Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah on Wednesday distanced himself from the controversial attempt by a saffron outfit to divide holy men attending the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Ujjain into caste lines after facing flak from several quarters.
Deendayal Vichar Manch, a saffron outfit, had announced on May 2 that Shah would march about 1.5 km from Valmiki Dham to Ramghat along with Dalit saints and then take a “dip of harmony” at Ramghat, the main ghat on the Kshipra river, and also honour them at the ongoing festival.
Speaking at Valmiki Dham, which comprises predominantly Dalit followers of Sant Valmiki, Shah did not mention the term “Dalit sant” in his entire five-minute speech. Ramghat is the grand and main ghat of the Kshipra River and attracts a lot of attention while the ghat at Valmiki Dham is more ordinary in comparison.
The event was being seen as a part of the BJP’s larger plans to connect with Dalits with twin objectives. First, to address the sense of alienation among the community that constitutes about 17% of the country’s total population. Second, break the popular impression of the BJP being a party that provides little space to Dalits.
Several prominent seers including Shankaracharya Swaroopanand and Akhara Parishad president Narendra Giri had strongly opposed the ‘samrasta snan’ saying that there was no caste among saints and organising such an event would only divide the society.
They had said caste of a saint or pilgrim is not asked during any Kumbh and anyone could take a holy dip. The BJP should not eye political gains, the seers had warned.
The BJP diluted the emphasis on the word ‘Dalit sant’ in the subsequent days after it faced criticisms. The party also cleverly withdrew itself from being in the forefront of organising the event.
Shah did honour around 100 saints, mostly Dalits, and also took the symbolic bath with the chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and other seers at the Valmiki Dham ghat. While Chouhan and the others went neck deep in the water, Shah remained fully clothed and put a sprinkle of water on his head.
Interestingly, the name of the bath, which was earlier billed as ‘samrasta snan’ (dip of harmony) was not mentioned in the final invitation card and was replaced with Sant Samagam (congregation of saints).
The head of Valmiki Dham, Umesh Nath, even announced that the event was organised by them and they had invited Shah. The presence of Akhara Parishad head Narendra Giri and Sant Avadeshanand, a prominent seer, at the event showed that things were sorted out.
Dalits are crucial in the BJP’s scheme of things as the party plans to expand its footprint across India.
Scheduled Castes account for over 20% of the total population of Uttar Pradesh that will vote next year to elect a new government. The BJP is desperate to wean the SCs away from the Bahujan Samaj Party in the state.
Punjab (32%) and Himachal Pradesh (25%) are two other states with significant SC population. Punjab votes early next year while Himachal Pradesh will vote in 2017.
From attempts to appropriate the legacy of Dr BR Ambedkar to lifting the social and economic status of Dalits, the Narendra Modi regime has its eyes set on SCs.
The government also notified the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Rules, 2016, on April 14 that made stronger provisions for the protection of SCs and STs from atrocities.