On 24 February 2016, Amit Shah, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was in Bahraich to unveil a statue of Suheldev—an eleventh-century king who is believed to have ruled Shrasvati, near present-day Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district. In the speech that followed, Shah said that it was his privilege to be present at the event, lauding Suheldev as a figure whose name is revered not just in Uttar Pradesh, but in the entire nation. The BJP leader went on to describe the defeat of the Muslim king Ghazi Saiyyad Salar Masud at the hands of Suheldev, who, he claimed, put a definitive end to Masud’s campaign to invade India. “A citizenry that does not remember its brave ancestors,” Shah continued, “cannot make history.”
Shah’s rhetoric at the event was consistent with the BJP’s political appropriation of the icon in recent times. In her story “The Mission,” for The Caravan, the journalist Neha Dixit noted that one of the booklets that the party circulated in the lead up to the UP assembly elections contained a story titled “The Badhsah and the Raja.” According to the story, when Masud encountered Suheldev, he placed a herd of cows at the head of his army to shield himself from an attack by his Hindu opponent, who considered the animals sacred. Suheldev and his army, the story continued, freed the cows at night and went on to kill Masud. However, as Dixit pointed out, the claim that Suheldev killed Masud is disputed among historians.
The credibility of the narrative that it seeks to popularise notwithstanding, the BJP has been relentless in its pursuit of cementing an association with Suheldev. The party’s Lucknow office bears a framed portrait of Suheldev. In April 2016, the junior railway minister Manoj Sinha inaugurated a “Suheldev Superfast Express,” which connects Ghazipur to Delhi. (According to a report in The Telegraph, railway officials had objected to the name on the grounds that it was a departure from the Indian Railways’ traditional practice of distancing train names from political considerations, but it was then endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Office, after which the officials “had no choice.”)
This is a strategy that the BJP is deploying presumably with an eye on the non-Jatav Dalit vote in UP. In his book, Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation, published in 2008, the scholar Badri Narayan noted that Hindutva entities have often used “the myth of Suhaldev” to attract Dalits. Both the Rajbhar community, which is among the 17 backward castes in UP that the state government cleared for inclusion in the Scheduled Castes list in December 2016, constituting around 2 percent of the state’s population, and the Pasi community—the second-largest scheduled-caste group in UP, after the Jatavs—stake claim to Suheldev’s legacy. In its attempt to endear itself to voters from oppressed castes, the BJP has also allied with the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, or the SBSP, which is contesting eight seats and is expected to help its partner garner support from the Rajbhar community.
In an article titled “The BJP’s fascination with a Dalit Icon,” published in October 2016, Omar Rashid, a correspondent with The Hindu, wrote, “Many non-BJP parties, especially the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, have over the years tried to connect with Suheldev for electoral benefits. However, what distinguishes the BJP-RSS efforts is the narrative that it seeks to superimpose on the legend. The Sangh is known to pick characters, icons and folklores with a blurred past, leaving room for distortion and political appropriation.”
On 1 February 2017 I attended an event hosted by the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a youth organisation with a history of arson and communal violence, founded by the BJP MP Yogi Adityanath in 2002. The event, which the Yuva Vahini had held to observe “Suheldev Maharaj Jayanti,” offered me a glimpse into the determined efforts to align the legacy of Suheldev with Hindu nationalism.
The event began at around 6 pm and was held at Rangoli Garden Tiraha in Sarnath—situated about ten kilometres from the city of Varanasi. A statue of Suheldev, adorned with numerous garlands, stood in one corner of the garden. Earthen lamps were lit and scattered around the venue. The garden was also embellished with triangular saffron flags that had the words “Hindu Yuva Vahini” printed on them in Hindi. Through much of the event, I could hear devotional music playing from speakers placed at the venue. At one point, the lyrics referred to the Yuva Vahini, and at another, asserted, “Ab Ayodhya mein Ram mandir ka nirmaan chahiye”—We want the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya now. Around 40 members of the Yuva Vahini—all of them men, ranging in ages from their early twenties to their mid-forties—and a handful of others unaffiliated with the organisation, were in attendance.
The first speaker, Pushkar Srivastav, one of the Yuva Vahini’s divisional chairs as well as president of the Yuva Vahini’s Varanasi Suheldev Mandal, offered introductory remarks and led chants of “Jai Shree Ram” and “Bharat Mata ki jai.” Manish Pande, the speaker who followed, and the vice-president of the Yuva Vahini in UP, invoked the history of Mughal rule and the British Raj. “Hum ne ghulamon ki daasta ek hazaar saal se dekhi hai”—We have witnessed the tale of slavery for a thousand years. Pande continued: “secular neta samaaj ko baat rahen hain”—Secular politicians are dividing society—as a reference to the Samjawadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Congress’ Rahul Gandhi.
“Gaajar-mooli ki tarah katmullonh ko kaata to Raja Rajbhar ne kaata”—If anyone sliced the circumcised Muslims like carrot and radish then it was King Rajbhar, said Ambrish Singh Bhola, the third speaker at the event and a Yuva Vahini divisional chair, referring to Suheldev. There were six speeches in total, all of them by members of the Yuva Vahini. Vinay Jaiswal, the president of the Yuva Vahini’s Varanasi wing, bemoaned the political divisions within “the Hindu community.” The final speaker was introduced as a “Hindu yodha,” a Hindu warrior.
When the event took place on 1 February, the anti-Muslim rhetoric it frequently showcased appeared to rest at the edges of the BJP’s broader electoral strategy. But in the weeks since, the communal outlook reflected through the event has made a prominent appearance in the BJP’s campaigning efforts in UP. On 19 February, for instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing a rally at Fatehpur, said, “If there is graveyard in a village, then there must be a cremation ground as well.” He continued, “If there is electricity during Ramzan, then there must be electricity during Diwali too; if there is electricity during Holi, then it must also be made available on Eid.”
On 22 February, Amit Shah spoke of “KASAB”, an acronym he had coined for the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, in a thinly-veiled reference to Mohammad Ajmal Kasab—one of the gunmen responsible for the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai. On the same day, Adityanath claimed during a television interview that development under the SP government had been “limited to the kabristan.” He also suggested that during Hindu festivals, households should receive four times the electricity supply that they receive during Muslim festivals.
Soon after, on 2 March, Shah held a road show in Gorakhpur, during which he was accompanied by Adityanath. According to a report in the Asian Age, slogans such as “Ek hi naara, ek hi naara, Jai Sri Ram, Jai Sri Ram,” and “Gorakhpur mein rehna hai, Yogi-Yogi kehna hai,” could be heard as the cavalcade made its way through Muslim-majority neighbourhoods of the city.
The speakers at the Yuva Vahini event did not restrict themselves to communally divisive rhetoric; they also made statements that sought to widen the Hindutva base by co-opting Dalits. The last speaker said that Suheldev should not be seen as a Rajbhar or Pasi leader alone, but as a leader of the entire Hindu community. He also criticised the absence of the chieftain’s tale from history books, adding that historical research in India had been overly Mughal-centric.
Despite the BJP’s efforts to appeal to a section of voters through the legacy of Suheldev, the party—because of the policies it seeks and the manner of its outreach—may run into some challenges with the partnerships it has forged. “Rajbhars should get reservation,” Om Prakash Rajbhar, the founder and president of the BJP’s ally, the SBSP, told me. Such a stance is at odds with that of the Sangh Parivar, which has long been sceptical of even the existing scope of these policies. Furthermore, the Yuva Vahini’s manner of co-opting Suheldev has likely bred at least some resentment among Dalit communities. “Rajbhars consider themselves higher [than Pasis],” Badri Narayan told me. As a result, he said, members of the community were bound to feel insulted by the Yuva Vahini’s interchanging use of the Rajbhar and Pasi communities while talking about Suheldev.
After he had made his speech at the Yuva Vahini event, I spoke to Manish Pande and asked him about the issues that mattered most to him in this election. He told me that India should be declared a Hindu nation and condemned “gau taskari,” the trafficking of cows. Pande also brought up Varanasi’s most famous temple, Kashi Vishwanath. “Uske bagal mein masjid hai. Use hathaya jaye”—There is a mosque next to it. It should be removed.