Sahi Ram, a local in his late 40s, guards the metre-wide well, which is just a little more than a pool of water in Haryana’s Mughalwali village.
For chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar this puddle, the “only evidence” of the mythological river Saraswati, has become a symbol of identity politics.
The BJP government in Haryana claimed in May last year that it has discovered the mythological river Saraswati at Mughalwali in Yamunanagar district, where a strong current of underground water was found at the depth of seven feet. The discovery at the site 250 km from the national capital followed excavation of the purported course of Saraswati, a job for which Khattar has pledged `50 crore. Early this year, it also renamed Mustafabad town as Saraswati Nagar.
Khattar completed two years as CM on October 24. A Punjabi CM of a Jat-dominated state where the BJP had never ruled on its own, he swept to power despite lack of popular support from Jats and Muslims who comprise 35% of the state’s population. Khattar has since tried to create a non-Jat, non-Muslim constituency for the BJP in Haryana, which also includes Scheduled Caste (20%), Sikhs (5%) and non-Jats. He has the reputation as a ‘clean’ politician, who does not indulge in corrupt practices. A majority of population is happy that he did not give in to the Jat agitation for reservation.
A former RSS pracharak, Khattar’s two years in power has drawn criticism for its Hindutva push. Rejuvenating Saraswati — which finds mention in Rig Vedas — is one such move. There are skeptics. “The claim to discovering Saraswati should be backed with scientific research,” argues AR Choudhri, professor with Geology Department of Kurukshetra University. But, Sahi Ram is pleased. “Only Khattar saab could do this. He is sincere.”
Khattar did not stop at Saraswati. His government has planned a grand ‘Gita Jayanti Mahotsav’ at Kurukshetra in December. Delegates have also been invited from abroad and state government expects a footfall of 15 lakh during the week-long event starting December 6. The celebration is to commemorate a more than 5,000-year-old event when Lord Krishna revealed the Bhagvad Gita to Arjuna in the battlefields of Kurukshetra.
“This event reflects the strong cultural and religious heritage of Haryana. What is wrong if it is honouring that?” asks Saurav Chaudhary, member of Kurukshetra Development Board.
Khattar has courted religious leaders, Muslims being only exception. “Haryana was perfect breeding ground for the BJP/RSS-style politics,” says Prof Pramod Kumar, director of Chandigarh based Institute for Development and Communication. “The rise of Narendra Modi also helped the BJP expand in Haryana”. The Arya Samaj had great influence over Haryana. It is the second only to Rajasthan in terms of vegetarian population. Census figures suggest their proportion to be in the vicinity of 70%. There is also a campaign against alcohol in Yamunagar, Karnal, Panipat, Sonepat and Kurukshetra districts.
Within months of assuming power, Khattar set up a board to protect cows and crackdown on those smuggling cattle to neighbouring districts of UP with high Muslim population. “The number of cows loitering on streets has increased. But, nobody minds,” insists Manish, a PhD student in the department of Electronic Sciences at Kurukshetra University. “Number of gaushalas has also increased,” his colleague Sumit chips in. But Khattar had other plans too.
He developed proximity with religious sects, and often opened coffers for them. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of Dera Sachcha Sauda was donated `50 lakh in August for promotion of sports. In September, BJP general secretaries Arun Singh and Kailash Vijayavargiya attended the promotion of his film at a stadium in the national capital.
Khattar had earlier appointed Baba Ramdev as brand ambassador of Haryana and accorded him the status of cabinet minister, which he declined. Today, outlets of Patanjali Ayurveda have flooded markets in Haryana. On the first anniversary of his government last year, Khattar announced a number of sops for Scheduled Castes in the state, including laptop for girls and a Sanskrit university to be named after Maharishi Valmiki.
In August, the Khattar government invited Jain monk Tarun Sagar to address the Haryana Assembly. Tarun Sagar spoke about various topics but what raised eyebrows was the fact that he was in the nude. It was a first for the Haryana assembly, and perhaps another signpost of Khattar’s brand of identity politics.