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How BJP uses gods and icons of marginalised communities in Bengal and elsewhere to draft them into Hindutva politics

It has turned the heterogeneity of Hindu culture into its strength

Written by Badri Narayan |
Updated: March 18, 2021 8:58:29 am
BJP supporters during a rally to attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election meeting ahead of West Bengal Assembly Polls, outside Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata (PTI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to visit the Matua temple at Orkandi later this month when he travels to Dhaka. He had also started his 2019 election campaign in West Bengal by seeking the blessing of Boro Maa, the head of Matua sect. The Matua is one of the largest Dalit communities of West Bengal, which migrated from East Bengal after Partition. Similarly, the party invokes Lord Birsa Munda (Bhagwan Birsa) in the Adivasi belt these days. In Bengal, we see the BJP constantly extending its political influence by assimilating left-out and marginal communities in various ways. These actions point to the BJP’s attempts to expand its footprint by including new gods and goddesses in its pantheon.

The art of politics is about synthesising opposites. Political agents who have a strong appetite to absorb contradictory and contesting forms of socio-religious political materials in a creative way, are likely to grow. The BJP has mastered this art to accommodate various contesting identities and related cultural resources under the umbrella of “Samagra Hindutva”. The appetite for absorption and a flexible narrative are helping the BJP to include diverse social, cultural and political ingredients in its meta narrative of Hindutva. This is the result of political work of over seven decades. The party now has a large religious-cultural khazana of material related with Hindu identity, which the party digs into, explores and reinterprets constantly. It is also constantly adding to the khazana and expanding its set of narratives. Since the BJP has been doing Hindutva identity politics from the beginning, it has acquired a claim to appropriate enormous resources including icons, deities, myths and symbols related to the great epic narrative (maha-aakhyan) of Hinduism. Additionally, while keeping Lord Ram as a mega religious icon, it is engaging with new, micro-local religious-cultural icons of various smaller, marginalised communities. The great and little traditions are being used together to create larger political narratives. The BJP has turned the heterogeneity of Hindu culture into its strength, the heterogeneity reinterpreted to provide new meanings.

For instance, the campaign to interpret the local history of Arunachal Pradesh in Hindu religious terms started in the 1960s. The memories of Bali, Sugriva, Parashuram and Sita are being recreated to associate tribal communities of this region with the broader Hindutva fold. The localisation of icons of Ramayana and Mahabharata by linking them with local hills and rivers is being tried to foster Hindutva memories. The memory of the Bhakti movement is providing the base for strengthening Hindutva in Assam. Sabari, a minor character in the Ramayana and a popular deity of a few marginal and nomadic communities in Northern India, is invoked to reach out to them. Atal Nagar, a basti of the Jaya Pura, near Varanasi, built especially for the Musahar community, now has a temple of Sabari Mata. The Musher people consider this temple their pride: “We had no temple of mata sabari in and around 50 kms. Modiji made this temple for us.” Recently, Narendra Modi invoked a local deity — Mari Mai — worshipped extensively in central and eastern UP. In villages, we find “than” (mounds) of Mari mai under the peepal, which are worshipped by rural women.

Clearly, the BJP has moved ahead of the Ram narrative and added many smaller and local deities and icons in its religious-political pantheon. Hindutva politics seeks to provide religious pride to marginal communities, an important aspect of their social dignity.

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Most of the icons explored by the BSP in UP in the 1990s to mobilise the Dalits and other marginal communities are being appropriated by the BJP. Kanshi Ram, founder of the BSP, had painstakingly worked on these to form social alliances that helped to strengthen the Bahujan movement.

The BJP politics is not merely limited to the mobilisation of people as people-body, crowds, or voters. It extends to the mobilisation of religion-culture based identity resources. Without the political capital of identity resources, the power and range of political parties to mobilise and make communities as a long-term mass base will weaken. Losing claims on the identity resources of people, in the long run, will cost a political party its mass base. Conversely, when any party starts to slip, it loses grip on its capital of community identity icons and symbols which it had gathered when political prospects were on the ascent.

This column first appeared in the print edition on March 18, 2021 under the title ‘Extending the Pantheon’. The writer is professor, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad

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