Mohan Bhagwat praised the Dalit icon during his Vijayadashmi speech. But it’s not a new RSS line, explains Shyamlal Yadav
On October 22, in his annual Vijayadashmi speech, RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat praised B R Ambedkar and ended with the slogan, ‘Hindu Hindu ek rahen, bhedbhao ko nahi sahen (All Hindus must be one, discrimination must not be tolerated)’. Coming in the midst of the Bihar elections, his praise of Ambedkar was seen as a way to make amends for his “time to rethink quota” remark. But this is not the first time the RSS has invoked Ambedkar and his ideology.
Start of a strategy
Since its formation in 1925, the RSS has always spoken about ‘Hindu unity’, but its leadership has been criticised for being dominated by upper castes in general and Brahmins in particular. Two incidents were seen as a setback to the RSS’s bid to ‘unite Hindus’. One was the large-scale conversion of Dalits led by Ambedkar. Every year, on the occasion of Vijayadashmi, the RSS sarsanghchalak addresses his swayamsewaks at Reshambagh in Nagpur. Ironically, on one such Vijayadashmi in 1956, in Deekshabhoomi, another part of Nagpur, Ambedkar embraced Buddhism along with his nearly half a million followers. But it wasn’t until the Meenakshipuram incident in 1981, when hundreds of lower caste Hindus in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu converted to Islam, that the RSS began invoking Ambedkar and Dalits.
Call to action
After the Meenakshipuram incident, the RSS began organising Hindu Samagams or gatherings in different places. One such event was held in 1982 in Bangalore, where thousands of uniformed swayamsewaks are said to assembled and declared, “Hindavah sahodarah sarve (All Hindus are real brothers).” At a function in Maharashtra on April 14, 1983, the RSS marked both the birthdays of Ambedkar and RSS founder Hedgewar — that year, Ambedkar’s birth anniversary by the Roman calendar had coincided with Hedgewar’s by the Hindu calendar.
The RSS then built on that symbolism by taking out a 45-day Phule-Ambedkar yatra that covered the whole of Maharashtra. In 1989, the centenary year of Hedgewar’s birth, every RSS shakha was asked to run at least one education centre in Dalit localities in its area. Balasaheb Deoras as sarsanghchalak and H V Sheshadri as sarkaryawah were behind this strategy that was followed by the establishment of sewa vibhags in the RSS to take care of such activities.
The following year, in 1990, the RSS marked the centenary year of Ambedkar and Dalit reformer Jyotiba Phule. The Akhil Bhartiya Pratinidhi Sabha (ABPS), the highest decision-making body of the RSS, passed a resolution on the occasion that read: “These two great leaders dealt deadly blows to the evil practices and conventions prevailing in Hindu society, and… successfully persuaded Hindu society to do away with all the injustices it had perpetrated on its own members.”
Impact on the BJP
The BJP was unable to derive much political mileage from the RSS’s aggressive wooing of Dalits, who remained a votebank the BJP has to this day struggled to fully get on its side. The emergence of Dalit leaders such as Kanshiram and Mayawati in UP and Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar meant that the BJP remained trapped in its image of being an upper-caste party. But the party has been gradually making inroads.
In UP, the BJP countered Mulayam Singh Yadav by aligning with Mayawati in 1995 and supported her as CM. In the ongoing Assembly elections in Bihar, the party has got Dalit politicians Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi on its side. Since coming to power at the Centre, Narendra Modi too has invoked Ambedkar repeatedly. It’s no coincidence that the RSS is doing the same.
Since 1981, when the RSS passed a resolution calling for a committee of non-political people to review reservation, the RSS has stuck to that stand. So though Bhagwat’s recent comments raised eyebrows, he was only restating a position the Sangh has been putting forth for over three decades now. But on reservation to Dalits who have converted to other religions, the RSS has always adopted a more strident stand. In 1961, an ABPS resolution said: “If any scheme of separate reservation… of different sects is sought to be envisaged for political purposes, it will prove highly detrimental to national unity…”
Again, in 1990, the ABPS said that on the Christians’ demand of reservation on the lines of neo-Buddhists, “the ABPS wants to emphasise that the Constitution makers envisaged these concessions only to remove caste-based discrimination and inequality prevalent in Hindu society…” The organisation has also spoken against religion-based reservation on the grounds that it would be detrimental to the interests of SCs. In a resolution passed by the ABPS in 2005, it said, “The ABPS appeals to all the representatives and leaders of the SCs and their institutions to understand the sinister game plan of the proselytisers behind this demand.”