kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

300 Ramayanas and Counting . . .
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In the name of Ram


Jyoti Punwani revisits the dark times during which the Hindu right-wing transformed Ram from the Ideal Man into Ram the Aggressor.

`Allah o Akbar’ or ‘God is Great’, is the phrase we hear over the azaan everyday, sometimes sung incredibly melodiously, at other times out of tune and jarring. It is also a traditional war cry of Muslims.

`Jai Siya (Sita) Ram’ is a phrase used as a greeting in some parts of India; it is mostly used as a devotional chant, and forms part of many hymns.

What is `Jai Sri Ram’? That too is a devotional chant, part of many hymns.

But this phrase acquired a totally different colour from the mid-1980s onwards.  It was adopted by the BJP as its war cry, used to rally its followers in its campaign to destroy the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and build a Ram temple in its place, a campaign now dormant, but revived every time there’s an election. When the campaign was at its peak, this phrase was used in many ways, none of them devotional: a rallying call against Muslims who naturally opposed the BJP plan; a victory slogan shouted at intervals when BJP/VHP/RSS leaders  made their incendiary speeches; a message painted on walls to announce the BJP’s presence.  Muslims were forced by BJP supporters – and the police — to say ‘Jai Sri Ram’; it became a password during the many communal riots set off by this campaign to get safely through marauding Hindu mobs. Its many uses almost made one forget that this phrase was actually a salutation to god.

Ram is one of the most popular gods in India, but his image has less to do with war and mayhem than other equally popular gods such as Krishna, Hanuman and Shiva. Shiva is a fun-loving god, but he has his third eye which can burn you to ashes; Hanuman of course set Lanka on fire, and bared his chest in a fierce gesture to show the image of Ram and Sita within. His army of monkeys helped Ram win against Ravan.  The playful, flute-playing Krishna who makes gopis weak-kneed, is also Arjun’s charioteer who encourages him to shed his reluctance on the battlefield and kill the enemy – most of them his own treacherous relatives.

But Ram? The most popular image of Ram is the one where he is flanked by Sita and Lakshman, bow by his side, looking tranquil and kind, hand raised in blessing, Hanuman at his feet. His image is one of sacrifice. He is the ideal man, the ideal king, but for a very large section of Hindu women who worship him, he is definitely not the ideal husband, even though the most popular greeting `Jai Siya Ram’ places his wife’s name before his.

For anyone who can think beyond blind faith, Ram is certainly no ideal. His atrocious treatment of his wife apart, there are his other unforgivable acts: ordering Lakshman to cut off  Ravan’s sister Surpanakha’s nose and ears; slaying Vali by stealth, and killing Shambuk the `shudra’ who dared do tapasya.

But leave all that aside. Ram’s personality is far from aggressive. Even school-level tellings of the Ramayana portray Ram as weaker in resolve than his brother Lakshman. In the forest, he is always wailing and crying and it is Lakshman who takes charge and seems the more hot-blooded and resourceful one.

The BJP’s campaign, centring as it did on Ram’s supposed birthplace, had to have him as its focus. Ram’s popular maryada purshottam image – the ideal man, the model of good conduct — was probably not aggressive enough for a movement that was meant to instigate Hindus to fever pitch, bringing down a historic mosque, establishing the might of the majority community, and forever putting Muslims in their place. So the BJP resurrected Ram as the warrior: bow drawn, eyes fixed on his goal – annihilation of The Enemy.

Just before its Ayodhya campaign, the VHP, the BJP’s sister organisation, had used a ferocious Durga astride a tiger as a symbol of Bharat Mata. This was during its nationwide Jan Jagran Abhiyan (mass awakening programme) and itsEkatmata Yatra.   These yatras were the VHP’s response to the conversion to Islam of about 300 dalit families in Meenakshipuram, Tamil Nadu, in 1981. The dalits were fed up of living as untouchables; the VHP of course focused on Islam, not the caste system, as the enemy.

Until the Ayodhya movement, the favourite war cries of the RSS (out of which grew the BJP, VHP, Bajrang Dal etc) used to be ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’.  Old accounts of riots (in the ’70s and early-’80s) speak of Hindu mobs also shouting `Har Har Mahadev’ (Mahadev is another name for Shiva; this was also reportedly the war cry of Shivaji’s army). In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena used `Jai Shivaji Jai Bhavani’ as its slogan of intimidation. (Bhavani is the ferocious, weapon-wielding, demon-slaying goddess whom Shivaji worshipped, and who is said to have given him the Bhavani sword). The Shivaji Jayanti procession in Bhiwandi, near Mumbai, was the spark for the 1970 Bhiwandi riots. It was banned after that and again revived in 1984. Within a month, Bhiwandi erupted again, though the procession did not cause the riots.

Shivaji thus became a fearsome figure for Muslims. Few of them – indeed, few Hindus too –  know that his generals were Muslims. The Sena highlights Shivaji’s killing of Afzal Khan, Adil Shah’s general, by thrusting a dagger into his side and disembowelling him. This precise action is very important; the Shiv Sena CM Manohar Joshi explained to Justice B N Srikrishna during the Srikrishna Commission hearings that while recounting the history of Shivaji, just saying Shivaji stabbed and killed Afzal Khan doesn’t convey the same effect as saying that he thrust a dagger into his entrails. But the Sena remains silent on what Shivaji did after he killed Afzal Khan. He saw to it that a tomb was constructed for the general at the base of Pratapgadh Fort.  Ironically, that tomb, around which an annual urs used to be held, attended also by local Hindus, became a target of attack by the VHP in 2004.

The use by the RSS of patriotic phrases such as `Vande Mataram’ and `Bharat Mata ki Jai’, which have their own history and popularity, has led to them being shunned by other activist groups. Recently, I saw a radical wincing when, after hoisting the flag on August 15, a group of workers shouted ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. This was inside the premises of a leftist trade union office in Mumbai.  One wonders whether `Jai Sri Ram’ has acquired such connotations for those who used it innocuously before the BJP made it its own. Here’s how L K Advani’s portal describes the way the phrase was transformed:  “’Jai Sri Ram’ became more than a traditional greeting: it became a roaring endorsement of the BJP’s view that secularism does not mean a rejection of our history and cultural heritage, the very foundations of this great nation.’’ Note the use of the word `roaring’ – not something one would associate with Ram. Daring the government to stop his 1990 rath yatra, which left a trail of blood, Advani compared it to the horse used by Ram for the Ashwamedh yagna!

Interestingly, just before this, the RSS had projected a very different image of Ram. At the start of its Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, it had taken `Ram-Janaki’ rath yatras  through UP and Bihar, where Ram was shown behind bars, depicting his status inside the Babri Masjid. After the locks of the Masjid were opened in 1986, this symbol of the imprisoned Ram was discarded and replaced with Ram the aggressor.

The RSS had always rued the Hindus’ tepid approach to their religion, comparing it to the Muslims’ willingness to die for theirs. Bharat Mata and Vande Mataram weren’t likely to inspire Hindus to give up their lives. But Ram could. An aggressive Ram, out to avenge the insult to him by a Muslim invader centuries ago, would inspire more than just reverence of the sort displayed by onlookers who touched the Ram shilas (bricks meant to build the proposed Ram temple) in devotion when these were taken out in processions. Policemen, never keen to act against those who broke the law for a Hindu cause, would obviously side with the `Ram bhakts’. Equally obviously, those opposing Ram had to be The Enemy, both of Ram bhakts and of the country, because they were siding with an invader, thereby becoming `Babar ki aulad’ (sons of Babar). Sunderlal Patwa, CM of Madhya Pradesh from 1990 to 1992 when this campaign was at its height, reminded Muslims in speech after speech that they were actually `Ram ki aulad’. Under his rule, the Bajrang Dal put up a plaque on Bhopal railway station that read: “The Bajrang Dal welcomes you to the state capital of the Hindu Rashtra.’’ It was also during his rule that a policeman in uniform was persuaded to remove his cap and belt and participate in a Ram yatra by singing a Ram bhajan.

Never short of creative slogans, the RSS came up with many to augment the warlike-atmosphere: “Saugandh Ram ki khaate hain, mandir wahin banayenge; Ab talwar nikli miyan se, mandir banega shaan se; Yaachna nahin ab rann hoga, sangharsh bada bheeshan hoga.’’ Which youngster wouldn’t feel a rush of adrenalin when these slogans were shouted by large numbers of saffron flag-waving, trishul-carrying youth? Trishul distribution – as initiation into the Bajrang Dal, which was formed during the Ayodhya movement as the armed wing of the RSS — became part of the Ayodhya campaign from 1991onwards. At the start of one shila pujan procession in Mumbai in 1990, an RSS volunteer told me that the number of trishuls per procession depended on the number of Muslims in the area. Never mind that the trishul was never Ram’s weapon, the bow and arrow was. Hindu right-wing leader Sadhvi Rithambara, addressing a rally on Ramzan Id in 1991 in Indore, a city which had seen two terrible riots in 1989 and 1990, reminded her audience that Ram had renounced his throne, not his bow and arrow. Nor could she, a sadhvi, renounce her mission of “Hindu jagran (awakening)” until the saffron flag fluttered from the Red Fort.  “Jai Siya Ram!’’ the all-male, all-Hindu crowd responded.

The day the 1990 riots began in Indore was the day of the symbolic so-called kar sewa in Ayodhya. From the morning, Ram bhajans were played on loudspeakers across the city, the streets were sprinkled with saffron powder (not the traditional gulal), saffron saris were hung out from balconies and the atmosphere became `Ram-may’ in local parlance. The moment the news came that the Babri Masjid had been attacked, bands of RSS men fanned out shouting “Jai Sri Ram’’.

Unless we recall exactly how Ram was used in those dark days (memories of which are now growing distant as the main protagonists of that time no longer stride the national scene), we won’t grasp the enormity of the evil done in the name of Ram.

In Indore, after the 1990 riots, Muslim women described how they were taunted by Hindu boys living in the police lines across the road. “These men take out prabhat pheris every morning. When they pass our house, they shout, ‘Bachcha bachcha Ram ka, ya chaachi (term of address for Muslim women) ke kaam ka.’’

“Every morning when I go to buy milk, the boys greet me: `Chachi, Jai Siya Ram.’  `Jai Siya Ram’, I reply. Then they tell me: `Chachi, apni bahuon ka nikaah humse karwaogi? (Will you give us your daughters-in-law in marriage?)’ `Haan bete, karwaaongi, (Yes son, I will)’  I reply.

“The policemen told us, ‘Give us your sons or we shall make you have ours, they’ll all be Ram bhakts…’ ’’ (from `After the Indore riots’, The Independent, December 1990)

Perhaps the worst illustration was the way `Jai Sri Ram’ was chanted by Hindu mobs in the 1992-93 Mumbai riots after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.  A helpless Muslim, out alone, either fleeing the city or looking for a lost relative, would be hunted down, stabbed, bludgeoned and burnt; all of these long-drawn-out lynchings in broad daylight in the middle of residential colonies, all to the chant of `Jai Sri Ram’. In Gujarat a decade later, Muslim women were gangraped by Hindus shouting ‘Jai Sri Ram’; in Kandhamal in 2008, Christian tribals were attacked by men chanting this slogan.

Interestingly, this misuse of Ram wasn’t approved by other parties, even those whose politics are closely linked with religion. The granthi of the Delhi gurdwara who honoured L K Advani with a siropa (sword) when the BJP leader stopped to pay obeisance during his rath yatra to Ayodhya in 1990, was dismissed. Explaining the dismissal, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) president and at the time the grand old man of Akali politics, said in an interview: “Advani’s current mission was directed against a particular community, aimed at destroying their place of worship.  We considered the mission wrong…’’  Reminded that the Akalis have always held that religion and politics cannot be separated, Tohra replied: “Not when your politics is aimed at another’s religion, when you want to destroy the religious place of another to build your own. Then what is the difference between Aurangzeb and Babar and you?’’ (The Independent, October 28, 1990, interview with this reporter) Significantly, the Akalis have always been the BJP’s electoral ally; the parties drifted apart during the Punjab militancy, but are together again.

Tohra had hit the nail on the head. The RSS had always yearned for Hindus to become as fanatical about their religion as they considered Muslims to be. This goal was to be accomplished even more comprehensively by 2008 when one of their sadhvis was arrested as a terrorist, mirroring the Masood Azhars and Mullah Omars of Pakistan.

What a perversity that the RSS achieved this goal by completely distorting the image of a popular Hindu god. What did this transformation of Ram do to his image among Muslims? It should be noted that Allama Iqbal had written:  Hai Ram ke wajood pe Hindostan ko naaz/Ahl-e-nazar samajhtey hein usko Imam-e-Hind! (Hindustan is proud of Ram’s existence; the insightful call him the Imam of Hindustan)’’. Many Muslim scholars place Ram as one of the 124,000 messengers who according to Islam were sent to earth for every tribe and community. Traditionally, Muslims have participated in Diwali celebrations; the Ramayan is part of their consciousnees too, at least in the villages of the north. A Hindu Kashmiri brahmin in Mumbai, who married a Muslim from UP, recounted how when she went for the first time to her in-laws’ home in UP, her husband’s brother greeted her with the words: “Sita aa gayi’’ and introduced himself as Lakshman.

But after the BJP’s demonisation of Ram, did Muslims start looking upon him as they look upon Shivaji?  Just as many Hindus consider `Allah o Akbar’ only a war cry, not the beautiful praise of god that begins the azaan, do Muslims now recoil from  `Jai Sri Ram’ as they do from  `Vande Mataram’ and `Bharat Mata ki Jai’, looking on them only as  war cries?

Jyoti Punwani is a senior journalist who has been reporting and covering communal divides in India since the 1980s.