A series of Dalit protests in western Uttar Pradesh in the last 10 days against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Dalit outreach campaign – Dhamma Chetna Yatra – seems to have unnerved the Bharatiya Janata Party.

In a desperate attempt to avoid any fresh embarrassment in the poll-bound state, the party has asked the monks leading the campaign to downplay the campaign and only discreetly visit Buddhist Vihars, Ambedkar parks and Dalit tenements. Local BJP leaders have also been asked to maintain a distance from the yatra even while facilitating its movement.

The move comes close on the heels of protests by Dalits at the public meeting of Buddhist monks in Aligarh on July 24, when local BJP leaders were chased away. Similar protests were registered at Hathras and Mathura followed by the cancellation of BJP president Amit Shah’s plan to join the Yatra at Agra on July 31.

The Yatra, led by 87-year-old monk Dhamma Viriyo, is being monitored directly by the Prime Minister’s Office. The six-month-long Yatra was flagged off on April 24 at Sarnath by Home Minister Rajnath Singh and is on its way to pass through Dalit localities and Buddhist centres in Uttar Pradesh, spreading Modi’s views on Buddhism and Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar.

Though the Yatra hasn’t reached the half-way mark in terms of its coverage, it has already started becoming a burden for the BJP as it has become the target of anger caused by attacks on Dalits in Gujarat and remarks by party leader Dayashankar Singh against Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati.

The party has been forced to issue advisories to monks and directives to its local leaders because of its fear that unless they go slow they might end up provoking frequent protests resulting in a fresh controversy, a senior BJP leader said.

Pilgrims' progress

The decision of the BJP, taken in panic soon after Amit Shah had to cancel his trip to Agra, has started showing up in the Yatra’s progress.

“These monks came to Eta yesterday [August 3] and have stayed in the government guest house since then,” Bhante Dhamma Ratan, a senior Buddhist monk of Eta, said over phone late on Thursday. “They have neither tried to visit the local Baudh Vihar nor the Ambedkar Park.” The monks had cancelled all the programmes, Ratan added.

On his part, the BJP leader and the chief coordinator of the Yatra, RK Anand, tried to put a brave face. “This has never been a political yatra and has nothing to do with any party,” he said. “Its aim is to spread the message of Buddhism, and there has been no change in that schedule.”

The yatra is a convoy of 10 Innovas, a luxury bus and a truck with LED screens – each vehicle carries photographs of Modi, who also features – along with Buddha and Ambedkar – on calendars which are being distributed by monks in Dalit localities.

Agra, in fact, was the last place where monks shared the dais with BJP leaders including state party president Keshav Prasad Maurya in the secure atmosphere of a school run by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on July 31.

The next day the monks reached Tundla, where they tried to enter into a local Buddhist Vihar. But in view of fierce protests by local Buddhists and Dalits, they had to leave the place.

“Tundla was the last place where they tried to enter into Vihar. We chased them away,” said Bhante Darshan Deep, a senior Buddhist monk at Tundla’s Buddhist Vihar. “Thereafter, they have travelled on roads and stayed in guest houses but never tried to hold a public meeting or enter into a Vihar,” he added.

At present, the Yatra is passing through its second phase, which will end on August 14. In its third phase it is scheduled to cover Dalit localities and Buddhist Vihars of Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, while in its fourth phase it is scheduled to travel through areas of central Uttar Pradesh.

The Yatra is to culminate on October 14 at Lucknow in the presence of Modi.