Ram Shankar Katheria, Union minister of state for human resources development, stands accused of hate speech. Speaking at a condolence meet in Agra on February 28, he had allegedly said that Muslims should prepare for the “final battle” and that a conspiracy was being hatched against Hindus. The meet was organised by the Sangh Parivar. They were mourning the death of Arun Mauhar, a Dalit leader from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, shot on his way back from a temple four days earlier.

Two versions of his death have emerged through news reports. According to the murdered leader’s family, it was caused by a personal quarrel with the main accused and not by a communal dispute. The Mauhar community has also asserted that it would not let the Bharatiya Janata Party politicise his death.

The BJP and VHP, however, see a martyr in Arun Mauhar. VHP spokesperson Parmender Jain said he had been murdered for his campaign against cow slaughter. Mauhar lived on the edge of Mantola, a Muslim-majority area dubbed, “mini-Pakistan”. There have been several clashes between Mantola and the Hindu bastis that surround it, Jain said. After the latest incident, he added, the Mauhar community felt under siege.

When asked about hate speech at Sunday’s meet, Jain said there was no such thing. “If students in Jawaharlal Nehru University can say ‘Bharat ke murdabad’, can’t we speak up for our nation?” he demanded. “If our gau mata is being killed, won’t we raise our voice?”

On Tuesday, as Parliament erupted over Katheria’s remarks, he issued a clarification: he had not mentioned any community, merely demanded death for Mauhar’s killers. It is possible he did not have to name the community. The meet had been addressed by an array of VHP and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, some of them legislators. The gist of most speeches: take up arms against Muslims, who are “traitors” and “demons”. The men who have since been arrested for Mauhar’s death are all from the minority community.

While three BJP leaders have been booked for making inflammatory speeches at the meeting, Katheria was not one of them. But Katheria’s disclaimer wears thin because the BJP’s only prominent Dalit face in Uttar Pradesh has a record of making polarising statements.

BJP’s Dalit face

A glance at his profile on the government website says that “Professor (Dr) Ram Shankar” holds an MA and PhD from Kanpur University. His interests include “Social Harmony, Encouraging the Youth, Rural Development, Employment and Innovative Research” and he has reportedly taught Hindi at the KM Institute of Dr BR Ambedkar University in Agra. But Katheria’s academic credentials took a hit last year, when it was alleged that he had submitted a fake graduate degree.

This is his second term as member of Parliament from Agra, a reserved constituency known as the “Dalit capital” because the community forms a large section of its population. In the Lok Sabha polls of 2009, he had beaten the rival candidate from the Bahujan Samaj Party by a narrow margin.

But in the general elections of 2014, Katheria made dramatic gains as the BJP launched an aggressive bid to wean the Dalit vote away from the BSP. Narendra Modi’s slogan of “sab ke saath, sab ka vikaas” was projected as a promise of inclusive development. But the BJP also tried to widen its base by inscribing Dalit identity into the mythology of Hindutva. In Agra, it was at a disadvantage. Most of the city’s Dalits are Jatav, a powerful sub-caste which has traditionally supported the BSP, and Katheria is a Dhanuk.

So the Sangh Parivar in Agra reportedly went to Dalit voters with a “history lesson”. Dalits were original inhabitants of India, ran this history, while Brahmins and other upper castes were Aryans settlers. The Sangh also asserted that Ambedkar had not converted to Islam because he did not want Dalits to align with Muslims. This last factoid may have been aimed at BSP chief Mayawati’s attempt to build a Dalit-Muslim coalition before the polls.

It could be that the history lessons and the promise of development worked or it could be that Jatavs were alienated from Mayawati because they believed she had diluted her party’s Dalit agenda. Either way, the Sangh was successful. Katheria won by a huge margin, cornering 5,83,716 votes while the BSP candidate finished second at only 2,83,453.

Plus Hindutva

Katheria seems to have crafted a political persona that combines his Dalit identity with hardline Hindutva rhetoric. Both the Sangh and opposition parties have opined that Katheria got the ministerial post as a “reward” for his work as an RSS pracharak. Soon after he came to power, Agra became a hub for the “ghar wapsi” campaign of 2014.

In a city that is no stranger to communal tension, Katheria has often waded into contentious issues. Last January, damning footage of the minister went viral. He was heard telling the UP police that if Muslims could gather 10,000 men, he could round up 50,000 Hindu marauders in one hour. This was in the wake of a communal incident. By way of an explanation, Katheria’s spokesperson said the minister felt compelled to make the remark since the police only took action against Hindus.

Katheria's remarks this Sunday would fit into this pattern of Dalit and Hindutva assertion. The condolence meet he addressed has been read as a consolidation of Hindutva groups ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections next year. But the BSP and the Samajwadi Party, the BJP’s main political rivals in the region, are confident that the party’s prospects are waning.

In the assembly elections of 2012, the BSP won seats in Agra district, the BJP won two and the Samajwadi Party one. “Now the Modi magic is over,” said Markhan Singh Vyas, a BSP member from Agra. “People can see through the promise of ‘acche din’. The BJP won’t be able to win even one seat in Agra in the next elections.” According to Vyas, the inflammatory comments are the sign of a party losing ground.

“The BJP has no agenda, no programme, no plan for the future. He thinks these comments go down well in his party,” said senior Samajwadi Party leader CP Rai, who felt Katheria had an eye on senior party posts and chief ministerial ambitions.

The ruling party has certainly not made a public effort to reign in its loose-tongued minister of state. Even as Parliament broke into an uproar, the BJP’s central leadership maintained a deafening silence.