NEWS
02/05/2018 1:29 PM IST | Updated 02/05/2018 4:37 PM IST

Jailed For "Insulting" Ram, Professor Says Dalits In Karnataka Won't Be Fooled By BJP's Gimmicks

"Backing a Dalit to become the country's president won't fool us"

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

At an academic conference in Mysore in 2015, Professor B.P. Mahesh Chandra Guru offered an interpretation of the Ramayana, in which he said Ram was guilty of misogyny when he banished pregnant Sita to live alone in a forest. He used the Kannada word 'alemari' to describe Ram. "I meant he was 'nomadic' or 'wandering'," Guru said. A year-and-half later, Guru spent eight days in a Mysore jail after an functionary of Karunawu Sarvodaya Sene -- a Hindutva group, that wasn't present at the lecture -- took offence at Prof. Guru's speech and filed a police complaint.

In his complaint, C.V.Ravishankar, the KSS functionary who works in the city's postal departmental, claimed Guru had hurt Hindu religious sentiments by calling Ram a "loafer".

Prof. Guru's bail plea was rejected the first time and he was released only after he spent over a week in prison.

Guru, a professor of journalism and a prominent face in Dalit activism in Karnataka, said he is familiar with the belligerence of Hindu upper-caste and the far-right. However, this was an extreme case at a time when arresting people on frivolous grounds is commonplace.

"I was not at a demonstration or protest. I was delivering a lecture on invitation from the institution," he said. "The academic space is sacred, this is where we debate and learn. You can question anything here without the fear of getting muzzled."

Screenshot from YouTube video.
Professor BP Mahesh Chandra Guru

With the Karnataka polls scheduled for May 12, the stakes in this election could not be higher for Prof. Guru. A win for the BJP, Guru said, would further entrench the Hindu right's 'intrusion' into spaces of learning and their fear mongering activities.

Prof. Guru's opposition is symptomatic of the limits of the BJP's slick campaign to tap Dalit communities for their votes.

This election Guru is working hard to counter the BJP in Mysore. Guru says he is not campaigning for any party, but is attending public meetings, seminars, demonstrations every day with a single agenda -- to defeat the BJP in Karnataka.

As a part of this effort, Guru, attended a seminar organised by the Karnataka Backward Classes Federation to raise 'awareness about the need to protect the constitution and democracy'. The very next day, he received a show-cause notice from the university, asking him to 'explain' why he was canvassing for the Congress.

Soon after, Prof. Guru was suspended from his teaching position at Mysore college.

"Conspiracy to silence Dalits"

Guru says his arrest is part of a broader conspiracy to silence and intimidate Dalits who critique the existing caste hierarchies enabled by Hindu scriptures.

"I was kept along with other inmates under the most insecure environment," he said. After the complaint was filed the right wing group, Guru alleges the vice-chancellor of Mysore University forced his fellow academics to support the accusations against him.

"It cannot be coincidence that the complainant and the VC live in the same neighbourhood," he said.

The recent case of suspension, Guru alleges, is because a local BJP MP put pressure on the college administration.

"The rule is to give people 21 days to respond to any charge brought against them. I was given just one day. And then they suspended me on 24th April, pending investigation," said Guru. "Ironically, this MP was my student in Mangalore University."

Ambedkar had said 'Congress is a party of manuvadis'. At this time, that rings true for the BJP.

According to the professor, at the seminar, he spoke about the need to stand up to communalist, casteist forces.

"I said that democracy is in danger and whenever the NDA comes to power they threaten freedom of expression. I also said we need to save the country of communalism. It was a not a political event, it was a cultural event and we expressed our political views there. That cannot be held against us as canvassing for a party," he said. Guru explained that the organisers or the participants had not shot videos of the event, yet, the deputy commissioner of the Election Commission said that they have videos of the event.

"It is clear someone was trying to get back at us for criticising the BJP," he said, adding, an examination of the videos will reveal that he didn't canvas for a party. He suspects that the Commission's action is a response to media reports of the event.

Guru is also fighting another police case, lodged after he attended a seminar organised by the Dalit Welfare Trust on the relevance of the Bhagavadgita.

"I had not uttered any word against Bhagavadgita but I made certain constructive comments on the need for Anti-Superstition Bill of Karnataka," he said. "I had appealed to the audience to keep a copy of Constitution of India and develop responsible citizenry."

These many FIRs, Guru feels, is evidence that the BJP's promises of uplifting the minorities and backward castes is just lip service to bag votes.

"In the 1930s, Ambedkar had said 'Congress is a party of manuvadis'. At this time, that rings true for the BJP," Guru said.

Two-Faced

In Guru's reading, the BJP presents the Dalits with two faces: Prime Minister Modi inaugurates elaborate memorials to 'celebrate' Ambedkar, meanwhile right wing goons are vandalising Ambedkar statues across the country. This month, Prime Minister Modi inaugurated a Rs 100 crore Ambedkar memorial in Delhi as a part of BJP's plan to develop a 'Panchteerth', a series of memorial sites dedicated to Ambedkar and his work.

The party, Guru said, was torn between discrediting Ambedkar's legacy and appropriating it.

He thinks that the Centre's handling of the Rohith Vemula case is proof that they don't want to anything substantial for the backward castes.

"The government does nothing to penalise the likes of Anant Kumar Hegde, who says that the constitution should be changed," Guru said. "The way Hegde has been elevated in the Centre and has been campaigning in Karnataka, I am sure the BJP thinks of him as a chief ministerial candidate for their party in the state."

Hegde has made his political career by making controversial public statements: When Dalits demonstrated against him in Bellari district of Karnataka in January this year, Hegde said he was not bothered by 'stray dogs barking'.

After Dalits blocked his car and demonstrated against him in Bellari district of Karnataka, Hegde said he was not bothered by 'stray dogs barking'.

However, Hegde has been campaigning extensively for the party in the run-up to the polls in the state. He was made the minister of state for skill development in a cabinet reshuffle helmed by the Prime Minister in September last year.

Recently, Adityanath's Uttar Pradesh government insisted that BR Ambedkar be identified as Bhimrao 'Ramji' Ambedkar because that's how he is identified in the eighth schedule of the Constitution. A few weeks later, a 'saffron' Ambedkar statue was unveiled in Uttar Pradesh, which was only painted blue after protests from local BSP leader.

Guru is also critical of the saffron party's decision to install Ramnath Kovind as the President of India.

"Political gimmicks like backing a Dalit to become the country's president won't fool us. In fact, how come the Dalit president didn't say a word when Hegde was talking about changing the constitution. Or when the Ambedkar statues were being vandalised?" Guru asked.

Kovind, Guru said, was not a true representative of Dalits. "He is a true representation of vested interests."

If Ambedkar was alive today, Guru concluded, he'd call the BJP what he once called the Congress, "A burning house."