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How the BJP used the idea of Ram to build a base cutting across caste lines

A statue of Hindu god Rama stands beside the River Sarayu in Ayodhya | Photo: PTI
Twenty seven years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December, 1992, the Supreme Court announced its verdict in the title suit over the disputed land earlier today. In a unanimous judgment, a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court allotted the disputed Ayodhya land to the Ramjanmabhoomi Trust. The verdict also ordered the government to allot five acres of prominent land in Ayodhya to the Sunni Waqf Board for the construction of a mosque. This brings the curtain down on a long and turbulent campaign spearheaded by the BJP-RSS for the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya.

The Ram Janmabhoomi movement that started in the 1990s brought about a major shift in the country's politics. It is common knowledge that the movement was the brainchild of seers belonging to various Hindu sects, and was constantly supported and planned by Hindutva forces such as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) Bajrang Dal and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), especially during the 1980-1992 period.

While Ram Janmabhoomi as an issue was alive till this morning and subject of political debate, it ceased being the mass movement of the 1990s long ago. However, the overall appeal it produced in the mindset of the Hindutva brigade back then remains a constituent of saffron politics and indeed in Indian society at large. The BJP supported and led the movement politically, with the 'Rath Yatra' by Lal Krishna Advani, who was the party's president in those days, creating and expanding the popular base for the outfit's politics.

One might recall that prior to Ram Janmabhoomi, the BJP got just two seats in the 1984 parliamentary elections. But once the movement captured the nation's imagination, the party was able to get 85 seats in the 1989 Lok Sabha polls. In the 1991 elections the party got 120 seats and in 1996, the count improved further to 161 seats. Before Ram Janmabhoomi, the BJP was typically the party of the forward castes and its reach was largely limited to India's urban pockets.

But once the movement began gathering steam, BJP used the opportunity to expand its base from the upper castes to the middle and lower castes of Hindu society and also entered the rural areas, especially in northern and central India. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar used the symbol of Ram to good effect in their bid to unite all Hindu castes and forge a Hindutva identity. The symbol of Ram is popular with practically every village household. It cuts across caste lines as the persona is regarded as God and is remembered, narrated and worshipped by people in the form of Ram Katha, Ram Leela and a host of rituals centred around Ram Puja in various parts of the country. In fact, the Tulsikrit Ramcharitmanas is read, recited and worshipped in most households in rural India, regardless of caste. It was this cultural mindset that the BJP exploited quite well, using the presence of Ram in Hindu consciousness in oral, aural, visual and ritualistic form to fuel the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and expand its base among Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits, even as it continued to enjoy upper caste support.

The BJP and RSS used the mythical narratives of Ram to associate MBC, OBC and Dalit castes with the Janmabhoomi movement, bringing even the most backward castes such as the Nishads, Mallahs, Binds and Lodhis closer to the party. BJP cadres and leaders who were active in the 1990s during Ram Janmabhoomi movement involved these river basin-centric communities by delivering this sentiment to them: "You are descent of Nishad Raj Guhya who helped Ram to cross Ganga River at Shringverpur, when he was going for 'van gaman'. So you should support Ram Janmabhoomi movement." It was due to this cultivated mythical relationship that these communities helped the Karsewaks to cross river Sarayu and assemble in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 when a curfew had been imposed in the holy city. The BJP and its affiliates also created a link with Dalit castes like the Mushers and several tribal groups that associate themselves with the characters of Ramayana, such as Sabari. Marginalized Dalit castes like the Musahar, Bansphor (bamboo cutters) and many tribal communities call themselves descendent of Sabari.

The BJP also used the Ram Janmabhoomi movement to convince castes like the Kushwaha, Maurya, Kanjar and others in the Hindi speaking states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, that they are the descendents of Ram's son - Kush. The party whipped up this sentiment to mobilise these castes to fuel the cause of the Ram temple, and get them to work for the BJP to build the monument in Ayodhya.

Another symbolic character that the RSS and BJP used in their campaign to expand their base among tribals was that of Hanuman. Apart from magnifying the popular mythical hero's persona, The two outfits also took to narrating stories of some of his compatriots like Sugreev and Jambvant to the forest dwellers. The plan worked well and several tribal communities such as Kol, Bheel, Oraon, Gond came closer to the BJP. This association of various characters of the Ramayana with the identities of various OBC, MBC and Dalit castes provided space for the BJP to create a base among these non-upper caste social groups of Indian society.

During and after Ram Janmabhoomi movement, several BJP leaders from OBC and Dalit castes began assuming prominence within the party. These included the likes of Vinay Katiyar, Swami Chinmayanand, Uma Bharati, Kashav Prasad Maurya, Vijay Sonkar, and Sakshi Maharaj, who have a strong hold on the OBC and MBC voter base.

The sum and substance is that the BJP has used the Ram Janmabhoomi movement very effectively to build and sustain a political base that cuts across castes and communities, constantly evolving it to ensure it continues to yield electoral dividends.
The writer is professor, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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