History matters: How King Ashoka is being used in Bihar elections even after 2300 years?

Nalin Mehta of ToI has a piece on this. Politicians can go to any extent to win an election. And what better way than to stir history for one’s gains.

Apparently, they are now trying to show how Ashoka (and Chadragupta) were Kushwahas. This is an attempt to please the Kushwahas which form around 10% of votebank. The politicians are promising the Kushwaha community the same eminence the community enjoyed 2300 years ago. The present CM Nitish Kumar is being projected as Dhanananda, the villain king who Chadragupta threw to set up the great Maurya empire:

What does an ancient emperor who died over 2,300 years ago have to do with the hurly-burly of Bihar elections in the present day? Everything, it seems, as politicians pull out all the stops to attract, make and remake caste formations.

So in this cauldron of caste, Emperor Ashoka whose lion seal adorns our rupees, whose dharma chakra is on the national flag, who was the greatest communicator of ancient India reshaping much of Asia with Buddhism — as Constantine would later reshape Europe with Christianity — has now been repackaged as a Kushwaha leader.

The Rashtravadi Kushwaha Parishad, which is aligned with BJP, has held several commemoration functions in Bihar since last year, arguing that both Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka were Kushwahas and therefore ancestors of present-day Bihari Kushwahas or Koeris who make up about 9% of voters. State BJP leaders like Sushil Kumar Modi have publicly argued in these ceremonies that if voted to power, their party would restore the glory that Kushwahas supposedly enjoyed during the Mauryan empire.

They have likened the JD(U) regime to the capricious regime of the last Nanda king, Dhanananda, who was uprooted by Chanakya and the Mauryas. In May this year a celebration of 2,300 years of Ashoka in Patna turned into a political advocacy event, with posters coming up across the city of a bejewelled and moustachioed Ashoka image, sitting side-by-side with Kushwaha caste leaders and BJP satraps.

A senior Union Cabinet minister from Bihar even announced a postal stamp to honour Ashoka and that a big statue of the emperor would be installed in Delhi and Patna if the party was voted to power. The prime minister, who is fronting BJP’s campaign in Bihar, has specifically focused only on development in his speeches and the contradictions in the opposing JD(U)-RJD-Congress mahagathbandan. Yet, it is clear that at the micro-level, this electoral battle is as much about getting the caste arithmetic right as the larger atmospherics of the Modi model of development versus the Nitish model of good governance.

The perplexing appropriation of Ashoka as a caste leader is part of these ground-level machinations. Kushwahas, an OBC caste who claim their descent from Ram’s son Kush, were part of the social axis of forward castes and extremely backward castes that combined with the slogan of good governance to hand Nitish Kumar his 2010 triumph in Bihar.

Historians are not amused:

Historians have been aghast at the bizarre appropriation of Ashoka as a caste leader. There is no evidence whatsoever of the emperor’s caste credentials in Mauryan records. Yet, Kushwaha Parishad members insist they can prove it. The emperor has become a tool in the politics of social engineering in Bihar.

Just as the legendary Hindi poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar has now been recast as a Bhumihar icon, Maharana Pratap of Mewar as a tool to woo upper-caste Rajputs and Baba Chuhar Mal as a dalit leader. State leaders have embraced all of these, including Kunwar Singh who fought the British in 1857, and held caste functions to commemorate these figures.

Rewriting history to serve modern political ends is not new. In UP, for example, BSP focussed on recasting and highlighting the stories of dalit veeranganas as a way of forging a new dalit identity. Bihari politics seemed to have turned a corner in 2010, moving from caste to bijli, sadak and paani like the rest of India. Yet, with Lalu Prasad talking aggressively of Mandal-II and threatening a rerun of the caste wars that laid waste to much of the 1990s, the 2015 campaign evokes deja vu, like an old film we have seen before and want to forget.

Instead of focusing on things that matter (water, electricity etc), just keep rewriting history.

Though, all this points to a much more important issue – know how of history. No matter what people say about irrelevance of history, nothing moves people as much as history does. This is where things become dangerous as well. Half knowledge or complete ignorance of historical matters, can easily led to manipulation and rewriting.

3 Responses to “History matters: How King Ashoka is being used in Bihar elections even after 2300 years?”

  1. Loknath Says:

    Super funny.

  2. Loknath Says:

    Hi Amol, you should enable the option of sharing on social sites

    just posted this on facebook where you are not there 🙂

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