BJP is using lesser-known figures from medieval history to connect with social groups, further its politics

The BJP is continuously reinventing its politics. This reinvention can be observed both in developmental and cultural politics. The party is trying to mobilise cultural memories and use them to raise developmental consciousness as well as for political mobilisation. While it is true that these strategies do not always succeed, the continuous invention of new strategies shows a vibrancy in the politics of Hindutva: Usually, such vibrancy dies when a party remains in power for a substantial period. Since Hindutva politics from its beginnings fed its politics largely from the cultural sphere, the party now appears more competent in using cultural issues than its rivals. It has several times used cultural memories, icons and myths to spread its ideology and win influence.

The politics of Hindutva tried to carve a space for its idea of cultural nationalism by evoking a pyramid of icons and cultural symbols. The base of this pyramid emerges through their work with religious symbols like Rama, Krishna and Buddha. At the second level, it has explored the symbolism of medieval kings — who defeated or fought Muslim “intruders” — such as Raja Suheldev, Gokul Jat, Baldeo Pasee, etc. Simultaneously, it is exploring the marginalised aspects of the Gandhian-Nehruvian national movement and incorporating them into its own larger discourse of cultural nationalism. The BJP and Hindutva forces are constantly appropriating as many icons and legacies as they can for their political garland. The major strategy of this management of memories of Hindutva politics is to explore marginalised and oppressed narratives within the secular meta-narrative of society, culture and politics and retell them. If someone closely watches the politics of the BJP and Hindutva family, they may understand that they have identified “memory zones” based on the influence of heroic symbols — such as Suheldev in central and eastern UP and Gokul Jat in western UP. Based on these memory zones, the BJP-led government and party plan activities around “memorial politics”. They are also exploring caste and community-based heroes and icons to facilitate their politics among certain communities.

Take the case of Maharaja Suheldev. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a 40-foot memorial and a development project at Chittaura lake on the occasion of the Maharaja’s birth anniversary. Suheldev is a medieval era king who is remembered by the people of central and eastern UP for defeating Muslim “intruders”. A few days ago, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath kicked off a campaign to reinvent the memory of the Chauri Chaura violence, an event that is marginalised in the narrative of the Gandhian freedom movement. Recently, the foundation stone of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya was also laid by PM Modi. Amid a continuing peasant protest, we heard that the UP government is working to install a life-size statue of Gokul Jat, a ruler from western UP who also fought Muslim rulers in medieval times. In all these activities, one can observe how the party organisation and BJP-led government are working together to build a memorial politics in the state.

The BJP’s cultural politics relies on certain strategies such as reinventing Hindu religious icons, providing new interpretations to cultural icons to forge political linkages — for instance, exploring new icons from medieval times, mostly associated with OBCs, MBCs and other marginalised communities from folk culture and popular memories.

What we have observed about memorial politics in India is that after some time, most memorials cease to be significant — no one goes there and no one takes care of the statues. A few people do visit these sites during the birth and death anniversaries related to the icons the memorials commemorate. The BJP, interestingly, is trying to project these memorials also as tourist attractions. The facilities to travel to these memorials is being provided by the government. The UP government is also trying to make various arrangements for tourists’ entertainment and comfort.

One Hindutva activist explained to me that the first step was trying to inculcate a sense of pride among people of various communities, which may inspire them to visit these memorials. Another strategy was to weave the traditional memories of tirthas with the modern attractions of tourism to attract more people to these memorials. For example, the BJP is working to develop a concept of “panch-tirthas” around sites related to B R Ambedkar. A Vishwa Hindu Parishad worker told me that “we would like to develop Raja Suheldev memorials as tirth-sthans for those who believe in his values”. With this sense of pride in place, the BJP is also working to transform these memorial spaces into places of aastha (belief). Another Hindutva activist revealed to me that “we will not allow them to remain unattended. We are trying to make them vibrant places of aastha and pride”. It is important to add that these are not only a part of the politics of governance of culture for the UP government but also a key element in the organisational strategy of the BJP as a political party. They believe that these attempts will slowly strengthen the emotional feeling of cultural nationalism among people.

The attempt by mainstream Hindutva politics is to over-emphasise these marginal and contested memories, establish them as sites for “believers” and use them as symbols of cultural nationalism .

The writer is director, GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad

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