The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is making a concerted effort to celebrate the contributions of lesser-known icons and leaders of India’s freedom struggle.
The party claims that the renewed focus on such icons is in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to highlight the contributions and sacrifices of India’s unsung heroes in the freedom movement, which is one of the key elements of the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav celebrations to commemorate 75 years of India’s Independence.
However, political observes in Lucknow point out that the ruling dispensation is trying to consolidate its hold over the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and upper castes, and broaden the BJP’s electoral base by co-opting Dalit icons.
‘Infuse sense of pride’
In the recent past, the State government has celebrated the contributions of lesser-known icons like Chitu Pandey, Rani Jhalkari Bai, Dhan Singh Gurjar, Vijay Singh Pathik, Lakhan Pasi, Raja Bijli Pasi, Uda Devi and Avanti Bai. Mr. Adityanath has also highlighted the need to give due credit to such icons to infuse a sense of belongingness and pride among the youth in the State.
“Highlighting OBC and Dalit icons like Uda Devi and Jhalkari Bai is a major component of the party’s efforts to expand its electoral base. It also helps the party showcase its commitment towards creating an inclusive society,” said Shashikant Pandey, a professor of political science at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow.
At the same time, the State government is also giving prominence to lesser-known upper caste icons. Mr. Adityanath recently visited Ballia to celebrate Ballia Balidan Diwas and hailed the contributions of Chitu Pandey, a member of the Brahmin community who participated in the Quit India Movement in 1942.
Since 2014, upper caste and OBC voters have been instrumental in the party’s electoral success in the politically significant State, which sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha.
Satish Jha, a noted social scientist who teaches at Delhi University, points out that the politics of symbolism and appropriation of icons did not start during the BJP regime. Even Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati had expanded her party’s electoral base during the 1990s by adopting the same tactic, he said.
“Though the BSP promoted icons like Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule, Dalit leaders such as Uda Devi and Maharaja Bijli Pasi were not given such importance. The BJP is now giving prominence to such icons and is making inroads among a section of the Dalit electorate,” Mr. Jha said.
In the 2022 Assembly poll, the BSP polled only 12.88%, its lowest vote share in three decades.
In a bid to emphasise that the focus on such icons is not just tokenism, the U.P. government recently named three women Pradeshik Armed Constabulary battalions after Uda Devi, Rani Jhalkari Bai and Avanti Bai. It also named colleges and installed statues to celebrate their contributions.
The Chief Minister in his speeches has said the role of icons like Rani Jhalkari Bai has been ignored by Leftist historians who have “distorted history”.
‘Bid to rewrite history’
According to political analysts, the government is also looking to further its agenda of rewriting history through such initiatives. “Achieving political gains is one aspect, but we also need to keep in mind that rewriting history is an old project of the Sangh Parivar. Through such efforts, they are able to sway public opinion towards the need of rewriting history,” Mr. Jha said.
However, the BJP has dismissed suggestions of a hidden agenda behind their recent attempts to popularise lesser-known icons. “When the Prime Minister announced the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav initiative, he also declared that we will celebrate lesser-known icons. The effort of the U.P. government and the BJP is in line with this,” said Uttar Pradesh BJP spokesperson Rakesh Tripathi.