Ayodhya: Over the past fortnight, the sight of those walking along the road from Lucknow to Ayodhya is a fair indication of the events that lie ahead on January 22. The numbers are forcing the government to call a halt to those making the journey on foot. Devotees, some with their face painted to portray the Vanar sena of Rama, have been accompanying the religious paraphernalia headed to the temple complex.
Interspersed among the sadhus and ascetics are a number of young men, many from the non-dominant Other Backward Classes (OBC) community or the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs). In the politics of the supposedly new nation being unveiled on January 22, their presence is significant, albeit a largely unremarked story.
While the main temple is dedicated to a Kshatriya King, there is a role for a supporting cast, such as the ancillary temple for Nishad Raj Guha, the king of the boatmen, who befriended Ram during his exile. Guha is now regarded as the progenitor of various riverine OBC communities collectively known as Nishad. This vision of Hinduism doesn’t challenge the Varna system, where the Shudra OBC, Dalits, and Tribals are meant to play a supporting role to ‘upper caste’ heroes. However, it does provide space and recognition to several communities that, until that point, had received little political acknowledgment in independent India.
Near Rudauli, about 50 kilometres from Faizabad town, we engage in a conversation with Vikas Kumar Vishwakarma. He is one of eight men in their mid-30s taking a break for tea, with plans to reach Ayodhya “well in time.” Further, no further explanation is needed, not on this road, where every few metres, visual imagery in saffron, of all sorts, heralds January 22 almost as a day of Hindu reckoning.
“Even the road to Ayodhya is feeling very important these days. That is how auspicious these times are,” says Vikas, as he reapplies a yellow paste on his forehead, which will then be inscribed with ‘Shri Ram’.
Another member of the group, Rakesh Vishwakarma, interrupts to explain why he is going to Ayodhya. “Modiji has said the day of the ‘Pran Pratishta‘ will be a new Independence Day for Bharat. For our Vishwakarma community, it is a matter of an even greater pride as we are the creators of the idol at the temple and the prime minister acknowledges our community at every opportunity.”
The word samman or respect carries a potent charge and this is the perception the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine is providing them. Hailing from the neighboring Barabanki, Rakesh recently joined this group just a few hours ago. “When I saw my people marching towards Ayodhya, I left my work and decided to accompany them.”
The parallel between January 22, the consecration day of the Ram temple, and India’s Independence Day was drawn not by the Prime Minister, as Rakesh believed, but by Champat Rai, the General Secretary of Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Trust. In an interview to the news agency ANI, Rai said, “January 22, 2024, is as important as August 15, 1947. It is equally important as getting Kargil back, and as much as the detention of a lakh soldiers was important in 1971.”
‘Not about rajniti, but aastha‘
This group of men from the Vishwakarma community, one of Uttar Pradesh’s most backward castes, seemed to endorse the comparison. Vikas, aged 28, is the youngest in the group. He disagreed with this perspective. However, he emphasised why this date has been put on a different pedestal. “I don’t believe this is India’s Independence Day. The Ram Mandir is not about rajniti (politics), it is about aastha (faith).”
Vikas has pursued a degree from a polytechnical institution and has been looking for a job without success. The COVID-19 pandemic, he says, was very difficult for his extended family, most of whom followed their caste occupation but were left with very little work during those years.
“People think we make statues, but that’s a romantic view. The staple of our work is masonry,” he says.
“If aastha is taking you to Ayodhya, where does rajniti take you,” I ask. Without a pause, he says he’s a BJP voter and then feels the need to explain, “Narendra Modi has given our community samman. He even invited a Vishwakarma to hoist a flag outside the new Parliament on his birthday.”
I ask about tangible socio-economic benefits, whether the community has benefited from initiatives like the Prime Minister Vishwakarma Yojana, a scheme launched in September 2023 aimed at supporting artisans “who work with their hands and tools.” The scheme covers 18 trades, including carpenters, blacksmiths and masons, all linked to caste occupations associated with the EBC and Dalit communities. However, most of the people in this group had never heard of the scheme, and those who had said they had were unclear on what it offered.
Later, I spoke to Ram Chandra Jangra, who has been instrumental in pushing the Vishwakarma Yojana from the BJP. He is a Rajya Sabha MP from Haryana. He agreed the scheme had not been properly implemented and its budget needed to be enhanced. He went on to add that the Vishwakarma community stands firmly with the BJP as the community always had strong Hindu ethos, and now the party has worked to bring them into their fold.
He was convinced that even those Vishwakarma leaders who have gone to other parties would return to the BJP. He cited the example of Modi, who has personally invited the Gujarat-based architect of the temple, Chandrakant Sompura, and his family for the Bhoomi Pujan. “People remember that Shah Jahan got the Taj Mahal built or the Birlas got temples made, but this is the first time, the name of the architects will be remembered, a family from our community. Log bhaavnaon se bhi nirmit hote hai (People are also constructed out of sentiment).”
The Sompuras, a prosperous family with prestigious large-scale contracts, have little in common with the lives of any of the Vishwarkarmas I spoke to as they made their way to Ayodhya. This, though, is not of relevance. Even if the claim of their association with the Vishwakarmas is up for question, it is the perceived idea of a member of the community being accorded recognition which stays. Certainly, the conversation with the group made it evident that every symbolic act, gesture, and statement which invoked the Vishwakarma community had resonated with the community much as it was designed to.
Our conversation with Rakesh and his group is interrupted by the sounds of a procession, with chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ increasing in volume as it gets nearer. There is a frenzy of excitement among those gathered at the roadside. One man shouts, “This is the largest agarbatti (incense stick), made for the Ram temple. It’s come all the way from Gujarat, I saw it on TV.”
Blaring music, from speakers mounted on a long lorry, adorned with images from the Ramayana, with large cut-outs of Modi and Amit Shah up front, the procession makes its way. The “largest agarbatti”, too large for the vehicle, sticks out from the back of the vehicle, and is flanked by grown men with their mouths painted red to symbolise Ram’s Vanar Sena.
Rakesh and his group say a hurried goodbye to walk along with the procession. Almost every passer-by, as well as our driver from Lucknow, is aware of the agarbatti’s journey from Baroda, where it had been made by a farmer. The breathless reporting by the mainstream media has more than ensured this.
This is but one among a series of such processions winding its way to Ayodhya.
‘BJP knows where to place the emphasis’
A few days earlier, a procession from Jalesar in the Etah district made its way to the town, carrying what was being described as the largest ghanta (bell), six-feet tall, weighting 2,100 kilograms, supposedly made of Ashtadhatu, which was to be placed at the main temple. The bell had been dispatched by S.P. Baghel, BJP MP from Agra. Several Facebook posts spoke of the event as a matter of special pride for the Pal-Dangar communities, traditionally known as shepherd castes, of which Baghel is seen as a prominent representative.
In the lead up to the January 22 event, among the endless rituals and ceremonies being tracked by the mainstream media, the series of events held by caste groups and leaders of the most backward castes have largely been overlooked.
The RSS has a long history of engaging with these communities, and over the last decade, the BJP has scripted its meteoric rise and return to power by mobilising the votes of ati pichri jaatis, or the EBCs. This strategy involves carefully cultivating bhavna (faith), mythology, and iconography. The party knows where to place the emphasis. It has highlighted the Vishwakarma as temple architects, or the Prajapati or kumhar (the potter community) linked to the temple through the diyas (earthen lamps) they craft, despite this being only one aspect of their work and earnings.
Anil Prajapati, convenor of the Prajapati-Kumhar Samanvay Samiti, echoes this idea, “The prime minister has asked every household to light a diya on January 22. It has given our community work like never before.”
He tells me the Samanway Samiti was formed on December 23 when 83 Prajapati sangathans from across the country and across party lines came together at Ambedkar Bhawan in Delhi with an aim to do ekikaran, a term used for the attempt to bring related sub-castes under one community platform. He was elected national convenor, and while he claims the Samiti is non-political, he calls himself “BJP-minded” and says his community has long been moving towards the party. The Samiti organised a “Prajapati Khichdi” in Ayodhya on January 16 in the run up to January 22.
Like most such community leaders, he does not want it to seem that their supporters can be taken for granted through mere acts of recognition.
“Our community voted for the BJP but just the temple will not assure the party our votes. In the lead up to the elections, we will put our two dominant demands to the BJP – firstly, to give us reservations in the Scheduled Caste category, which we deserve, and secondly, Lok Sabha bhagyadari (participation), which we do not have [currently].”
These are familiar demands of several marginalised OBC communities, but amidst the fervour and emotion, they have taken a backseat.
The paradox of importance and samman, overlooking gains and losses
At the Kumhar basti, located in Bachra Sultanpur, Ayodhya, where in every house, potters are at work, their wares displayed on the cemented platorms in front of their homes, Parag Prajapati says, “Modiji has made all Hindus proud by giving back the temple. For the Kumhar community, he has also given us more earnings.”
Like Anil, Parag is convinced that Modi had the Prajapati caste in mind when he asked the nation to light diyas on January 22. As he ends his statement, several other potters join in with a chorus of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Ram Ayodhya laut rahein hai (Ram is returning to Ayodhya)’.
Even those from the EBC communities, who are not wholehearted participants in the fervour around the temple, can see how potent is its impact. “Earlier, it used to be Mandal versus Kamandal, but Shah and Modi have absorbed more than half of the Mandal into Kamandal, a journey in which the Ram temple has taken centre stage,” says Amarjeet Nishad, who lives at the Mallha basti, in Nirmali Kund, on the banks of the river Sarayu.
Anil was evoking the history of the Ram temple movement of the 1990s, which initially brought the EBCs into the Sangh and BJP fold, in contrast to the dominant OBCs, such as the Yadavs, who supported parties of their own. During that period, the BJP intensified its focus on the non-dominant OBC vote, accentuating the divide between the two categories of OBC communities.
The Ram temple now acts to subsume even these contradictions. A considerable number of dominant OBCs also respond to this appeal. This strategy goes beyond electoral politics, especially for the Sangh. It serves to consolidate a broader Hindu identity, a more homogenous identity, aided by the notion of a common Muslim enemy, which has always been a subtext of the Ram temple movement and its assault on the Babri Masjid.
Amarjeet Nishad was a ward member from this area, but though his term ended two years ago, there have been no elections since then. A Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) member, influenced by Kanshi Ram’s work, he would like to see “Bahujan” politics, but he says there are now few takers for that vichardhara (idealogy) in his community.
“My community members, people in my own family are not able to see our own poverty. What they’re responding to is Modi’s visit to a Majhi home where he invited Meera Majhi to attend the opening of the Ram temple. They are celebrating the BJP’s building of a religious-tourist circuit at Sringaverpur, where it installed a massive statue of the meeting of Ram and Nishad Raj Guha, our king. There’s also jubilation at the news that the main complex of the Ram temple at Ayodhya will also have a temple for Nishad Raj.”
He points to one side of the Nishad basti, which was demolished to widen the road for the sacred 14 Kosi route. The tea stalls owned by the fishermen community are also going to be razed soon, says Amarjeet, adding the move would cause more people in his community to be displaced and without a livelihood.
“This is the tragedy of marginalised communities, any sense of importance and samman makes us oblivious to what we have gained and what we have lost.”
“Our community always revered Nishad Raj, but now we see our King, our Lord, being given a place in the mainstream, in Ram’s own temple. It has a huge resonance. It is hard to focus on ground realities in the midst of all this,” says Amarjeet.
BJP’s brand of politics: a mix of religion and myth
The BJP’s political strategy of using the Ramayana epic is most easily implemented among communities who figure in the epic, even in passing. The Sangh parivar has long engaged with the Nishad communities, using this iconography. They form a sizable part of the non-Yadav OBCs, which the BJP has successfully targeted for its electoral success. For instance, the 2017 UP election was the culmination of the BJP’s work, and they won on the back of the EBC votes. This is a vote over which the BJP exercises overwhelming control in UP, and as the recent elections showed, in the adjacent state of Madhya Pradesh.
This outreach is evident everywhere in Ayodhya, even when the connection of the community with the epic is not direct. In the heart of the city, along the main Rampath, the Mahant at the Sri Ram Janki Temple tells us of the work being done to refurbish the building.
It acts as a Panchayat Ghar for the Maurya community, and the Mahant tells us the UP deputy chief minister, Keshav Prasad Maurya, had recently visited to take stock of the rennovations being funded by the tourism department. “Our leader told us the Maurya community should lead the celebrations for the Ram temple. Keshavji is the deputy chief minister and he is personally involved. What can be a matter of greater pride?”
Maurya is in charge of cleanliness of Ayodhya in the run up to the January 22 event and images of him removing waste material from drains and sweeping the streets, which ordinally would have evoked questions about why such a task had been assigned to marginalised castes, becomes a source of pride in this context.
Even those leaders from the EBC communities who, for now, stand against the BJP, recognise the impact of this brand of politics and its potent mix with religion and myth. Sanjay Chauhan, is the founder of the Jan Janwadi Party, and is currently in alliance with the Samajwadi Party.
He says, “In the garb of religious nationalism, the BJP is perpetrating several economic injustices. It is undermining reservations, it is eroding laws to protect labour, it is weakening the constitution and democracy.” But then, he goes on to admit that even among his Noniya community, identified with the traditional occupation of salt making, the Ayodhya Ram temple has had a potent resonance.
The giant agarbatti, the massive temple bell, the renovated Panchayat Ghars, the call for diyas to be lit on January 22, the statues of Nishadraj and Shabari Mata, may be only one part of the grand event being staged on the day and for the months to come, but it is an important part. The BJP is not just building a temple, it is also consolidating the gains of three decades of work.
Disclaimer: Ayodhya Ram Temple: A Stage for the Visible Display of BJP's Extremely Backward Class Politics by Radhika Bordia - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view