Patna: A recent interview by award-winning Hindi writer Daya Prakash Sinha, in which he has drawn parallels between emperor Ashoka and Mughal king Aurangzeb, has added to the growing differences between Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and its ally BJP.
In an interview published in the Hindi newspaper Navbharat Times about a week ago, Sinha, a retired civil servant, compared Ashoka to Aurangzeb, alleging, “apart from his brothers, he also got Buddhist monks killed”.
The 86-year-old writer — a Padma Shri awardee — is the author of a Hindi play, Samrat Ashoka, for which he received the Sahitya Akademi 2021 award. A synopsis of the play on Sinha’s website states, “The play on the life of modern king Ashoka, who lived in the 3rd century BC, based on the Buddhist canonical literature found in Sri Lanka, is not a mere chronicle of his life and achievements. It portrays the king as a human being, with frailties and aspirations, in a dramatic idiom. The play has been successfully staged by various groups.”
While Sinha’s comparison of the two emperors has been refuted by academics in Bihar — former professor of ancient history at the Patna University, Dr Jaidev Mishra claimed Thursday that “the two, Aurangzeb and Samrat Ashoka cannot be compared because Aurangzeb never ruled the vast lands Ashoka did” — the political fallout of the writer’s comments is even more significant.
JD(U) national president Lalan Singh, who is currently in quarantine after testing positive for Covid, issued a video statement Wednesday demanding that “the President of India, central government and the Prime Minister” take back the Padma Shri awarded to Sinha. Alleging that the interview indicated an attempt by the Centre to rewrite the country’s history, Singh said, “Anybody who insults a historical icon of our country cannot be fit for any national award.”
“Emperor Ashoka was the creator of greater Akhand Bharat (undivided India). The Ashokan Pillars and Ashoka Chakra are a part of our historical heritage. The use of insulting words against such a personality cannot be tolerated. Anybody who insults him is a part of a twisted ideology,” Lalan Singh added.
A JD(U) MLC, who did not wish to be named, also told ThePrint Thursday, “How can Sinha win so many awards under the present central regime?”
Sinha’s alleged links to BJP
Sinha’s comments on Ashoka are more troubling for the BJP because of the writer’s “links” to the party.
A senior BJP leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity, admitted that Sinha had been the national convener of the BJP’s cultural cell in 2004 and was close to BJP leaders. “Since 2010, however, he has no connection with BJP,” the leader said.
Dubbing the 86-year-old writer “a frail old man”, the BJP leader claimed: “Sinha was the first nationalist writer to get a Sahitya Award, an honour otherwise dominated by Left-oriented writers.”
However, the backlash against Sinha’s comments has prompted many leaders from the BJP to go into damage control mode. While Bihar BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal filed an FIR against Sinha Thursday, alleging that the playwright was spreading hatred, others have been quick to disown any connections between the party and the writer.
BJP Rajya Sabha MP and former Bihar Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi told ThePrint Thursday: “To compare Samrat Ashoka with a cruel ruler like Aurangzeb is highly condemnable.” He also claimed that the BJP had “no cultural cell at the national level and Sinha has no connection with the BJP”.
The year Ashoka became a Kushwaha icon
Differences between the JD(U) and the BJP over Emperor Ashoka are not new. In 2015, when they were pitted against each other, the BJP had found a new caste icon in the ancient king.
That year, the BJP celebrated the ancient ruler’s 2,320th birth anniversary, with then-Union telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad announcing that a stamp on the emperor will be issued if the party won the Bihar assembly elections that year.
The BJP had its eye on the OBC vote bank in the state — a section that had traditionally formed the core of the JD(U) support base.
It desperately wanted to make inroads into the JD(U) vote bank of the Kurmi and Kushwaha castes, better known as the Luv-Kush combination in Bihar. As Nitish Kumar is himself from the Kurmi caste (2 per cent of population), the BJP was desperate to woo the Kushwahas (around 8 per cent).
For this purpose, BJP joined hands with the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP), which had risen from the Kushwaha caste (the Upendra Kushwaha-led RLSP merged with the JD(U) last year), while Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad’s RJD had formed an alliance, along with the Congress.
Part of the BJP’s game plan for the election revolved around promoting Ashoka as a Kushwaha ruler, a belief already held by some. The celebration of Ashoka as a Kushwaha leader had prompted historian Romila Thapar to comment at the time that there was no historical evidence about Ashoka’s caste.
Speaking to ThePrint Thursday, former Patna University professor Jaidev Mishra said, “As such there is no evidence of caste. But it is generally believed that he belonged to the farming community.”
Though the 2015 attempt failed, and BJP lost to the JD(U)-RJD alliance by a big margin of seven per cent votes, JD(U) continues to be bitter about BJP’s efforts to break into its vote bank, alleged some BJP leaders.
“Nitish ji, even when we are in alliance, expects us to look after the upper caste votes, while he looks after the OBC and EBC votes. Any effort to consolidate OBC votes is frowned upon,” said a BJP MP who didn’t wish to be named, indicating that Daya Prakash Sinha, with his comments against emperor Ashoka, has given JD(U) an opportunity to get back at the BJP for its 2015 attempts.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)