National

Courting Controversy

The repercussions of Swami Prasad Maurya’s latest controversial comments are yet to unfold but his gambit is unquestionably bold

Courting Controversy
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The lobby of the high-end Taj Hotel in Lucknow was witness to some unsavoury scenes on February 15. The hotel was hosting a conclave organised by a private television channel and among those invited as guest was Swami Prasad Maurya, a senior Samajwadi Party (SP) leader and Member of the Legislative Council in Uttar Pradesh. He is one of the tallest backward caste voices in the state and belongs to a community traditionally engaged in horticulture.

After concluding his session, while he was exiting the venue, Maurya got into a scuffle with Mah­ant (priest) Raju Das, a seer of Ayodhya’s famous Hanumangarhi Temple. As the two physically jostled with each other, their vocal supporters too clashed. Slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (Hail Lord Ram) and ‘Jai Samvidhan’ (Hail the Constitution) were thrown at each other, as Maurya was escorted to his vehicle by his supporters.

A day later, Maurya, who recently kicked up a storm over his demands that certain verses of the Hindu epic Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas be edited out due to their caste and gender prejudices, alleged that this was an attempt on his life. In a letter to the police, Maurya alleged a major security lapse and claimed that the supporters of Das, who recently announced a reward of Rs 21 lakh for beheading Maurya over his controversial opinions, were armed with swords and axes.

“The BJP government wants me murdered,” alleged Maurya at a press conference on February 16, accusing the state government of sheltering those threatening to kill him. He further alleged that people of a ‘varg vishesh’ (specific community), “terrorists in the robes of sadhus (holy men),” were conspiring to kill him over his comments on the Ramcharitmanas.

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The Ramcharitmanas Photo: Getty Images

However, despite the bounties declared on him by several right-wing seers, Maurya said he would continue to fight “till my last breath” for the honour of Dalits, backward castes, tribals and women and not allow them to be humiliated as ‘neech’ (lowly) and ‘adham’ (vile) in the garb of religion. He claims these communities are depicted in the wrong light in the Ramcharitmanas.

In little over a year, Maurya has once again propelled himself as an agent provocateur in the politics of Uttar Pradesh. The last time he occupied this space was in January 2022, weeks before the country’s politically most important state voted in the Assembly election. Back then, he had dramatically resigned from the post of cabinet minister in UP, accusing the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of neglecting Dalits, OBCs, farmers and the youth.

Several other BJP MLAs followed the OBC leader as they quit the saffron party and joined the main Opposition party, SP. With Maurya in his ranks, SP president Akhilesh Yadav’s campaign to woo the numerically superior backward caste voters, especially the non-Yadav communities, received a fillip. Maurya took the BJP’s communal mobilisation of ‘80vs20’ (Hindus vs Muslims) head on with the ‘85vs15’ clarion of social justice Bahujan politics. Despite a spirited fight, the SP and its allies could not prevent the BJP from returning to power. Maurya himself suffered a jolt as he lost his own election from Fazilnagar.

Now, a year after that political gamble, Maurya has engaged in another, one fraught with political and personal risks. He has dared to question the sanctity of one of the most popular Hindu epics, the Ramcharitmanas, months before the BJP-led government is billed to showcase the under-construction Ram Mandir in Ayodhya as a major accomplishment ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.  Maurya has demanded that some couplets of the Ramcharitmanas be removed or edited out, arguing that these lines justified the discriminatory caste system, projected the shudras as neech and used derogatory language for women. On February 7, Maurya even wrote a detailed letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterating his demands.

Is Maurya only a loose canon? Is he engaged in sheer adventurism or is it a part of a well thought out strategy to stir debate on caste discrimination ahead of the elections and reclaim the OBC and Dalit votes captured by the BJP, especially since 2014? The mixed reaction of the SP leadership over the episode has kept the mystery alive. Soon after Maurya made the initial comments, his party backed him and in the midst of the controversy promoted him to the rank of a national general secretary. In sharp contrast, in 2020, Akhilesh Yadav sacked Lotan Ram Nishad, the president of the backward class cell of the party, after the latter commented that Lord Ram was an imaginary god and that OBCs had no interest in the Ram Mandir.

Is Maurya only a loose canon? Is he engaged in sheer adventurism or is it a part of a well thought out strategy to stir debate on caste discrimination ahead of the elections?

One might assume that a seasoned politician like Maurya, who has served as a minister in governments run by both the BSP and BJP, does not expect Modi to enforce a change in one of the most popular religious texts for Hindus. Whatever his motivations ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election, the controversy has given expression to his brand of Ambedkarite politics, which had gone missing from the state since the dilution of the Bahujan politics by Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) leader, Mayawati, and her shift to the appeasement of the upper castes through the blunt slogan, and now proven disastrous strategy of ‘Sarvajan Hitai, Sarvajan Sukhai’ (Of All, For All).

In fact, Maurya is the last of the protégés of Bahujan politics ideologue and late Dalit leader Kanshiram to retain the core voice against Brahmanical socio-politics often dubbed as ‘Manuvad’ (Brahmanism) by proponents of Ambedkarite politics. Is this just a blip in the ever-dynamic caste politics of the state, a personal opinion gone too far, or the onset of a new form of caste politics? These are all questions the coming months will answer. Maurya’s ideological background tells us that while it is surprising that an Opposition leader in UP would stir such a controversy, which could potentially irk Hindu voters, what is not surprising is that it is Maurya who is at the forefront of it.  This is not to say that Maurya is not opportunistic. In 2016, he compromised on his own core ideology for the sake of power. Maurya, a Buddhist and well-versed in Ambedkarite values and Bahujan politics, made an unfathomable moral leap when he joined the BJP, the proponent of Hindu nationalism, playing a role in and mutually benefitting from its election win in 2017.

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Last year, soon after he quit the BJP, he tried to justify to me his stint with the BJP’s Hindutva politics and his ideological contradiction with it. He said that he had shifted to the saffron party as he was moved by Modi’s statement made in 2014 that he was referred to as neech because he was born into a pichdi jati (backward caste). Maurya said he hoped that the BJP’s chehra (face) and charitra (character) may have changed. But after working with the party for five years, he realised that the party had changed its face and put on a ‘mask’ but at the core of it, the nature of its work remained the same, tightly linked to the training of the RSS. Maurya’s explanation sounded convenient and self-serving but, in electoral politics, there is no room for ideological purity or morality. Barring his five-year stint with the BJP and recent jump to the SP, Maurya spent most of his political life with the BSP, a party reduced in stature and numbers today but a key arm of the social justice political churn in the state over the past three decades.

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The current controversy over the Ramcharitmans is not the first over Hindu faith in which Maurya has found himself. In 2004, he created a political stir when, in a speech in Sultanpur, he appealed to people of OBC and Dalit communities not to worship Lord Ganesha or Goddess Gauri during weddings, saying it was a conspiracy by the uppercaste dominated system to mislead and enslave them.
The matter surfaced again last year, predictably a day after Maurya quit the BJP government, in the form of an arrest warrant by a local court. This time, too, an FIR was lodged against him in Lucknow for his comments on the Ramcharitmanas. But Maurya has stuck to his guns, for now. In the days of peak Hindutva nationalism and a BJP ruling with a brute majority in the state as well as the Centre, the question is: for how long?

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Maverick or Tactician?")

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