In one of the four lectures Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay gave in 1965 in Mumbai, he elaborates on the Vedic concept of the virat purusha, emphasising that there was no conflict between castes. And he is the mascot for this government’s three big schemes for the upliftment of the backward and the poor—Deen Dayal Antyodya Yojana, Deen Dayal Upadhyay Gramin Kaushalya and Deen Dayal Gram Jyoti Yojana. We don’t know what views Upadhyay held on the weather, but Delhi’s iconic Paryavaran Bhavan, the Met office, was named after him this week.
That’s not all. Should the RSS have its way, Aurangabad, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad will soon be named after their ‘Hindu founders’. These are just teasers, for the Hindutva cavalcade is now on a cross-country tour, appropriating a range of historical icons. Even mofussil icons are under the Hindutva scanner, for who had heard of Maharaja Suheldev or Raja Mahendra Pratap until the Sangh parivar fished them out of the attic of public memory? With elections due in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, Dalit icons are the current rage. “The BJP needs an iconography to go with the nationalist mythology it is building. Historical icons provide great credibility. That’s why their appropriation has been critical to political projects,” says Charu Gupta, who teaches history at Delhi University. This strategy includes inventing myths that confuse targeted communities. In eastern Uttar Pradesh, Rajbhars, a Most Backward Class, are being told that Suheldev, an 11th century maharaja, was from their caste. In February, BJP president Amit Shah unveiled his statue in Bahraich. The reason: Suheldev joined a successful alliance against a Ghaznavid invader.
Again, to wrest Ambedkar from Mayawati and her followers, RSS mouthpiece Organiser has dressed B.R. Ambedkar in khaki shorts. It claims Ambedkar rejected the Mahar conversion to Islam. “How does a Buddhist become acceptable to the RSS as an agent of ghar wapasi? Ambedkar himself said he has no ghar in Hinduism. He looked for a ghar in Buddhism and found one,” says Dalit rights activist Kancha Ilaiah. In old, Congress-era textbooks, Ashoka and Akbar were projected as promoters of social harmony, characteristics thought necessary to meld India together. “Didn’t Nehru fashion himself and India after a manufactured image of ‘secular’ Akbar or ‘tolerant’ Ashoka,” asks Bhagwan Josh, who teaches history at JNU. Now, the BJP is unleashing its competing version, with a spree of renamed monuments, buildings and roads.
The most glaring is how the Mauryan emperor Ashoka has been bequeathed—with a statue duly installed—to the Kushwaha caste in Bihar. A Buddhist and supposedly grandson of a Shudra woman, Ashoka’s caste has been debated among historians. “In the Buddhist tradition Maurya refers to the peacock feather. To which clan he belongs Ashoka never mentions in his edicts,” says historian Irfan Habib. The caste origin of Kushwahas is hazy. They have claimed Rajput status since the 1920s, avowing descent from Kush, Rama’s son. If Ashoka joins their ranks, Kushwahas become Rajput—the ruler caste—by association. “Kushwahas have said for years that they are Rajputs, and I agree. It’s a matter of pride...,” says Upendra Kushwaha, MoS, HRD.
Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Aurangabad could be on the list. The Hindutva cavalcade is on a cross-country tour, appropriating icons.
Last October, the Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, history wing of the RSS, described Hemchandra aka Hemu as Delhi’s ‘last Hindu ruler’ and rival of ‘Muslim’ Akbar. The reason? Hemu controlled Delhi briefly—for a month. The ABISY glosses over the fact that Hemu had been a military commander with the Afghan Suris. History, from the Sangh’s perspective, is the story of Hindu resistance against Muslim rule. As Union home minister Rajnath Singh put it: “If Akbar is ‘great’, why not Rana Pratap?” Such remarks make historians chafe, for Rajputs were for the most part important allies of Mughals, as recorded in Rajput clan histories like Veer Vinod. “The strength of the Mughal empire was largely from deep alliances struck with the Rajputs such as Kachwahas and Bundelas,” says DU history professor Farhat Hasan.
This hunt for ‘right’ historical figures can lead to hilarious situations. BJP leaders in UP raised a stir against Aligarh Muslim University over Raja Mahendra Pratap, a 20th century Jat king. They claimed the raja was neglected by his alma mater, AMU, despite being a founding member, because he was a Hindu. “Raja Mahendra Pratap wasn’t even born when AMU was set up,” says AMU spokesperson Abrar Ahmad. “He provided us land on a 99-year lease, where we still run a school.” The raja was chief guest in 1977 at AMU’s centennial in fact; his photograph hangs in the central hall. His father, a founder and donor, has a hall named after him.
PM Narendra Modi also got sucked into the appropriation exercise, willingly enough of course. He released two works by Bihar-born poet Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ at the behest of BJP leader C.P. Thakur last year. The unmistakable goal was to posthumously declare Dinkar a Bhumihar hero and critic of Nehru. What was ignored was Dinkar’s warm friendship with Nehru, evident from the first PM writing the foreword to Sanskriti Ke Char Adhyay, or Four Chapters on Culture, one of the books Modi released. “Did the BJP not go through the foreword? Or did they decide to ignore it?” asks DU Hindi professor Apoorvanand. This leaves BJP with little of Dinkar to absorb but his caste, as it has done.
Riding the wheels of history, the party wants to penetrate the south where, apart from Karnataka, it is mostly absent. RSS leader Bhaiyyaji Joshi issued a statement last year, exhorting RSS workers to “remind Bharat” about the “renowned King Rajendra I of the famous Chola Dynasty of Bharat”. Joshi’s statement, bizarrely, takes potshots at Mahmud of Ghazni, suggesting the Chola dynasty provided ‘stable rule’ despite the Afghan-Turk’s invasions. The fact is, Chola emperors faced off with the Pandyas and Chalukyas; he and Ghazni never crossed paths. Historian Venkat Subramanian says, “Rajendra Chola set up the first navy, established Nagapattinam, revived Southeast Asian trade when Afghan/Arab trade petered out and patronised temple sculpture. But RSS invokes only his look-East expansionist policy.”
Bhagwan Josh says, “Earlier, RSS put Shivaji, Bhagat Singh and Rana Pratap together on calendars, reducing these unique individuals from different periods to merely desirable items. That’s how political appropriation works; we should see this agenda.” And the BJP’s agenda, right now, is “making India Hindu”.