India's Constitution allows its citizens the freedom of conscience, and confers the right to free profession, practise and propagation of religion. The freedom of conscience means that the citizens have the right to decide for themselves what gods they want to believe in, what gods they don't want to believe in and also whether to believe in God at all.
The Bharatiya Janata Party's Delhi unit and its chief Adesh Gupta, though, do not seem to agree. If people publicly state that they don't want to have faith in Hindu gods and would choose not to worship them, the BJP, it seems, thinks those people are anti-Hindu and are spreading hate.
Gupta, on Friday, 7 October, went around town accusing the Aam Aadmi Party, its chief and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, and cabinet minister Rajendra Pal Gautam of insulting Hindu gods. He took press conferences, appeared on prime-time news, and also filed a police complaint against Kejriwal and Gautam.
What Is the BJP's Problem?
Delhi cabinet minister Rajendra Pal Gautam, who himself is a Buddhist, had, on Tuesday, was part of a mass conversion ceremony of Dalits from Hinduism to Buddhism on the occasion of Vijayadashami, which was being celebrated as Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Din by the followers of Dr B R Ambedkar. The event was attended by about 10,000 people.
BJP leaders have been sharing a short clip from that event in which Ambedkar's great grand-nephew and the president of the Buddhist Society of India, Rajratna Ambedkar, can be seen giving three vows to the attendees. Those three vows were as follows:
I shall have no faith in Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara, nor shall I worship them.
I shall have no faith in Rama and Krishna, who are believed to be incarnation of God, nor shall I worship them.
I shall have no faith in Gauri, Ganapati and other gods and goddesses of Hindus, nor shall I worship them.
These three vows are part of the 22 vows that Ambedkar famously gave to his lakhs of followers on 14 October 1956 when he renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism with his followers. If one reads these vows, it is clear that there is no insult or denigration of Hindu deities in them.
Ambedkar, whether he wanted or not, was considered a Hindu by the larger society before his conversion and so were his followers. Many of them or their families also believed in Hindu gods, worshipped them, and followed Brahmanical traditions, to a greater or lesser extent, in their day-to-day life. Hence, it was important for Ambedkar to explicitly ask them to move away from their former belief system and religious practices. The 22 vows devised by him served that purpose.
Most of the people who convert to Buddhism in India in contemporary times come from Hindu families. Hence, the vows still serve an important function from the point of view of Ambedkarite Buddhist intelligentsia and religious leaders. Also, this is not the first time that the vows have been recited in public, nor is it an uncommon occurrence.
Conversion to Buddhism Undercuts BJP's Politics
It is no surprise that the conversion event has angered the BJP. The BJP's entire ideology and political campaign are geared towards the Hindu voter base. But if that voter base sees reduction in numbers, it can seriously affect the party's electoral calculations. Buddhist Dalits are considered to be one of the most politically conscious and socially aware group. It is one section that the BJP would expect very few votes from. If the ranks of this group start filling, that's a deeply worrying prospect for the BJP.
Another thing that the BJP is worried about here is the image management. The party needs to make sure that nobody can undermine Hinduism as the invincibility of Hinduism is important for its ideological parent, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to convince people of its 'Hindu rashtra' project. Nobody wants to buy a house that already has cracks in it.
Competitive Hinduism of Political Parties
Arvind Kejriwal has often been accused of peddling 'soft Hindutva.' In May this year, he had promised free pilgrimages to the voters of Gujarat if he came to power in the Assembly elections, which are slated to be held later this year. In Diwali last year, the Delhi government had conducted a grand Diwali celebration, complete with a miniature replica of Ayodhya's Ram temple, in which Kejriwal and his wife had participated.
The Delhi chief minister wears his Hindu faith on his sleeves. Some political commentators cynically state that Kejriwal's profession of Hinduism is his well-crafted strategy to counter BJP's militant Hinduism.
In this backdrop, Kejriwal's own cabinet minister leading an event where thousands of people moved away from the Hindu faith and also made a grand declaration of it in the form of vows, has offered a great opportunity to the BJP to attack AAP. On Saturday, even Congress seems to have joined this bandwagon. The Delhi Youth Congress, sharing the short clip of the Vijayadashami event, tweeted, "Arvind Kejriwal's minister Rajendra Pal Gautam insulted Hindu gods and goddesses!"
The BJP's biggest achievement is that it has forced all parties to participate in competitive Hinduism – so much so that people exercising their freedom of conscience and their fundamental right to practise and propagate the religion of their choice is considered an insult to the Hindu faith.
India is a secular country and the State is constitutionally bound to treat all religions equally. However, the prime minister Narendra Modi's direct involvement in projects like Ayodhya's Ram temple has greatly undermined that principle. The way the BJP has behaved since it ascended to power in 2014 at the national level, the Hindu religion often seems to be on a higher pedestal than all other religions. No wonder the BJP leaders get angry when thousands of people proclaim, right in the heart of the national capital, that they no more have anything to do with the Hindu faith. However, the enraged BJP leaders, keeping their personal feelings aside, must respect the Constitution as well as the people who are merely exercising their constitutionally given rights.