Criticism of one of the greatest kings in ancient India cannot be accepted. A person who used offensive words against the celebrated king does not deserve accolades. I request the President of India to take back Padma Shri from Sinha and also request the authority concerned to take back his other awards.”
Another JDU leader, Upendra Kushwaha, said, “He (Sinha) has made a very foul remark about Samrat (emperor) Ashoka. He does not deserve the award and the same should be withdrawn. The party, of which he happens to be an office-bearer, must also take action if it wants to avoid backlash.”
The JD(U)’s response wasn’t surprising. After all, for years chief minister Nitish Kumar has been focusing on making Ashoka an icon in Bihar.
A JD(U) leader said, “It is Nitish Kumar who had engaged historians to ascertain the date of birth of Ashoka and in 2015, the state government had declared April 14 as Ashoka’s date of birth. The government had also announced a state holiday on this day.”
Since there has been growing discontent between the JDU and BJP on multiple issues – the liquor ban, special status, demand for a caste census, etc. – the BJP chose to avoid confrontation.
BJP state president Sanjay Jaiswal lodged an FIR against Sinha at Patna’s Kotwali police station. The petition submitted to the police station says, “Sinha had been spreading ‘misinformation’ to cause enmity and hatred in society, so an FIR should be lodged against him under the IPC and IT Act.”
The JD(U), though, is not satisfied with BJP’s move. On January 17, Kushwaha wrote a letter to Jaiswal, saying, “You had agreed that Daya Prakash’s observation about Ashoka was objectionable and an attempt to manipulate history. But you termed the JDU demand from the prime minister to withdraw his (Sinha’s) award as ridiculous.”
“Now tell me if you are with us in our demand of withdrawing awards?” Kushwaha asked.
Why historians see the statement as politically motivated
Bihar-based historians not only refuted Sinha’s claims on Ashoka, but said his comment was “well planned” and “politically motivated”.
Historian Subhash Chandra Kushwaha considers this entire controversy to be part of a well-thought-out strategy. “This controversy has not been created without any reason,” he told The Wire.
“The empire of Ashoka starts from Afghanistan and goes till Madras. There was no other ruler before Ashoka who ruled such a large area. People of different cultures lived in these areas. The Pashtuns had a different culture, the Bheel tribe had a different culture, the Dravidians had a different culture in the south. Ashoka must have protected different cultures, and would have given respect to all the cultures, which is against the policy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In such a situation, if a ruler whose policy is against the policy of the RSS, they will condemn him,” Kushwaha said.
He continued, “Daya Prakash [Sinha] has written another play where he has described Pushyamitra Shung as a hero. Pushyamitra Shung was the killer of the last ruler of the Maurya dynasty. He [Sinha] is making him a hero because he was a Brahmin, and during his period the power of Brahmins rose. Pushyamitra is Ram for the RSS and Brahmins. Therefore, in order to take him [Shung] forward, he [Sinha] is trying to humiliate Ashoka.”
The play Kushwaha referenced is Rakt Abhishek, in which Sinha justified the killing of the last Maurya emperor, Brihadrath, by Pushyamitra Shung, the emperor’s army chief. In an interview with a YouTube channel three years ago, Sinha had said that if killing is in public interest, it is justified.
“The king Brihadrath was not willing to undertake foreign invasions due to his non-violence policy. So, his army chief Pushyamitra had killed the king to save the country. He saved lakhs of Indians from being killed by foreign attacks. It was a religious act, a nationalist act,” Sinha had said in the interview.
Hindutva leaders have been critical of Buddhism. The demonisation of Ashoka, a follower of Buddhism, can thus be seen as part of a larger scheme.
“The only motive behind comparing Ashoka with Aurangzeb is that the Sangh has created an anti-Hindu mentality about Aurangzeb, so they are trying to show Ashoka too as anti-Hindu,” Kushwaha told The Wire.
Umesh Kumar Ray is an independent journalist.