Conjuring an icon

Print edition : September 15, 2017

BP president Amit Shah pays tribute to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya in Bhopal on August 18. Photo: A.M. FARUQUI

The BJP’s attempts to exalt Deen Dayal Upadhyaya are part of a strategy to establish a rival iconography in the public consciousness.

CLOSE on the heels of the introduction of V.D. Savarkar as a national freedom fighter in history books, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya is now being exalted to the status of a national icon by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments at the Centre and in the States, primarily Uttar Pradesh.

In August, the Centre cleared the Yogi Adityanath government’s proposal to rename the age-old Mughal Sarai railway station after him as part of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh leader’s centenary celebrations. The Yogi Adityanath government had already renamed Agra airport after Upadhyaya in April. The renaming of the railway station and the airport seeks to erase the Mughal legacy and install a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) ideologue in the minds of the people.

The State government is determined to make Upadhyaya the talk of every nook and corner of the State. Plans are afoot to rename one nagar panchayat in every district after him. All districts will be covered over the next five years. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, who died a mysterious death in 1968, and his philosophy of dharma, inclusion and exclusion, are set to be established in the public consciousness.

The Uttar Pradesh government also plans to organise a mega programme in Mathura to coincide with his birth anniversary in September this year and develop his birthplace, Nagla Chandrabhan village in western Uttar Pradesh, as a tourist destination. Besides, school and college students are expected to participate in competitions centring around his life and times. BJP president Amit Shah released a booklet for around 9,000 schools whose students will take part in them. The book is also meant to apprise youngsters of the life and philosophy of Upadhyaya.

Earlier, BJP-ruled States such as Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Haryana and Rajasthan procured in bulk copies of the 15-volume collection of the works of Upadhyaya released late last year. The fascination for Upadhyaya was not limited to books. In the last session of Parliament, Hukumdev Narayan Yadav, a BJP MP, quoted Upadhyaya as saying that “Muslims of this nation should know that their ancestors were Hindus”.

Meanwhile, in Assam, the State government intends to set up 12 model colleges under his name; five of them, in Goalpara, Darrang, Biswanath, Karimganj and Bongaigaon, will become operational in September. The move has failed to impress the Assamese people, who believe a local hero would have been a better rallying point in a State which has had no association with the Hindutva icon. They argue that the local people would have had no problem had the government chosen a more recognisable name like Subhas Chandra Bose or Rabindranath Tagore for the new colleges. Upadhyaya is largely unknown in these circles, and those who do know his work regard him only as an RSS ideologue.

Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) president Atul Bora called for a review of the decision, pitching in for colleges to be named after the State’s well-known writers and cultural personalities.

Prof. P.K. Datta of the Department of Social Sciences, Delhi University, said: “The reactions are really to the cultural expansion of the Sangh Parivar, a crucial element of which is the renaming of places.”

These moves mark a major revival for Upadhyaya, who had been forgotten for many years. Datta said: “The Sangh Parivar is setting out to put in place a rival and comprehensive iconography of the nation to that of the nationalist movement.” Hence the attempt to pass off Upadhyaya as someone in the league of Mahatma Gandhi. Although a contemporary of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Upadhyaya faded from public memory partly because he did not live as long: he died in 1968 in a train accident at Mughal Sarai railway station.

All this was sought to be changed with a single stroke when Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned him and Mahatma Gandhi in the same sentence at a public address in Kerala. This seemingly gentle, even innocuous, comparison was a breakthrough moment.

The BJP, desperate for a national icon to call its own, elevated Upadhyaya in the public imagination as a philosopher, activist, economist and spiritual guru to mark the beginning of the year-long centenary celebrations. (He was born on September 25, 1916, in Nagla Chandrabhan village, Mathura.)

Modi’s mention of Upadhyaya led to many reading up on the theoretician of the Jana Sangh and discovering that he also talked of political enfeeblement of Muslims as a necessary route to their gradual assimilation into the fold of Bharat Mata. He was one of the early practitioners of the deeply divisive philosophy of “us” and “them” and never quite accepted the Constitution; he was also ready to tolerate the minorities only if they adopted the Hindu way of life, distinguished only by a private mode of worship, if at all. Incidentally, so distrustful of Muslims was Upadhyaya that he proposed a 10-mile corridor on the India-Pakistan border where the community was not to be allowed to settle. He propounded a philosophy of “integral humanism”, but how much of a humanist could he have been given his divisive politics?

The BJP, which did not field a single Muslim candidate in the Uttar Pradesh elections earlier this year, is quietly but consistently following his ideology. Modi’s advice to the BJP National Council that Muslims should not be treated as a different people is a telling example. “Do not treat them as vote banks. Do not regard them to be an object of hate. Do not shun them. Do not reward them but purify them, consider them one of your own,” he said. His words were straight out of the Upadhyaya book.

“He had his own vision of humanism, which was that of a tightly integrated society in which the individual would simply be a part of the social and cultural totality of the nation. This is a humanism without difference and dissent,” Datta said.

Upadhyaya stood for the assimilation of Christians and Muslims into the national mainstream if they gave up their distinct characteristics and admitted to their Hindu ancestry. Back in 1965, he said: “No sensible man will say that six crores of Muslims should be eradicated or thrown out of India, but then they will have to identify themselves completely with Indian life.”

For him, the word Indian was interchangeable with Hindu. The minorities were to be tolerated if they gave up their way of life and agreed to live under the umbrella of Hinduism. “There exists only one culture here. There can be no separate cultures here for Muslims and Christians. Culture is not related to mode of worship or sect. It is related to the country. Kabir, Jayasi and Raskhan should serve as models for Muslims,” he said.

What does the revival of interest in Upadhyaya mean for Muslims? “Nothing very new to what had already been signalled by the iconisation of Golwalkar and Savarkar,” Datta said.

Modi asked his party to make “extra efforts to take everyone along, especially the poor and the downtrodden”. Quoting Upadhyaya, he said: “Deendayal ji used to say that if equality has to be achieved, people at the higher level have to bend down and support those who have been exploited and neglected.”

Upadhyaya was also someone who wanted the Constitution to be subordinated to dharma. “Deen Dayal Upadhyaya is associated with giving more importance to dharma than even the Constitution and this was the essence of his integral humanism. He was against the constitution of the federal state system. The propagation of Upadhyaya can signal a new offensive to bring the idea of a new Constitution on the agenda,” Datta said. The rehabilitation of Hindutva heroes could yet extract a greater price.