Tackling a spate of investigations, in daily tussle with Lieutenant Governor Vinai Saxena in Delhi, and facing off against the sharp-eyed BJP in two heated political contests, the Aam Aadmi Party had another problem on its hands on Friday.
This time it flowed from a set of 22 vows, administered by Bhim Rao Ambedkar to his followers back in 1956, when they renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism, and resolved not to worship “Hindu gods and goddesses”.
The BJP shared a video of AAP minister Rajendra Pal Gautam, who heads the Social Welfare and SC/ST Welfare portfolios, at the ‘Deeksha Samaroh’ held in Delhi Wednesday repeating the vows with close to 10,000 people who accepted Buddhism.
As both AAP and the Kejriwal government chose silence, realising the potential minefields a debate on the issue might lead it into, the BJP held a press conference saying “Gautam’s comments highlight the hate” AAP has for Hindus. Demanding Gautam’s resignation, it also alleged that he seemed to have made the comments at the behest of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
Sources in AAP said Kejriwal was “angry” with Gautam for handing the BJP an unnecessary controversy on a platter. “The party is not exactly in a position to say anything on the issue because, no matter what it says, it will fuel the Opposition’s attack,” an AAP leader said.
What complicates matters for the party is that it has left no stone unturned to co-opt Ambedkar as one of its main idols. Ambedkar’s portrait is a requisite at AAP offices and those of its ministers, while a life-size one adorns the Delhi CM’s residence now.
“These vows which Gautam repeated are Ambedkar’s. However, the current political climate means that many things can be interpreted as anti-Hindu,” the AAP leader said.
AAP has been trying to reach out to Dalits in its election campaign for Gujarat, and recently flew in a sanitation worker and his family from Gujarat to dine with Kejriwal and his family at the CM’s residence.
While the Scheduled Caste population of Gujarat stands at 6.74%, in Himachal Pradesh, where AAP is also contesting, it is as high as 25%.
AAP insiders pointed out that the party has worked hard over the past five years to challenge the BJP when it comes to “being Hindu”. Its government and MLAs have organised regular prayers and other religious events in Delhi over the past few years. Ahead of the 2020 Delhi Assembly polls, Kejriwal even recited the Hanuman Chalisa during an interview with a news channel, while calling himself a devout Hindu.
“The BJP doesn’t own Hinduism, and this is something AAP has tried to show the people,” a party leader said, adding that the party’s intention was that one should talk about one’s work instead, since every person valued their belief.
A party insider said they are caught in a Catch-22 situation when it comes to Gautam. “Taking action against him, especially for just participating in an event that happens every year and which was first organised by Ambedkar, would anger the Dalit population, which has traditionally supported AAP. On the other hand, the context in which BJP has released the video, puts us on the back foot,” the leader said.
Gautam has so far taken an aggressive stand, telling the media: “Does the BJP have any other issue to speak about? It wants to create disharmony among people in the name of caste and religion. It doesn’t talk about joblessness… Dalits are attacked every day.”
On the programme and the 22 vows, Gautam, who is Buddhist, pointed out that everyone in the country has the freedom to practise their beliefs. “People are using only parts of the video. This was not a political programme, it was an event organised by the Buddhist Society of India, which was founded by Babasaheb Ambedkar. This has happened every year since 1956. This happens across the country. When you take deeksha, you don’t talk about any religion, you talk about humanity.”
He asked the BJP to read the 22 vows “properly”. “No one from the party has made any anti-Hindu comments.”
Among other things, the vows say that a person taking them is renouncing Hinduism and accepting Buddhism, does not believe in the worship of Hindu gods and goddesses and in the incarnation of God, will not hold ceremonies to be performed by Brahmins, try and establish equality, and never lie or steal.