Welcome to The India Fix by Shoaib Daniyal, a newsletter on Indian politics. To get it in your inbox every Monday, sign up here (click on “follow”). Have feedback, interesting links or political memes? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Thursday, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat delivered a call to review Hindu texts. “Earlier, we did not have scriptures; it was passed down through oral tradition,” Bhagwat said. “Later, scriptures were developed and some selfish persons added some wrong things to them.”
While he did not directly mention it, Bhagwat’s comments immediately created controversy given that they come at a time when there is a heated political war over sections of the Ramcharitmanas in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Ramcharitmanas is the Awadhi retelling of the Sanskrit epic poem, Ramayana.
Early in January, the education minister of Bihar and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader, Chandra Shekhar, said Ramcharitmanas “spreads hatred in the society”.
“Lower caste people were not allowed to access education and it is said in the Ramcharitmanas that lower caste people become poisonous by getting an education as a snake becomes after drinking milk,” the Indian Express quoted him, going on to compare the text to the Manusmriti and Bunch of Thoughts by MS Gowalkar.
The Manusmriti is an ancient text of Hindu law which is attacked by proponents of caste equity given it is held responsible for the caste system. In 1927, BR Ambedkar burnt the book as part of his campaign against untouchability. Golwalkar is the second head of the RSS and one of Hindutva’s most prominent ideologies.
Almost immediately after that, Samajwadi Party leader Swami Prasad Maurya also criticised the text, arguing that “abuses” Dalits, Adivasis and backward castes by terming them “shudras” – the lowest tier in Hinduism’s fourfold caste system.
It soon became clear that Maurya’s comments had the backing of this party. The Samajwadi Party made him national general secretary even as he was under attack for his comments. Soon party chief Akhilesh Yadav took up the issue himself, asking Chief Minister Adityanath to translate parts of the Ramcharitmanas into Hindi in the Assembly and explain who are the “shudras” the text mentions.
The Awadhi bible
Composed in the 16th century by Goswami Tulsidas, the Ramcharitmanas was part of a wave of vernacular retellings of the Ramayana in mediaeval India. At the time, Tuslidas was attacked by Brahmins for not writing in Sanskrit leading to the anguished poet claiming he could “survive on alms and sleep in a mosque”. However, it was precisely this use of Awadhi that made the Ramcharitmanas a household text. Not only is it arguably the Awadhi language’s greatest work, its influence spread far beyond Awadh or central Uttar Pradesh. Across North India, the Ramcharitmanas “is equivalent to the Bible for most Hindus”, to quote writer Pavan K Verma.
Given its immense popularity, critiquing the Ramcharitmanas in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is a bold move. The high stakes possibly identifies just how much reliance parties such as the Samajwadi and Rashtriya Janata Dal are placing on the politics of caste equity as an ideological and electoral counter to the BJP’s Hindutva.
Before the Ramcharitmanas controversy broke out, the Bihar government – led by a coalition of the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal – had launched a caste census.
Caste was regularly counted in the census during the colonial period. However, the practice was dropped after independence, much to the chagrin of backward caste leaders. They alleged that by not measuring caste, the Indian state was unable to properly fulfil its welfare role, thus allowing a small number of upper castes to corner a disproportionate share of benefits. This argument was further turbocharged by the fact that the Modi government instituted a quota for upper castes on the basis of income in 2019 which was further upheld by the Supreme Court in 2022.
From Ramcharitmanas to the caste census, why is the Opposition focusing on the politics of backward caste identity as a way to counter the BJP?
The answer to this lies in one of the Modi-led BJP’s greatest successes: creating a large Other Backward Class vote bank in the Hindi belt states under the larger umbrella of Hindutva.
In 2002, political theorist Kancha Ilaiah predicted that Narendra Modi, the OBC chief minister of Gujarat, was one day going to be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. At that time, it was a striking call given that Modi was under attack for communal violence in his state. But Ilaiah had analytically worked his prediction out by observing the fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-led Sangh Parivar was paying close attention to OBCs. More than a decade later, Ilaiah’s prediction came true and Modi became prime minister.
Much of the BJP’s remarkable dominance since 2014 has been powered by OBCs, especially in the Hindi belt. Modi, for example, has made sure to highlight his caste background using claims of being from a working-class background and selling tea. “Who will sell tea in Indian streets? Mostly backward classes and Muslims,” Ilaiah explained. “If Dalits sell tea nobody will drink. Even now, that is the situation in villages. Brahmins or Baniyas are not selling tea. So, who is this chaiwala? The chaiwala is a backward caste-man. He was putting across that.”
Using this, Modi transformed the BJP, historically seen as a “Brahmin-Baniya” party, to one that got most of its votes from OBCs. Data shows that in critical states like Uttar Pradesh, many OBC communities vote for the BJP in the same proportion as Brahmins and Baniyas.
Versus to plus
In the early 1990s, Hindi belt politics was often described using the phrase “Mandal versus kamandal”. The former refers to the Mandal Commission, that bought in OBC quotas, and the latter refers to a water pot carried by Hindu holy men, a metonym for Hindu nationalism. Under Modi, however, the BJP threw out the “versus” and combined Mandal and kamandal.
Backward Class-led parties such as the Samajwadi and Rashtriya Janata Dal have suffered from this, haemorrhaging votes to the BJP. Hence, this strong pitch to foreground the politics of caste identity as a way to break the BJP’s OBC vote bank.
Will it work? As my colleague Arunabh Saikia had noted in a guest post on the India Fix, Hindutva has made deep inroads into OBC communities. Rolling back the clock to the 1990s will not be easy. However, since it is the only ideological weapon that the Opposition has in the Hindi states – unlike a Bengal or Tamil Nadu, there can be no linguistic nationalism – it is not surprising that they are upping the ante on it.