Over 40 Rajput office bearers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Haryana’s Kaithal district reportedly submitted their resignations last week, protesting the unveiling of a statue of king Mihir Bhoj with the word “Gurjar” inscribed on its plaque. This brings into focus long-standing contestations between Gurjars and Rajputs over Bhoj’s caste.

The reign of Bhoj, a 9th-century ruler, lasted nearly 50 years with his kingdom spanning portion of the northern Indian subcontinent. Gurjars claim that he belonged to the Gurjar-Pratihara dynasty, and thus, the Gurjar caste. However, the Rajputs argue that Bhoj was a Rajput and that his “Gurjar” prefix is a reference to the region of modern-day Gujarat that was part of his kingdom, and not linked to the Gurjar caste.

These competing claims by Gurjars and Rajputs have cropped-up time and again in recent years. This is because, historians suggest, while Bhoj’s caste cannot be ascertained, it is natural for dominant groups to claim heroes from the past. These contestations, however, have forced the ruling BJP into a political tightrope walk in electorally-crucial Hindi heartland states.

Haryana BJP’s leaders at odds

Earlier in July, the Kaithal administration had intervened after Rajputs objected to Gurjar plans to unveil a Bhoj statue, describing him as “Gurjar-Pratihar Samrat” or a Gurjar king. The intervention did not work. On July 19, the police lathi-charged Rajputs who had gathered in the district to protest the Gurjar plan. A day later, despite Rajput protests, Gurjar community leaders unveiled the statue.

Consequently, the Rajputs announced that they would continue their protest until Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar met their delegation and acted on their demands. These include removing the word “Gurjar” from the plaque, dismissing the BJP’s Kaithal unit chief Ashok Gurjar and taking action against Lila Ram Gujjar, the local BJP Member of Legislative Assembly. In addition, several Rajput-dominated villages in the state imposed a ban on the entry of BJP leaders.

This has led the two groups and local BJP leaders from these communities to also stand on opposing sides of this dispute. “We had sought to name the king as a Hindu Samrat not as Rajput Samrat,” Mahipal Rana, a BJP leader from the Rajput community, told reporters on July 20. “We will continue our agitation till the word ‘Gurjar’ is removed from the statue.”

On the other hand, local BJP MLA Lila Ram Gujjar attacked the Rajput leaders, claiming that there is “solid proof” that Bhoj was a Gurjar king. “[Bhoj] had ruled India when Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Burma were also part of the country,” Gujjar was quoted as saying by The Indian Express. “Rajput community members can’t tamper with history to prove their point. Rajputs are our brothers but they should also exercise restraint while making comments.”

Raja Bhoj's statue in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Credit: Sidheeq, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This is not the first time where disputes between Gurjars and Rajputs have cropped-up over Bhoj’s caste in recent years.

A similar political contestation occurred in September 2021 in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, when BJP leader and Chief Minister Adityanath had unveiled a statue of Bhoj at a college in Gautam Buddh Nagar. The plaque had initially referred to Bhoj as a Gurjar king, which had reportedly offended the Rajputs. But, just before the ceremony, the word “Gurjar” was reportedly covered with black ink to hide the reference.

The BJP government faced a backlash from the Gurjar community, which demanded that the word Gurjar be restored on the plaque. Eventually, Surendra Singh Nagar, a Gurjar leader and BJP Rajya Sabha member, removed the ink.

BJP’s Rajya Sabha member Surendra Singh Nagar with the Bhoj statue in Gautam Buddh Nagar.

The dispute has cropped up on other occasions too. In November, the Kshatriya Parishad, which describes itself as a “research and advocacy” group, had started a campaign in Bihar to “reclaim” Bhoj into the Rajput fold. In May, the internet was snapped as a precautionary measure in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur after the Gurjar community organised a “gaurav yatra” in Bhoj’s honour, despite prohibitory orders. The march was opposed by the Rajput community.

‘Natural inclination to claim heroes’

Historians such as Manisha Choudhary, associate professor of mediaeval Indian history at Delhi University, suggest that it is difficult to ascertain the caste of figures from early mediaeval history. “Historically, we don’t have any clarity regarding whether Mihir Bhoj was either a Gurjar or a Rajput,” Choudhary told Scroll. “The reason for this is that the ones who grew in those times were basically on their own potent and capacity to be a ruler or a warrior.”

Choudhary added, “Mihir [Bhoj] belonged to the ‘Gurjar-Pratiharas’, but there’s nothing available about his early life. So, unless we’re aware of his background, we can’t [confirm] because the entire North India was Gurjar-Pratihara. So, it’s very difficult to say that he was coming from a particular community.”

In a similar vein, Professor SK Chahal, chairman of Kurukshetra University’s history department, told The Indian Express on Tuesday that caste identities seemingly blur when dived deeper into history. “Clear caste lines as we understand them today emerged much later,” Chahal said. “The recent controversies in the name of ancient rulers’ castes are an outcome of modern-day politics and have nothing to do with history.”

Choudhary concurred. “It’s just politics of the modern day that requires you to prove the caste, not in the ancient times,” Choudhary added. “Naturally, for any two dominant classes that live in an area, there’s a natural inclination to claim heroes from the past. By that, they can justify their actions for the region and prove their lineage.”

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath addressing a public rally. Credit: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath addressing a public rally. Credit: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP

BJP’s tight ropewalk

These competing claims have put the ruling BJP in a spot. Both communities, the Gurjars and the Rajputs, are electorally significant, especially in the Hindi heartland states that are crucial for the Hindutva party’s electoral prospects.

For example, in Haryana, some estimates place the state’s Rajput population at 5% and that of the Gurjars at 3.3%. Rajputs reportedly have a sizeable influence in 15 of Haryana’s 90 Assembly seats. Haryana’s Assembly polls are due in 2024, months after the Lok Sabha election. In Uttar Pradesh too, Gurjars are seen as an electorally influential community, especially in the western parts of the state.

As a consequence, the BJP leadership has been seemingly playing a balancing game over these competing claims. In September 2021, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, while unveiling a Bhoj statue in Gautam Buddh Nagar, attempted to placate Rajputs and Gurjars by arguing that “mahapurush (great personalities)” are beyond castes and regions. He also attempted to claim Bhoj as a Hindutva hero, claiming that no Muslim invader could cross into India during his rule. It was only towards the end of Bhoj’s Gurjar-Pratihara dynasty that Mahmud Ghazni, sultan of Ghaznavid Empire, invaded North India, Adityanath reportedly said at a public meeting.

Amid pressure from Rajput office bearers in Haryana, the BJP’s state unit chief Om Prakash Dhankar reiterated this argument about great personalities transcending castes and regions. “We don’t ask the caste of martyr Bhagat Singh, Subhas Chandra Bose, or Chandra Shekhar Azad,” Dhankar told The Print on July 21. “They belong to the nation. Likewise, Mihir Bhoj belongs to the entire nation. These national heroes should not be turned into topics of controversy.”