Last month, the central government announced plans to celebrate, over the next year, the birth centenaries of five eminent Indians: former Odisha Chief Minister Biju Patnaik, the musical Bharat Ratnas Ustad Bismillah Khan and M S Subbulakshmi, and Hindi novelist Amritlal Nagar.
Uttar Pradesh, to which Khan and Nagar belonged, votes for a new Assembly in an important election next year. A year-long celebration is planned across the state, besides the release of coins and stamps. Celebrating icons who are not seen as naturally aligned with the RSS-BJP helps the ruling party connect to a wider group of voters. It also offers an opportunity for greater visibility in states where the BJP is not that strong, such as Tamil Nadu and Odisha.
The strategy is in line with the longstanding BJP project to co-opt Indian national icons who have been outside the relatively narrow philosophical base from which the party arose. It has, likewise, laid claim to the legacies of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, B R Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, and celebrated, ahead of the Assembly elections earlier this year, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Kerala Dalit reformer Ayyankali among others.
Last year, the government announced plans for the celebration of the birth centenary of Naga icon Rani Gaidinliu, 150th birth anniversary of freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai, 200th birth anniversary of Tatya Tope, hero of the Revolt of 1857, the 475th birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap, the birth centenary of playwright Bhisham Sahni, and 500 years of the return of Bhakti saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to Vrindavan. In August, at a mega function in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to Gaidinliu as Rani Maa, and credited her with spreading the message of Mahatma Gandhi in the Northeast. In some areas of the Northeast, where the BJP has found a foothold, the RSS and the BJP have been holding up images of Gaidinliu over the past one year, portraying her as a Naga reformer who fought both the British and Christian missionaries.
Besides Gaidinliu, the Sangh has also sought to appropriate the 16th-century saint-scholar Sankardev, who was instrumental in spreading the Bhakti movement in Assam. Modi addressed a rally at the saint’s birthplace, Nagaon — and in Arunachal Pradesh, RSS cadres have, over the last couple of years, been claiming that Rukmini, the wife of Lord Krishna, was a tribal princess from the region. Through its shakhas and schools, the RSS has been trying to retell local histories and reshape local historical characters by linking them with mainstream Hindu mythologies.
The BJP has also tried to present the former Chief Minister of Assam, Gopinath Bordoloi, as a Hindutva hero because he had resisted Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s move to take Assam into East Pakistan. The Culture Ministry has also been celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who had vehemently opposed the two-nation theory.
As the BJP and central government try to create a new pantheon of icons, they hope to add to the RSS’s own list of heroes which is small and sometimes controversial. The attempt to reach out to the periphery also stands out as a break from the Congress’s unrelenting focus on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has led it to ignore most others over its many decades of rule. With the Congress now being defeated in state after state, the BJP hopes to present itself as the only pan-Indian political party, very different from the Congress, including in the list of Indians it sees as its icons.
The National Implementation Committee (NIC) decides on the names that are to be honoured nationally. It is chaired by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and has Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma as its members, besides several senior bureaucrats. The NIC has met twice since the Narendra Modi government came to power, in May 2015 and May 2016. The commemoration lists mirror the ‘nationalism’ and ‘diversity’ angles, besides helping to push the ‘Hindutva’ agenda. The 2016-17 list includes Swami Abhedananda, disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and founder of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, whose 150th birth anniversary the year marks.
The NIC was set up by the UPA government in 2010 when Pranab Mukherjee was Finance Minister. Between 2010 and 2014, it met thrice — in 2011, to decide on the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Rabindranath Tagore, and twice in 2012, to deliberate on the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Madan Mohan Malviya.
The NIC under the NDA government has so far met more regularly, and come out with a list of not one but several personalities — covering more geographical ground and bigger budgets.