The BJP has been appropriating religious symbols related to popular sects like the Nathpanth, Ravidasis and Kabirpanth. It is part of the party’s strategy to attract Dalits, the marginalised and backward communities. These sects have a following among the Dalits, MBCs and OBCs. The party is also trying to co-relate Hindu symbols with those of Buddhism in order to mobilise the followers of that religion, who belong mostly to the Dalit and OBC communities.
This strategy aims to do two things. One, provide respect to icons who are key to the Dalit desire for dignity. Two, forge linkages between Hindutva and the popular sects, which were expressions of non-Brahminical upsurges at different times in the country’s history. One purpose of this strategy is to recover the trust of the Dalits and marginal communities that was lost as a result of incidents like Rohith Vemula’s suicide, cases of atrocities against people of these communities and the bitterness over recent developments on the reservation issue.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Maghar, the place where Kabir was cremated, to observe the 620th Prakatya Diwas and the 500th death anniversary of Kabir. He laid the foundation of the Kabir International Academy — conceived as a study, research, publication and exhibition complex devoted to Kabir’s life and teachings. The PM’s speech underscored how the symbol of Ram was important for Kabir. This is one way the BJP is trying to woo the Kabirpanthis. Communities of Julahas, Tantis, Kovids, Koris, and Jogis, who live in a region stretching from Punjab to Bihar and Bengal, are known to be traditional followers of the Kabirpanth. They are called “Vayanjeevi”, the conglomeration of weaver communities. The Kabirpanth later became popular among the Jatavs and MBC and OBC castes in UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. In UP, about half of the Jatav community could be Kabirpanthis and the rest are followers of Ravidasi sects. Kabir is also venerated by backward agrarian castes like Kurmis, Kushwahas, Kunjars, and Paneris.
The cultural artefacts centred around Kabir — rhymes and folk songs — are also popular among a wider section of the rural population. Marginal Muslim socio-religious groups also associate with the symbolism around Kabir. In many UP villages, the same Kabir song could be sung in a Jatav chaupal or a Brahmin baithak.
Weaver communities, such as the Koris, which are part of the Hindu fold, and Ansaris who are Muslims, are known to support the BSP and Samajwadi Party in UP, especially in the areas adjoining Gorakhpur and Varanasi. By appropriating Kabir, the BJP intends to attract the communities that follow the Kabirpanth. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has already emerged as a strong Hindutva icon who can mobilise Nathpanthis in different parts of India.
This politics of symbols will not only help the BJP build up a votebank but also help the party develop a cadre base comprising people of these sects. In the recent elections to the Karnataka assembly, cadres drawn from the Nathpanthis and some other religious sects worked for the BJP. In the Nineties, maths of the Kabirpanthis were sources of goodwill for Kanshi Ram, Mayawati and the BSP.
Kabirpanthi maths usually have photographs of Kabir and Ambedkar. So the maths of these sects are also instrumental in building the political consciousness of their followers. At times, they influence the electoral behaviour of their followers. In the past, Kabirpanthi mahants have contested and won elections in UP and Bihar.
The BJP is trying to broadbase its support base by drawing in Dalits, OBCs and some tribal groups. In this endeavour, the party is appropriating the symbols of these groups. Religious dignity matters much to marginalised communities. It plays an important role in shaping their social interactions. That’s why the BJP’s strategy to mobilise these communities gives much weightage to their religious icons . The party is trying to appropriate the icons who strove to create an egalitarian society, into the Hindu fold. The BSP had earlier used this strategy for mobilising marginal communities. But the BJP endeavour is different. It is an attempt to make affix a Hindu identity to these communities.