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.”