Leader of Modi’s Monastic Campaign Accused of Unethical Practices
It was supposed to be a campaign bus that would swing the Dalit vote in Indian PM Narendra Modi’s favor. Already, however, there are signs that Buddhist monks across India are refusing to work with the government’s Dhamma Chetana Yatra, mostly because of its leader, the 77-year-old Venerable Dhamma Viriyo, whom many claim is a corrupt pawn that will damage the name of Buddhism even as Modi seeks to appropriate it.
The Dhamma Chetana Yatra is traveling across the state of Uttar Pradesh from 24 April to 14 October with the goal of wooing Dalit voters to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the state’s 2017 Assembly elections. This has been a traditionally difficult task given the BJP’s Hindu nationalist politics and the Buddhist Dalits’ decades-long loyalty to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). According to The Hindu, Dalits form 21 per cent of the state’s population.
Ven. Dhamma Viriyo’s remit is primarily to campaign and speak to the Dalits, highlighting Modi’s social and economic policies. According to dnaindia.com, he is accompanied by around 50 monks. On 29 May, catchnews noted: “Viriyo addresses between 5,000 and 7,000 people a day, mostly Dalits and OBCs [Other Backward Classes]. By the end of the yatra, he should have spoken with 4-5 million people. At every halt, Viriyo reportedly donates a television set and plays a video of Modi's message for the crowd.”
However, two days earlier, Scroll.in reported that the campaign was already running into serious difficulties. Prominent monks in important Buddhist centers, namely Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, and Kushinagar, are denouncing its leader, Ven. Dhamma Viriyo, as one of the worst possible choices to represent Buddhism. Ven. Chandrima, a senior monk at Sarnath and chairman of the International Buddhist Research Centre in Lucknow, blasted Ven. Dhamma Viriyo as a “pariah who is out to destroy Buddhism.”
The monks’ accusations are based mainly on events in 2011, when the Ministry of Culture charged Ven. Dhamma Viriyo with misusing grants and not maintaining proper accounts during his tenure as general secretary of the All India Bhikkhu Sangha, one of the oldest pan-Indian societies for monks. He had been at the post since 2004, and was forced to step down in 2013. His successor, Ven. Pragyadeep, had nothing good to say about him either: “The charges against him were so serious that he had become unfit to lead Buddhist monks,” he told Scroll.in. Moreover, in 1983, Darjeeling police had arrested him for misappropriating government funds intended for a home for the destitute that he had been managing in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was jailed for a month.
Ven. Nand Ratan, who is based in Kushinagar, told Scroll.in that this campaign condemned both Ven. Dhamma Viriyo and Modi. “It also shows Modi’s empathy towards Buddhism,” he said. “Both are dangerously wrong. Buddhism cannot be used as a political tool.” Ven. Priyapal, a monk living in Bodh Gaya, warned that Ven. Dhamma Viriyo was little more than Modi’s puppet: “A few months back he met Modi, and now he has become a pawn in his hand unmindful of the fact that his act would discredit Buddhism.”
Ven. Pragyadeep also has grave doubts. “It would be stupid to pretend what Dhamma Viriyo is doing will not affect the image of Buddhism,” he told Scroll.in. “The depressed classes have great respect for Buddhism. I don’t know whether he would succeed in making Dalits vote for Modi in the UP elections. But I do know that he will bring, in the process, a very bad name for Buddhism.”
BJP to promote Modi as pro-Dalit in U.P. (The Hindu)
Monks claim that Modi’s Buddhist messenger is actually out to defame Buddhism (Scroll.in)
In UP, BJP banks on Buddhist monk to spread its campaign messages (catchnews)
87-year-old monk on a journey with a message for Dalit to support PM Modi (dnaindia.com)