Editor's note: In this series on contemporary history, consulting editor Ajay Singh takes us to places and talks about people who left yesterday's indelible mark on today's politics.
Dr BR Ambedkar made his last, stirring speech in Agra in which he expressed his anguish at educated Dalits taking up government jobs. He asked them to desist from working as self-seeking government clerks without bothering about the travails of their fellow Dalits. Agra is also a centre of Dalit consciousness, besides being the city famous for the Taj Mahal.
The reason is not far to seek. Given the preponderance of the Dalit population in the region, a significant section of them took to education, found government jobs and some even became entrepreneurs. The flourishing leather industry in the region provided avenues for business enterprise. Ambedkar was quite fond of Agra as his party, the Republican Party of India (RPI), found solid footing here. The RPI was preceded by the Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF), formed by Ambedkar exclusively to take up the Dalit cause.
In his last speech on 18 March, 1956, Ambedkar sounded a bit dejected as he could not see any worthy successor among his followers to take up his mantle. And he was absolutely right. Although Ambedkar had acquired a tall stature among Dalits, his politics could not get sufficient traction in the Hindi heartland. In the caste-ridden society, to people in north India, he appeared distant because he came from Mahar caste from Maharashtra. On the other hand, the Congress with leaders like Jagjivan Ram at the forefront had captured people's imagination.
The search for Ambedkar's successor came to an end when Kanshi Ram emerged on the scene in the 1970s and floated two organisations, Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) and All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees' Federation (BAMCEF) " a precursor to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Agra remained a fortress of Dalit consciousness and emerged as a strong bastion of the BSP.
But it would be wrong to surmise that Agra represents only one strand of politics. Far from it. The city is a veritable microcosm of India, containing within it diverse strands. It was equally a citadel of the Hindutva ideology that had struck deep roots even in the pre-Independence phase. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had a strong presence in the region that is known as "Braj Kshetra". Many top leaders of the Sangh Parivar hailed from this region, the most prominent among them being Deendayal Upadhyaya and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Upadhyaya belonged to Mathura while Vajpayee's ancestral village, Bateshwar, is in Agra district.
At the peak of the Ayodhya movement in 1990-92, Agra became a prominent centre for mobilisation for karsevaks. Since the district is bordered by Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the city saw the largest influx of karsevaks from these two states marching on to Ayodhya. The city almost became a battleground between the police and the Sangh Parivar volunteers in 1990.
Less than 60 kilometres from Agra is Mathura, Lord Krishna's birthplace and thus the fabled land. The Braj region comprising Agra-Mathura occupies a unique place in Hindu sacred geography. After Independence, Mathura emerged as a strong centre for the movement against cow slaughter. Hindu seers made Mathura a base to launch a militant agitation against the government in the 1950s and 1960s. The deep-seated religiosity in the region was quite disconnected with politics that charted its own course.
Along with Dalit consciousness and Hindutva, the region was also stronghold of socialist politics represented by Chaudhary Charan Singh's Lok Dal. Charan Singh formed a formidable rainbow coalition of castes/communities known as MAJGAR (Muslim, Ahir, Jat, Gujjar and Rajput) to dominate the political scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Mulayam Singh Yadav became the real inheritor of Chaudhary's legacy and occasionally occupied that space. Today, this legacy seems to be mere nostalgia and irrelevant to the present.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP appears to have consolidated its position over the years by effective mobilisation of its cadre even though it bears the brunt of anti-incumbency again in case of individual legislators. This is why the sitting BJP MP from Agra was replaced by a fresh candidate. In the entire region, the Samajwadi Party-BSP-RLD coalition has been resisting the march of Hindutva with a unique combination of caste and rising Dalit consciousness. The city of which Ambedkar was extremely fond is fast evolving into a battlefield of political ideas.