Meet Swami Prasad Maurya, the steadfast spokesperson for the backward caste communities in Uttar Pradesh

Meet Swami Prasad Maurya, the steadfast spokesperson for the backward caste communities in Uttar Pradesh

On February 15, some unpleasant events took place in the foyer of the luxurious Taj Hotel in Lucknow. Swami Prasad Maurya, a top Samajwadi Party politician and Member of the Legislative Council in Uttar Pradesh, was among those invited as a guest to the hotel, which served as the location of a conference staged by a private television station. He is from a group that has a long history of working in horticulture and has one of the state's tallest voices from a lower caste.

After finishing his session, Maurya got into an altercation with Mahant Raju Das, a seer of Ayodhya's well-known Hanumangarhi temple, as he was leaving the location. For a while, the two physically fought one other, while at the same time, their noisy supporters fought with one another. While Maurya was being brought to his car by his followers, shouts of "Jai Shri Ram" and "Jai Samvidhan" were hurled at one another.

A day later, Maurya claimed that this was an attempt on his life. Maurya had just caused a stir by demanding that Tulsidas's Hindu epic Ramcharitmanas be cut out owing to its caste- and gender-biased lyrics. Maurya said in a letter to the Lucknow Police Commissioner that there had been a serious security breach and that the followers of Das, who had lately declared a 21 lakh prize for beheading Maurya for his unpopular views, were equipped with swords and axes. During a news conference on February 16, Maurya said that the state government was protecting people threatening to kill him and that the BJP administration wanted to see me killed. In addition, he said that "terrorists in sadhu robes," members of a "varg vishesh" (certain community), were planning to murder him because of his remarks on the Ramcharitmanas. Maurya vowed to fight "until my last breath" for the honour of Dalits, the underprivileged, tribal people, and women, refusing to let them be denigrated as "neech" (lowly) and "adham" (vile) in the name of religion, despite the rewards placed on him by various right-wing seers. He contends that the Ramcharitmanas provide an inaccurate picture of these societies.

In a little more than a year, Maurya has reestablished himself as a significant troublemaker in Uttar Pradesh politics. He last inhabited this position in January 2022, just before the state—politically the most significant one in the nation—voted in the Assembly election. He abruptly left his position as a cabinet minister in the state of Uttar Pradesh at the time, blaming the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party administration for failing to care for farmers, Dalits, OBCs, and young people. Together with the OBC leader, a number of other BJP MLAs defected to SP, the major opposition party. The SP president Akhilesh Yadav's drive to win over the numerically superior backward caste voters, particularly the non-Yadav community, gained a boost with the addition of Maurya to his ranks. Maurya confronted the BJP's '80vs20' (Hindus vs. Muslims) sectarian mobilisation head-on with the '85vs15' (social justice) Bahujan politics cry. The demand to unite OBCs, Dalits, and tribal people with Muslims in opposition to upper caste Hindus, who make up the ideological basis of the BJP and its fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was led by Maurya in response to the BJP's narrative of communal polarisation. Short version: Despite a valiant effort, the SP and its allies were unable to stop the BJP from taking back power. Maurya's own electoral loss from Fazilnagar in Kushinagar came as a shock, and he was forced to settle for an other path to the Assembly as an MLC.

A year after that political bet, Maurya has made another risky bet that might have negative political and personal repercussions. Months before the BJP-led government is expected to highlight the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, which is currently under construction, as a significant achievement in advance of the 2024 Lok Sabha election, he has dared to cast doubt on the sanctity of one of the most well-known Hindu epics, Ramcharitmanas. Maurya sought the deletion or editing of a few couplets from the Ramcharitmanas, claiming that they upheld the caste system, portrayed Shudras as "neech," and included sexist language against women. Maurya even outlined his requests in a lengthy letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 7.

Is Maurya behaving incoherently? Is he acting with pure adventurism, or is this a well-planned move to incite a discussion about caste prejudice before to the polls and recapture the OBC voice taken by the BJP, particularly after 2014? The mystery has persisted due to the SP leadership's conflicted response to the whole affair. As soon as Maurya made the original remarks, his party stood by him and throughout the uproar, elevated him to the position of national general secretary. In stark contrast, Lotan Ram Nishad, the party's president of the backward class cell, was fired by Akhilesh Yadav in 2020 after he said that Lord Ram was a fictional divinity and that OBCs had no interest in the Ram Temple. The SP's aim of making sure it did not offend Hindu or Upper Caste feelings was reflected in the firm action. The SP leadership has now stopped commenting on the issue, despite Maurya's refusal to relent on his demand.

One may infer that a seasoned politician like Maurya, who has held ministerial positions in both BSP-run and BJP-led administrations, would not anticipate Modi enforcing a modification in one of the most well-known Hindu religious epics. Regardless of his intentions in light of the upcoming Lok Sabha election in 2024, the controversy has allowed him to express his brand of Ambedkarite politics, which had been absent from the state since Mayawati's dilution of Bahujan politics and her shift to appeasing the Upper Castes through the blunt slogan that has since been revealed to be a disastrous strategy of "Sarvajan Hitai, Sarvajan Sukhai."

In reality, Maurya is the last of the disciples of late Dalit activist and Bahujan political philosopher Kanshiram to continue speaking out against Brahmanical socio-politics, also known as "Manuvad" by certain supporters of Ambedkarite politics. Is this just a blip in the state's caste politics, a personal viewpoint taken too far, or the beginning of a new kind of caste politics? All of these queries will be resolved in the next months. According to Maurya's ideological background, it is unusual that an opposition leader in Uttar Pradesh would incite a dispute that would annoy Hindu supporters, but it is not surprising that Maurya is at the centre of it.

To imply that Maurya is not opportunistic would be inaccurate. In order to gain power in 2016, he made concessions to his own fundamental beliefs. Maurya, a Buddhist with knowledge of Ambedkarite principles and Bahujan politics, had a significant moral transformation when he joined the BJP, an advocate of Hindu nationalism, participating in and profiting from its electoral victory in 2017.

He attempted to defend his time with the BJP's Hindutva ideology and his intellectual disagreement with them to me last year, shortly after quitting the party. He said that after hearing Modi say in 2014 that he was called neech (lowly) since he was born into a "pichdi jati," he decided to join the saffron party, which touched him (backward caste). The BJP's "chehra" (face) and "charitra" (character), according to Maurya, may have altered. Yet after five years of working with it, he came to understand that while the party had changed its appearance and donned a "mask," the essence of it and the nature of its activity remained same, being closely related to RSS training.

While Maurya's justification seems expedient and self-serving, morality and ideological purity have no place in political politics. Maurya spent the majority of his political career with the BSP, a party that, despite its diminished stature and membership today, was a crucial component of the social justice political churn in the state over the past three decades, with the exception of his five-year stint with the BJP and his recent switch to the SP. Before leaving the BSP, Maurya served as not just the party's backward caste spokesperson and leader in the Legislature, but also the sole figure Mayawati had given permission to speak to the media.

In Prayagraj, formerly Allahabad, Maurya began his political career with the Yuva Lok Dal in 1980. From 1991 to 1995, he served as the state general secretary of the Janta Dal. He was appointed the BSP state general secretary in 1996 and served as a minister in each of Mayawati's four administrations. Maurya left the BSP in 2016, citing disputes over Mayawati's constraining management style. She accused Mayawati of suppressing Kanshiram's ideas and turning the party into a for-profit business where election tickets were auctioned.

It's not the first difficulty Maurya has encountered with the Hindu religion that involves the Ramcharitmans. He caused a political uproar in 2004 when he urged members of the OBC and Dalit groups to abstain from worshipping Lord Ganesha or Goddess Gauri during weddings, claiming that this was a plot by the upper-caste-dominated society to deceive and subjugate them. Last year, the issue reappeared in the shape of an arrest order issued by a local court, astonishingly only one day after Maurya left the BJP administration. In Lucknow, a FIR was also filed against him this time for his remarks against the Ramcharitmanas. But, Maurya has been steadfast thus far. How long will the BJP continue to rule in these times of peak Hindutva nationalism and a brutish majority in both the state and the federal government?