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Explained: The legend of Maharaja Suheldev, and the reality of the Rajbhar vote in UP

The legacy of Suheldev — who is believed to have lived c.1000 AD and defeated a purported nephew of the Turkic conqueror Mahmud of Ghazni in battle — has been claimed by political parties over the years.

Written by Maulshree Seth , Edited by Explained Desk | Lucknow |
Updated: February 22, 2021 12:55:06 pm
BJP leaders during the foundation stone laying ceremony of the statue of  Raja Suheldev in Bahraich district. (Twitter/BJP4UP)

A “new India” was correcting old “injustices” done to “those who made history”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Tuesday while virtually laying the foundation stone for a statue of Raja Suheldev in Bahraich district of eastern Uttar Pradesh.

The legacy of Suheldev — who is believed to have lived c.1000 AD and defeated a purported nephew of the Turkic conqueror Mahmud of Ghazni in battle — has been claimed by political parties over the years.

The BJP under Modi has invoked him since at least 2016 — and with Assembly elections just a year away, the party has reasons to both project Suheldev as a “saviour of Hindu religion”, and to identify itself with the OBC Rajbhar community of eastern Uttar Pradesh that claims affinity with the medieval Indian ruler.

The legend of Suheldev

Legend has it that when waves of Muslim invaders were sweeping through India, Raja Suheldev of Shravasti gathered together heads of tribes including the Tharu and Banjara, and the rulers of several small estates, to resist the invaders. His army is said to have defeated and killed Ghazi Salar Masud, purportedly a favourite nephew of Mahmud of Ghazni, in battle in Bahraich in 1034 AD. In local lore, Suheldev is said to have been a Rajbhar or Bhar Rajput, and is celebrated as a king who saved the Hindu religion.

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A 2018 stamp commemorating Maharaja Suheldev. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The BJP and his legacy

Ghazi Salar Masud or Ghazi Miyan is himself revered as a warrior saint, and an influential cult has grown around his dargah in Bahraich. The RSS and VHP, who have been celebrating the outcome of the Bahraich battle as “Hindu Vijay Utsav”, have long demanded a proper memorial for Raja Suheldev.

On February 24, 2016, Amit Shah, who was then national president of the BJP, visited Bahraich to unveil a statue of Suheldev. He asked a public meeting to give a chance to the BJP (in the elections of 2017) to bring development to UP, and to restore the glory of Suheldev’s reign.

On December 29, 2018, with Lok Sabha elections months away, Prime Minister Modi released a postage stamp in honour of Maharaja Suheldev, and promised development projects for the region.

The prize of the Rajbhar vote

The Rajbhars are believed to make up 18 per cent of the electorate in eastern UP, and wield significant influence in over 60 Assembly constituencies. The most visible political force in the community is the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), which was founded in 2002 by Om Prakash Rajbhar, a former minister in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s government.

Ahead of the 2017 Assembly elections, the BJP tied up with the SBSP, and though the latter won only four seats, its support swept up significant OBC votes in many constituencies for the BJP, which formed the government with a huge majority. Om Prakash Rajbhar, however, broke with the BJP before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and has now announced an alliance with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party for the 2022 Assembly elections.

The BJP has been promoting UP Minister Anil Rajbhar as its leader in the region. He has been given charge of Ballia and Bahraich districts, and he was present at the event addressed by the Prime Minister on Tuesday.

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On Tuesday, Modi also laid the foundation stone for development works at Chitaura Jheel to promote tourism and the history of Suheldev and the battle of Bahraich. “Rajbhars contribute 18 per cent of votes and the BJP is trying to use an icon like Suheldev to woo the community. If they actually want welfare of the community, they should give reservation as has been demanded for long,” Arun Rajbhar of SBSP said.

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