In September 2021, while addressing his party’s national council meeting, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal declared that Bhagat Singh and B.R. Ambedkar were going to be the AAP’s “ param-aadarsh” (the guiding lights).
The appropriation of these two icons, however, does not seem to be providing the desired optics for the party’s political communication. Recent developments in Delhi call the AAP’s bluff. Rajendra Pal Gautam’s resignation as Social Welfare Minister and a local court’s acquittal of former AAP councillor Tahir Hussain in a case of alleged arson and other charges which saw him being expelled from the party, have raised questions about the AAP’s secular credentials. The AAP’s doublespeak and radio silence over the rising tide of hate crimes against Muslims and Dalits have also sullied its image.
With Assembly elections looming in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the AAP seems to be dodging issues that could pit it against the BJP. Unlike Ambedkar, who publicly left Hinduism for Buddhism along with at least half a million followers in Nagpur in 1956, and Bhagat Singh, a leftist and atheist who fiercely opposed communal politics and capitalist economy, Kejriwal has gone on record as saying, “We are following true Hindutva as we want to unite 130 crore people of the country.”
Soon after Rajendra Pal Gautam’s resignation in the face of a raging conversion controversy, he was summoned by Delhi Police in connection with a probe. In the conversion event on October 5, Gautam embraced Buddhism with close to 10,000 people and recited 22 Ambedkar vows. Notably, conversion, unless forced, is not prohibited by the Constitution. Incidentally, both Gautam, a Dalit, and Tahir Hussain did not get the kind of support that the AAP extended to party leaders like Satyendar Jain, who continues to be a Minister despite being in jail over corruption charges, or Durgesh Pathak , who was summoned by the Enforcement Directorate in the Delhi government’s liquor policy probe in September.
Gautam makes no bones about his displeasure over his party’s double standards. In his interviews following his resignation, he expressed concern over the AAP’s silence on growing incidents of anti-Dalit and anti-Muslim violence. “When the murderers and rapists are acquitted, they are accorded a warm welcome and garlanded. Sweets are distributed. No one raises a voice. In which direction are we taking India?” he wondered, referring to the Bilkis Bano gang-rape case.
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Gautam underscored a key difference between the AAP and the BJP. “Unlike the AAP, the BJP always stands with its people. This is going to damage the party. The party should have supported Tahir Hussain. Dalit and Muslim party members have been left to fend for themselves. No one will come to save us,” Gautam told Frontline. “It’s just a matter of time, when the court analyses the videos Tahir Hussain will be acquitted of other charges as well.” Maintaining that he always performed his party duties diligently, Gautam said, “But when we needed the party’s support, we found ourselves alone in our fight against injustice.”
On October 19, Hussain, along with nine others, was acquitted of charges of “mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy house under Section 436 of IPC”. “It is well apparent that this Section was added in this case without due application of mind,” Additional Sessions Judge Pulastya Pramachala was quoted as saying by LiveLaw. The judge, however, has remanded the case in the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s court for trial of other offences.
The AAP hasn’t reacted to this development. It has not also defended Gautam’s participation in the Buddhist conversion ceremony.
On the campaign trail in Gujarat, Manish Sisodia was asked by a TV journalist about allegations that he was not talking about Bilkis Bano and injustice against Muslims and that his party was pursuing politics of “soft-Hindutva”. Sisodia, who flaunts his identity as a Rajput and a descendant of Maharana Pratap, replied: “We are rather focussing on education, jobs and health care.”
On the rise of majoritarian politics, Gautam told Frontline: “Some political forces are hell-bent upon burning this country. Sadly, the AAP continues to be silent. It will have to walk the talk after laying claim to the legacy of Babasaheb and Bhagat Singh. People will soon start understanding the glaring difference between the party’s preaching and practice. They will start raising questions over it. We will have to end it. Otherwise, we won’t be able to face the people.”
On Gautam’s resignation, Suresh Babu, who teaches at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: “He seems to have been forced to resign because of pressure from the BJP. It is a clear test of how the dominant political parties make scapegoats of Dalit subjects. Though these political parties use Dalit icons like Ambedkar for vote bank politics, they deliberately undermine the very emancipatory politics that Ambedkar’s political activism stood for, especially his act of conversion.”
Political commentators like Ashutosh Kumar, head of Panjab University’s Political Science Department, stated that the AAP laid claim to the legacies of Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar as a matter of political expedience. “Unlike many other political icons, both Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh are above criticism. They have immense pan-India appeal, which suits the AAP’s national ambitions,” Kumar said. Notwithstanding such political posturing, he said, the AAP “seems to be in a hurry to co-opt the BJP’s religious nationalism, which is quite different from Bhagat Singh’s inclusive nationalism”.
Kejriwal and his party’s star campaigners have been visiting Hindu temples in poll-bound States. In Delhi, the AAP government has set up a Tirth Yatra Vikas Samiti to implement the “Mukhyamantri Tirth Yatra Yojna”, which arranges free pilgrimages for elderly citizens. Talking to reporters in Haridwar in November 2021, Kejriwal said if voted to power his party would implement the scheme in Uttarakhand as well. “We will facilitate free ‘darshan’ of Lord Rama in Ayodhya. For Muslims, we will have provision of visiting Ajmer Sharif and for Sikhs to Kartarpur Sahib. It will be free,” he was quoted as saying.
In Gujarat, Kejriwal has promised free pilgrimage to the Ram temple in Ayodhya as soon as its construction is completed. His announcement coincided with his visit to the poll-bound State, which saw a dramatic emergence of posters of Kejriwal sporting a skull cap with “anti-Hindu” messages following Gautam’s participation in the conversion event in the capital.
While the Congress calls the AAP the RSS’s brainchild, BJP leaders label the AAP and its leaders as “anti-Hindu”. Sharing a video clip that showed participants reciting vows at the conversion event, Union Law and Justice Minister Kiren Rijiju tweeted: “Why Arvind Kejriwal and his gang hate Hindus and Hindutva so much?” Stressing that both Hinduism and Buddhism have roots in ancient Indian culture, he wrote, “(Prime Minister) Modi Ji made Buddhism core part of India’s global approach, and accorded official status to Buddha Jayanti for the first time!”
The AAP emerged from a popular anti-corruption movement as an “alternative” to mainstream parties in national politics. The party came to power in Delhi donning a white Gandhi cap with the slogan: “ Main hoon aam aadmi (I’m an ordinary man).”
Though Kejriwal’s visits to Raj Ghat in New Delhi have been a media spectacle in the past, he was conspicuously absent on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi on October 2 this year. In fact, Delhi Lieutenant Governor Vinai Kumar Saxena wrote a letter to him saying: “…neither you, nor any of your Ministers were present at Raj Ghat or Vijay Ghat yesterday, even as the Hon’ble President of India, Hon’ble Vice President, Hon’ble Prime Minister, Hon’ble Speaker of Lok Sabha and a host of other top political leaders of all parties, representatives of foreign missions in India and common residents of Delhi, humbly gathered to pay homage to Bapu and Shastri Ji. While the Deputy Chief Minister (Manish Sisodia) was perfunctorily present there for a few minutes, he did not deem the occasion fit enough for him to stay the course.”
In a searing rejoinder, Kejriwal’s party colleague Atishi attributed his absence to his Gujarat visit. Moreover, she wrote on Twitter, “…the L-G’s letter was written on PM Narendra Modi’s instructions.”
After the AAP formed the government in Punjab earlier this year, the oath-taking ceremony of Bhagwant Mann as Chief Minister was held at Khatkar Kalan, the birthplace of Bhagat Singh, instead of Raj Bhawan in Chandigarh. In fact, the State party leaders and Ministers have set a new trend of sporting yellow turbans as a tribute to the freedom fighter. Notably, the party has ensured that the pictures of Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar are put up in government offices in both Delhi and Punjab.
Bhagat Singh’s family recently slammed Kejriwal for comparing Sisodia to Bhagat Singh, and called for the statement to be withdrawn. Kejriwal’s controversial remarks came after the CBI grilled Sisodia for nine hours in connection with an alleged scam linked to Delhi’s liquor policy.
Des Raj Kali, a noted Punjabi novelist and documentarian of Dalit literature, minced no words while calling out the AAP’s doublespeak. “Bhagwant Mann, who was on a campaign trail in Gujarat with Kejriwal recently, claimed that both of them usually have zero balance in their cell phones. How do you describe this hypocrisy—the two Chief Ministers of the AAP-ruled States travel on chartered flights. This is how they are running two States?!”
Kali pointed out, too, that Vijay Singla, who had been sacked as Health Minister in Punjab on corruption charges, was a regular presence at party functions. Kali also attributed the killing of the Punjabi singer Sindhu Moosewala to the AAP’s fatal attraction for media extravaganza. In fact, AAP governments frequently face allegations about being publicity crazy. A Newslaundry report based on an official response to its RTI application disclosed that the AAP government in Delhi spent Rs.19 crore on advertisements in 2021-22 for the publicity of the “Delhi Higher Education and Skill Development Guarantee Scheme” and granted loans to only two students in that period under the scheme. Earlier in August, PTI reported that only one-third of schools under the Delhi government are teaching science subjects to students in classes 11 and 12.
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Observers have been pointing out the mismatch between the AAP’s ideological posturing and its policies on the ground. In Punjab, it is yet to take a concrete step to ensure land rights for Dalit landless farm workers. Long-standing demands of ad hoc government employees are yet to be redressed. Pointing out the flaws in the party’s “Delhi model”, observers decry the AAP government’s employment practices; for instance, it is yet to provide minimum wages to ASHAs and workers of anganwadi and other schemes.
In recent months, Professor Chaman Lal, author of several books on Bhagat Singh, has written letters and subsequent reminders to the governments of Delhi and Punjab suggesting steps for promoting ideologies followed by Bhagat Singh. He has urged the AAP-led governments to acquire 135 digital files relating to Bhagat Singh’s court cases from the Punjab Archives in Lahore, Pakistan. Among other recommendations, he has asked both governments to provide books on Bhagat Singh to all school, college and public libraries, besides legislators in Punjab and Delhi. “Whether Ambedkar or Bhagat Singh, their ideas can’t be popularised without introducing important writings on and by both of them to the youth, especially school and college students,” Prof. Lal told Frontline.
Addressed to Mann and Kejriwal, a letter dated August 24, 2022, read: “Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre Delhi has an advisory committee led by Sh. Manish Sisodia, Deputy CM Delhi. Shaheed Bhagat Singh Museum in Khatkar Kalan, Punjab, has no such committee as the family members of Bhagat Singh, who had gifted their ancestral haveli and property to Punjab government probably did not ask for it. But it would be good to have an advisory committee comprising some family members of Bhagat Singh and some scholars studying Bhagat Singh’s role in freedom struggle….”
In Punjab, the previous government set up the Maharaja Bhupinder Singh Punjab Sports University in 2019. Prof. Lal, a former Senate member of Punjab University and honorary adviser to the Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre in Delhi, in another letter described the Maharaja as a pro-British king of Patiala. “Sewa Singh Thikriwala was martyred in Bhupindra Singh’s jail in Patiala on midnight of 19-20 January, 1935. Thikriwala was fighting for the cause of Punjab farmers and against colonial and feudal collaborators of British colonialism,” he wrote, urging the Punjab government to rename the university as “Shaheed Sewa Singh Thikriwala University”.
Asked if any of his recommendations were implemented, he said: “Unfortunately, I haven’t received any response from either of the governments so far.”
- The AAP tries to appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh but stands exposed by its own doublespeak.
- Rajendra Pal Gautam’s resignation as Social Welfare Minister in Kejriwal’s Cabinet and a local court’s acquittal of Tahir Hussain, a former AAP councillor who was expelled from the party, of arson charges have raised questions about the party’s secular credentials.
- The AAP hasn’t reacted to the remission of life sentence of 11 men accused in the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of 14 members of her family.