Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday, 14 September, laid the foundation stone of a university in Uttar Pradesh (UP)'s Aligarh named after late Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh – a Marxist revolutionary, an alumnus of the Aligarh Muslim University, and a man staunchly against communal and divisive ideas, who opposed the Hindu Mahasabha and contested elections against the Jana Sangh, that later became the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
While it's great that the BJP is acknowledging contributions of a man like Pratap Singh, the last thing that the party should do is try to own his legacy and pretend that his beliefs resonate with the party's, at least till leaders like T Raja Singh and Kapil Mishra are aided and nurtured by the party itself.
Before getting into the ifs and buts of the whole matter, let's first take a look at the legacy of Raja Mahendra Pratap.
Who Was Raja Mahendra Pratap?
A Jat king hailing from the royal family of the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh, Raja Mahendra Pratap was a Marxist revolutionary, who was deeply involved with the Swadeshi movement and considered leaders like MK Gandhi, Dadabhai Naoroji and BG Tilak as his idols.
During World War I, Raja Mahendra Pratap established the first Provisional Government of India in Afghanistan with the help of his Muslim friends, declared himself as its president and announced a war against the colonial rule.
The British put a bounty on his head, and he took asylum in Japan from where he continued the freedom struggle.
Believed to be a strong opponent of communal ideas, the Raja tried to start a religion of his own and named it Prem Dharam or the Religion of Love and wrote a book about it.
Most interestingly, he was elected to the parliament in 1957 by defeating Bharatiya Jana Sangh candidate and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha polls.
However, in the recent past, he has been in the news several times when it comes to the Aligarh Muslim university
AMU, BJP and Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh
The BJP, including UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, has claimed on several occasions that Raja Mahendra Pratap's contributions to the AMU have been neglected for years. Adityanath had announced the setting up of a university in the Raja's name while campaigning for bypolls in 2019.
The Raja's descendant and great-grandson Charat Pratap on several occasions has also voiced his disappointment over the university not giving the Raja enough credit.
While it has time and again acknowledged the Raja's contribution of land, the university, as quoted by The Indian Express, has said that 'the bulk of the land was procured from the British Government which was in the process of closing down the Aligarh ‘Chhawani’ (cantonment) from which Sir Syed got 74 acres’ and that besides him, there were a large number of other donors.
In 2014, the BJP said that it would celebrate the birth anniversary of Raja Mahendra Pratap at the AMU gates on 1 December, if not allowed to celebrate it inside the university. The matter was eventually on the brink of taking a communal turn.
In 2018, a controversy erupted over the presence of Mohammad Ali Jinnah's portrait at the AMU campus, during which, claims of Raja Pratap's portrait not being there in the campus went viral. The claims were later found to be untrue but that gave a BJP minister from Haryana an opportunity to demand that the AMU should be renamed after Raja Mahendra Pratap.
But, why should the BJP trying to own Raja Mahendra Pratap's legacy be objected to?
BJP's Claim to Raja Mahendra Pratap's Legacy
Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh was a staunch opponent of communal ideas. His great-grandson Charat Pratap, speaking to The Hindu, said that Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh "was the kind of person who would say namaz in the morning, live a Buddhist life in the noon and listen to Ram and Krishna bhajans in the evening."
Meanwhile, Yogi Adityanath who was all pride and praise at today's event, recently made headlines for saying that before the BJP came to power in the state, "only those who said 'abba jaan' would claim all the ration that belonged to others."
While Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh was a staunch follower of MK Gandhi and his values of non-violence, lathis have been rained on farmers protesting against the three contentious farm laws in the national capital, several times in the past one year.
The list of contradictions between Raja Mahendra Pratap and several BJP leaders' actions, words and beliefs goes on, but that brings us to the most important question:
What Does the BJP Gain by Honouring Raja Mahendra Pratap's Legacy?
The Jat community has been celebrating the Raja's legacy for years, but several stakeholders of the community have been demanding better recognition for the Raja's contributions in India's freedom struggle. Just like it has done with several other leaders, the BJP is trying to spin the narrative that Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh, a tall leader of the Hindu Jats, was sidelined by the Congress and other political parties and was somebody who never got due credit for his contributions to the nation or the AMU, while the reality might be something else.
But, besides the BJP trying to play politics of narrative, it is also looking to use this opportunity to appease the Jats in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the elections next year. Specifically in Western UP, the resentment against the BJP government over farm laws has only grown gradually over the past one year. Several parties like the Congress, Rashtriya Lok Dal, and Samajwadi Party have tried to gain mileage from the anti-farm laws protests in the region.