Why BJP is pushing Maharishi Valmiki to centre stage ahead of Ram Temple opening
Union Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia confirmed that the newly- constructed airport at Ayodhya will be named the Maharishi Valmiki International Airport. | Photo: X/@BJP4India

Why BJP is pushing Maharishi Valmiki to centre stage ahead of Ram Temple opening

The party is now keen to appropriate Maharishi Valmiki, the author of Ramayana and a Dalit icon, to further bolster the Hindutva narrative

It was always clear that the grand inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on January 22, would propel the BJP’s narrative of Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra to a crescendo just ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls due in April-May. However, as D-Day for the temple’s inauguration draws closer, the BJP appears to be putting to test another trick for further consolidation of its formidable and overarching Hindu vote bank.

A subtle but sure plan is now afoot by the BJP to aggressively court Dalits, particularly in Uttar Pradesh where the community constitutes nearly 22% of the electorate and has been divided in its electoral loyalties between Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the BJP and, albeit to a much lesser degree, also Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress.

Two major developments over the past week suggest that the BJP, which had for years relied on the propagation of Goswami Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas to build its political narrative around Lord Ram and the establishment of Ram Rajya in the country, is now keen to appropriate Maharishi Valmiki, the author of the epic Ramayana and a revered icon for Dalits, to further bolster the Hindutva narrative.

Appropriating Valmiki

First, the Yogi Adityanath-led UP government, through its chief secretary Durga Shankar Misra, issued an official circular directing all divisional commissioners and district magistrates in the state to organise weeklong religious events beginning January 14, at the exchequer’s expense, at select Valmiki temples, Ram temples and Hanuman temples across the state.

The circular emphasised that Valmiki’s Ramayana must be chanted at these events as its account of the life of Lord Ram is “clearly relevant and significant to today’s society”. The circular goes on to direct officials to organise “Ram katha, Ramayan paath, bhajan-kirtan and other related cultural programs… in select Valmiki, Hanuman and Ram temples across the state.”

Subsequently, Union Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia confirmed that the newly- constructed airport at Ayodhya, to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 30, will be named the Maharishi Valmiki International Airport.

The political motivations behind the BJP’s sudden emphasis on invoking Maharishi Valmiki, as opposed to the party’s hitherto propagation of Tulsidas, are not too difficult to decipher even if the epic penned by the former paints Ram as the mortal king of Ayodhya, an ideal human (maryada purshottam) but not infallible, while the latter props him up as a God.

Drawing flak from Dalits

Over the past year alone, Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas and the BJP’s emphatic reliance on it for electoral consolidation in the name of Lord Ram have both come under severe criticism from various backward caste and Dalit leaders.

In January this year, Chandra Shekhar, senior RJD leader and education minister of Opposition-ruled Bihar had stirred up a political row by equating the Ramcharitmanas with the regressive Manusmriti and MS Golwalkar’s viciously divisive ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ and asserting that Tulsidas’ take on the Ramayana “sowed the seeds of hatred and social divide” as it talked “against education for Dalits, backward castes and women.”

Days later, Swami Prasad Maurya, who had quit the BJP ahead of the 2022 UP Assembly polls and joined the Samajwadi Party, had echoed similar views and claimed that Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas “abuses backward castes, Dalits and tribals” while also demanding a ban on the use of a couplet from the religious text that he claimed, “defamed backward castes and Dalits”.

Hotly debated text

Among religious and literary scholars too, the Ramcharitmanas has always been a hotly debated text on account of the language it uses to allegedly glorify the socially discriminatory Varna system or to project shudras (Dalits) and women as being inferior to the upper castes and men, respectively.

Though several scholars have, over the years, defended the religious text by asserting that the defamatory couplets were either not the work of Tulsidas (indicating that these may have been added later when the Manas was published for mass circulation) or that even if they were, the author was not projecting his own beliefs but merely reflecting on the prevalent social order of the time.

However, couplets such as ‘Adham jaati mein vidya pae; bhayau jatha ahi doodh piyae’ (educating people of inferior castes will make them more venomous just as feeding a poisonous snake with milk, enhances its poison) or ‘mahabrishti chali futi kiyari; jimi swtantra bhaye bigarahi naari’ (like excessive rain can break barriers of an agricultural field, excessive freedom can violate a woman’s dignity) or the oft-quoted ‘dhol, ganwaar, shudra, pashu, naari; ye sab taadan ke adhikari’ (drums, boors, shudras, animals and women, all are fit to be beaten) have continued to polarise views on the Ramcharitmanas.

Eyeing electoral dividends

With women already an important voting bloc of the BJP and the party also stridently wooing Dalits and backward classes, hoping that these communities would choose Modi over an Akhilesh, Tejashwi, Nitish, Mayawati or even Mallikarjun Kharge, come Lok Sabha polls, it is not difficult to imagine why the saffron party wants to shift its dependence from Tulsidas to Valmiki.

Valmiki’s Ramayana may project Ram as a hallowed mortal, but a mortal nonetheless, and may not be entirely bereft of glorifying references to the Varna System. However, for the BJP, these are challenges that are easily surmountable for, one, irrespective of Valmiki’s portrayal of Ram as human, he is already worshipped by millions of Hindus as a God and, two, unlike the Ramcharitmanas, the Ramayana is rarely quoted chapter and verse, much less translated verbatim from the original Sanskrit, by the hoi polloi or even the Brahmin elite.

For the BJP, there are clear electoral dividends to be reaped by invoking Valmiki. Across the Hindi heartland, the Ramayana’s author is among the most revered figures among Dalits and Valmiki temples can be found in almost every other village or settlement that has a concentration of the community. Celebrating Valmiki is, thus, a tactic straight out of the BJP’s political playbook of identifying, honouring and appropriating social, cultural and religious icons of different communities.

Aiming for Dalit votes

It may also be no coincidence that pushing Valmiki to the centre stage of the Ram Mandir jamboree comes at a time when the buzz about the Opposition’s INDIA bloc projecting Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, a Dalit, as its PM face against Modi has gained some traction.

With Mayawati, the so-far the preeminent Dalit leader in UP, struggling to keep her BSP politically relevant, the future of political leadership for the Dalit community has been a hotly discussed topic. Though Kharge put a prompt end to allies Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal’s effort at pivoting him as the bloc’s PM candidate, there are many others in the Congress and the wider Opposition who believe that a Dalit leading their charge against Modi in the Lok Sabha battle could swing a large chunk of Dalit votes across the country, and even in UP, in favour of the INDIA parties.

The BJP has made its move and it cannot be ruled out that the prime minister, a formidable spin doctor himself, may use the inauguration of the Ayodhya airport and the events around the Ram Mandir inauguration to tell the Dalit community that ‘for the first time in 75 years’, instead of Babar, Akbar, Aurangzeb or even the British colonial masters, it was a Dalit icon, Maharishi Valmiki, who was being celebrated and that Modi had made it possible.

(The writer is a Lucknow-based journalist, political commentator and author of 'Yogi Adityanath: Religion, Politics and Power, The Untold Story'.)

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