I must confess I have never understood why Ram Jethmalani off and on aligns himself with the Bharatiya Janata Party. I can only think that he does so from a visceral animus against the Congress, more particularly the Gandhi family.
More often than not, his cheeky independence of mind and forthrightly subversive allusions to shibboleths dear to the culturally reactionary Hindu Rightwing underscore the deep dissonance of his hedonist temperament from the cloistered givens of the Parivar.
Jethmalani’s most recent characterisation of Ram as “a bad husband” after all, who expected “slavery” from his consort rather than any equality of status will inevtiably be seen by his party and the RSS as that one unforgivable gaffe that should see him externed. Imagine that he also voiced the scepticism that Ram may not have been a historical reality in the first place. Time will tell what salience these honest and upright admissions might have in the days to come, both within the Hindu Rightwing and outside among objective academics and historians who must find themselves rather vindicated by such support from the most unexpected of quarters.
After all, we were always told by the Sangh that such “irreverant” estimations of Ram belonged always and entirely to the godless Left, and to the Semitic critics of Hinduism. But lo and behold, now a scion of the Parivar shoots off his curbless tongue to utter the sort of “blasphemy” that qualifies him to a membership of the enemies of “cultural nationalism”. Consider that A.K. Ramanujan, whose iconic essay on the many extant versions of the Ram katha was coercively excised from the Delhi University History syllabus, had only set down some scholarly facts without making any hurtful imprecation of his own. But Jethmalani clearly will be seen to have exceeded scholarship and descended to mere opinion of a kind that is anathema.
Yet, what Jethmalani has said and done under-lines a great and persistent strength of centuries of argumentative Hinduism—argumentation that does not belong only to educated Hindus who have through the centuries made critical evaluations of the narratives that the Rightwing regards as unquestionably sacrosanct, but that is indeed embedded within the texts of these narratives in the first place. A reason why the archives of thought in Hinduism have always made for vibrancies of the intellectual life, even as such richness may have made it difficult to semitise Hinduism into a warlike faith—an effort that the rightwing has been engaged in since first the establishment of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS in 1915 and 1925 respectively, and some seven decades later by Advani’s infamous yatra leading upto to the violent wrenching of India’s syncretic history. A “passion” that Naipaul approved of.
IT is clear that the only consequence that Jethmalani may suffer for his refreshingly upright ”gaffe” is expulsion from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Were that to happen, we hope such freedom might impel Jethmalani to look at certain other contexts in the Ram katha that equally invite disapproval, such as the beheading of the meditating Shudra, Shambook, by the so-large-hearted Ram (an episode present in the original Shudra-written Ramayana but entirely missing in Tulsi’s Ramcharit Manas). And a handful of other things as well, in addition to addressing the problematic fact that there is no single “revealed” (not that there ever are any revealed texts) text of the Ram katha among the three hundred or so extant versions, disparate in the extreme, which one may swear upon oath constitutes ”the truth” of the matter. Think that Ravana is worshipped in most places south of the Vindiyas, or that Dusshera in Mysore comprises not the killing of Ravana but the enactment of the execution of Mahishasura by goddess Mahakali.
For now, there is another sort of hint that inheres in Jethmalani’s publicly stated critique of the concept, Ram. Which is that those that have in time been constructed as prophets and avatars may indeed be viewed with dispassionate honesty, none of which ought to diminish the devotions of those that decry such honesty, and without inviting murder and mass retributions.
Malala-Jethmalani show us the way to an emancipation which alone has the potential to be the bedrock of convictions immune to uncritical impositions by coercive power-structures that wish to save our souls but remain defensively wary of what we think, or why.