Thirty years ago, a 10,000-km long Rath Yatra changed the country’s political conversation from Mandal to Mandir. In 2020, soil from different Dalit temples is being sought for the foundation of the same Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.
And in between 1990 and 2020, lies a movement that saw bloodshed, court battles, emergence of a Hindu nationalist party in the Centre and a change in India’s social and secular fabric. But what role does caste play in the Ram Mandir movement and why have the BJP and its allies tried to galvanise the backward castes during their quest for building a Hindu temple?
From Mandal to Mandir, the Caste Link in Advani’s Rath Yatra
In 1990, the VP Singh government accepted the Mandal commission report that recommended 27 percent reservation for Other Backward Classes or the non-Dalit lower caste Hindus at all levels of government service. Upper caste Hindus rose in protest against the government’s decision, leaving the Hindu vote bank in splits.
The BJP, which had provided external support to the VP Singh government, had to take a stand after a Delhi University student tried to self immolate during the agitation against the Mandal report.
Experts say, BJP president LK Advani embarked upon a 10,000 km long Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya in a bid to change the conversation from caste and quota to religion and Ram. The Rath Yatra ended with Advani’s arrest, a politically unstable and communally divided India and a massive momentum to the Ram Mandir movement, spearheaded by the RSS and the VHP.
‘Want to See Ram Mandir Before I Die’: Dalit Kar Sevak Who Laid Foundation Stone in 1989
A year before the Rath Yatra, on 9 November 1989- the date chosen by the RSS and the VHP for Shilanyas or the foundation laying ceremony of the proposed temple - a Dalit kar sevak was chosen to be the one laying the stone. Ignoring the wishes of several saints who queued up for the Ram Mandir Shilanyas, VHP party member and a native of Bihar’s Samastipur, Kameshwar Chaupal laid the first brick of Ram Mandir.
“Not just thirty years back, Dalits and OBCs are ready to fight for Ram even now. Those who say the Ram Mandir agitation is anti-Dalit are disillusioned.”Kameshwar Chaupal
Kameshwar Chaupal, who had tried his luck in politics in Bihar but couldn’t make a mark, remains a devoted VHP supporter. “I have dedicated my life to the Ram Mandir movement.” He is the only Dalit member in the Ram Mandir Trust, formed after the November Supreme Court verdict to oversee the construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
I was a member of the VHP in 1984 when the resolution to liberate the birthplace of Lord Ram was taken at a Dharam Sansad organised in Delhi. Since then, I have been a part of the Ayodhya movement. And I want to see a Ram temple being constructed before I die.”
Dalit Temples to Send Soil For Ram Mandir ‘Bhoomi Poojan’
Before the 5 August Bhoomi Poojan, the VHP collected soil from major Valmiki temples and from places such as Nagpur where Babasaheb Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, Sant Ravidas temple in Kashi, Tantya Bhil temple in Madhya Pradesh, Maharshi Valmiki Ashram in Sitamarhi and Valmiki Ashram in Delhi where Mahatma Gandhi spent over a month.
VHP Spokesperson Vinod Bansal said, "It is not like we are reaching out to Dalit temples specifically. We are collecting soil from prominent Hindu temples across the country. We see no distinction, VHP works with the motto of brotherhood among all Hindus.”
Bansal said several priests are being trained from various communities, including Dalits, for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. He said, “We want contribution from all communities. Even Lord Ram had interacted with people from different communities including those from the backward castes.”
‘Always Pushed Dalit Kar Sevaks as Foot Soldiers During Violence’
When the Ayodhya movement was gaining peak leading up to the Babri Masjid demolition, several leaders from the backward castes, like Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar and Sadhvi Ritambhara, were in the forefront.
Although there hasn’t been any empricial study done on the sociological composition of the Kar Sevaks in the Ram Mandir agitation, many experts believe that Dalits and members from Backward Castes were used by the Sangh to play the role of foot soldiers in the movement.
One such example is Bhanwar Meghwanshi, a Dalit Kar Sevak who once wanted to bring down the Babri Masjid but now feels disenchanted with the Sangh and the entire Mandir movement. In his book, ‘Main ek Karsevak Tha’, Meghwanshi talks about how Dalits in his village in Rajasthan were mobilised at school level against Muslims.
He told The Quint, “RSS is definitely a casteist organisation. If you see the RSS cadre, most of them are anti-Dalit, anti-Ambedkar and anti-Constitution. There is no Dalit or Adivasi in the decision-making body of the RSS because they are not allowed to rise to that level. Back then, they had tried to put Dalits-Adivasis in forefront of violence but held onto leadership positions. Even now, the hierarchy remains the same.”
Citing an example, Meghwanshi said, “ (In 1990) When we left Bhilwara for Ayodhya, till Ajmer there were senior VHP and RSS functionaries who were accompanying us. When we took the train from Ajmer for Ayodhya, they made us board the train but didn’t get on it themselves. When I asked “What happened, even they were supposed to come with us?” they said that they will get more people and meet us in Ayodhya. Later, we were arrested but they never came back.”
‘They Care About Votes, Not Dalits’
While Bansal claimed the VHP has constantly made efforts to uplift the oppressed castes, many experts believe their actions are “symbolic” and are aimed at “vote bank politics.”
Congress Dalit leader Udit Raj, who was earlier with the BJP, said “They (the Hindutva groups) don’t love Dalits, they love votes.”
“If they loved Dalits, they would have made them part of management of Trust or given some leadership role in the Ayodhya movement.”Udit Raj, Congress Leader
He added, “A lot of Backward castes have supported the movement through the years because religion is the opium for the masses. Most of the people from backward castes, due to lack of opportunities, are not enlightened or aware.”
Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer and activist, said, “They are trying to fool Dalits to consolidate the Hindu vote bank. There is no history of RSS taking part in any anti-caste agitation.”
“Has RSS ever questioned the Manusmriti? Whenever Dalits have questioned, they have attacked Dalits. RSS has no history of anti-caste movements. They have never fought or acted against untouchability. They do these symbolic acts like PM Modi washing feet of Dalit sanitation workers during Kumbh Mela.”
Prasad added, “All year round, we see reports of Dalits being assaulted over temple entry. In 2016, a BJP MP in Uttarakhand was assaulted by a mob of ‘upper caste men’ for entering into a temple with Dalits. Caste outreach programmes of the Sangh and the allied groups are hypocritical.”