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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 49 New Delhi November 28, 2015

Apne Apne Ram: The God of Politics

Friday 27 November 2015

by Navneet Sharma and Pradeep Nair

Ram naam sat hai

The above sentence literally states a divine matter of fact that the Ram (the God) is the only universal truth but obtains a very different meaning in practice, usually chanted by people while following someone on his/her last journey to the cremation ground. This article attempts to appreciate how Ram as a name and a concept attains totally different meanings. The same Ram, when used in a political discourse, also can mean very differently. Gandhi’s Ram stands out as a benevolent king/or the philosopher king whose rule accommodates every different being of his populace, whereas Golwalkar’s Ram stands as a Hindu God, the most important one in the Hindu mythology triumvirate of creator, preserver and destroyer—the incarnate of Vishnu, the preserver. The political Ram always worked differently either motivating the people to fight for freedom or to garner support for the RamJanmabhoomi Movement—an euphemist idea for developing a vote-bank of a particular political party.

The Politics of God 

God is a necessary evil of politics. The god is required to foster rule of ‘one’ on many. In feudal systems the King is an incarnate of the god, so the king’s wish, rule and justice is that of the god and has to be abided by. The concept of the ‘modern’ state separated the god from the state. The rule by democracy, which evolved as the late logic of industrialisation and capitalism, needed to emphasise upon the ‘equality’ to legitimise the hierarchical hidden segmentation of the haves and have-nots. Democracy also survives and sustains upon the ‘opiate’ condition of the people and the god is the best opium. The Indian subcontinent with multiplicity of gods and religions is one of the most fertile for religion or god-centric politics. The historicity of Indian politics reflects the centredness of god in the idea of the Indian state and its Premiers, be they hailed as ‘Chakravarti’ (the one whose rule encompasses the whole universe) or as ‘Shehanshah’ (the king of kings, akin to god) or as ‘Lord’ (from Hastings to Mountbatten). We as a people have been governed by the god. The revivalist Hindu movements in the 19th century and the freedom struggle also pivoted around god. Tilak’s Ganesh Utsava, Gandhi’s Ramrajya and the Tabligh and Tanzeem movements always kept god as the centre-piece for political activism and politics.

The seemingly secular ethos of the freedom struggle from colonial rulers could not sustain itself and lost to the god and the subcontinent was partitioned in the name of Allah and Ram. This is the legacy of god-politics which motivated K.K.K. Nair (the then District Magistrate of Faizabad in 1949) to be a ‘Ramzada’ and Ram appeared surreptitiously in the disputed structure in Ayodhya. Nair refused the request of the then Prime Minister, Nehru, to remove the idols from the structure and later contested and won the parliamentary election from Bahraich on a Bharatiya Jan Sangh ticket. History repeated itself in 1996, the then (1992) Senior Superintendent of Police, Devendra Bahadur Rai, resigned and contested and won the parliamentary election from nearby Sultanpur constituency on a BJP ticket. Another bureaucrat, who played an important role, was the then Principal Secretary, Home in the State of Uttar Pradesh, Prabhat Kumar, who was later on rewarded with the gubernatorial post of Jharkhandby the NDA Government. Ram became a passage and ticket to Parliament without any toil. Deepika Chikhalia and Arvind Trivedi, Sita and Ravan characters of Ramanand Sagar-directed tele-serial—Ramayan—all got elected to Parliament without any political background, dynasty and activism—merely on the divine powers of Ram and the voters’ faith in Ram.

The tele-serial Ramayan in the mid-1980s played an important role in increasing the popularity of Ram as god anew somewhat akin to the filmy and Bollywood creation of Santoshi Mata. Santoshi Ma took birth and grew popular as goddess only with the release of ‘Jai Santoshi Maa’, a Bollywood flick made with low budget and forgotten character artistes in 1975. There is neither a Vedic nor Puranic version of Santoshi Ma in Hindu mythology. Similarly, the Ram, which is political and the image and imagery of maryada purshottam and a ‘Hindu’ god, is created by Ramnand Sagar’s Ramayan else, as A.K. Ramanujan brings it to light, there are more than three hundred Ramayanas and countless Ramas and still counting. The political Ram exists and was created by different ideological contestations. The Congress party (even when it was the Congress-I or Indian National Congress) espoused the idea of Ramrajya and even Gandhi (the Mahatama) employed the imagery of being an incarnate of Goswami Tulsidas and a Hindu saint and never denied the rumour which played an important role in popularising him as a mass leader (the rumour was that the villages and people not participating in the Gandhian movement get inflicted by plague). The Congress-I, which was increasingly losing ground after gaining the most amazing electoral win in the 1984 elections (404 seats in the Lok Sabha) post-Indira assassination, to appease the Hindu vote-bank opened up the disputed Ayodhya structure for prayers by the Hindus. The Congress also wanted to encash upon the Ram fervour in the country but it boomeranged with the simultaneous appeasement of the Muslims in the Shah Bano case. The benevolent Ram of the Congress-I lost to the virulent, Aryan, Hindu Ram of the VHP and BJP.

Ramrajya as Swaraj

In colonial India, Ramrajya was politically conceptualised as against the colonial rule by Mahatama Gandhi, an ideal rajya where the values of justice, equality, idealism, renunciation and sacrifice were practised. While defining Ramrajya, Gandhi wrote in Young India in 1929 that “by Ramrajya I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean by Ramarajya, a divine raj, the kingdom of God. For me Rama and Rahim are one and the same deity. I acknowledge no other God but the one God of truth and righteousness. Whether Ram of my imagination ever lived or not on this earth, the ancient ideal of Ramrajya is undoub-tedly one of true democracy in which the meanest citizen could be sure of swift justice without an elaborate and costly procedure.” (Young India, September 19, 1929, p. 305)

Gandhi’s Ram still had a divine meaning, the obvious reference to the mythical rule of Ram for eleven thousand years post-Lanka-Sita-rescue-war—the ‘raj’ where the people and society and even weather worked with tandem and precession and everybody lived hale, hearty and prosperous. Even mythologically, in Ramayana,Ramrajya is described as a rule where peace, prosperity and tranquillity reigned. It was further exposited by many scholars as a state which imposes limits upon its exercise of power, either for the greater happiness of the people, or to evade a greater tyranny that could be caused by moral outrage or self-righte-ousness. Gandhi in 1930 would have been hardly introduced to the feminist interpretation of Ram as husband and Ram-katha or the Dalit interpretation of Ram’s rajya where shudras were supposed to do only jobs assigned to them or they face the fate of Shambook (the low-caste saint beheaded by Ram for doing ‘tapasya’ to attain moksha—both being the prerogative for ‘dwijas’ and Brahmins in particular). However, Gandhi’s Ram was secular, divine and spiritual (Ishwar and Allah were one and the same for Gandhi—Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, Iswar Allah tero naam). He explicitly wrote on February 26, 1947 in Harijan that “let no one commit the mistake of thinking that Ramrajya means a rule of Hindus. My Ram is another name for Khuda or God. I want KhudaRaj which is the same thing as the Kingdom of God on Earth.” Gandhi’s Ram though was an incarnation of Vishnu, but the one faithful to Ram was the one who had empathy for others (Vaishnav jan toh taine kahiye jo peedh parai jane re).

Gandhi’s Ram, by his own admission, had no relation to the Ram worshipped by many Hindus. Gandhi’s idea of Ramrajya is a place/society where everybody follows a code of righteous living, lives content and happy and meets their essential needs. In 1937, in Harijan he wrote that “Ramrajya is a rajya in which the sovereignty of the people will be based on pure moral authority”. (Harijan, January 2, 1937, p. 374) The after-effect of partition had traumatised Gandhi and to avoid further Hindu-Muslim riots, he wrote in Harijan in October 19, 1947 that “my Hinduism teaches me to respect all religions. In this lies the secret of Ramrajya. If you want to see God in the form of Ramrajya, the first requirement is self-introspection. You have to magnify your own faults a thousand fold and shut your eyes to the faults of your neighbours. That is the only way to real progress.” (Harijan, October 26. 1947, p. 387)

In contrast, the RSS ideology deals with the concept of Ramrajya within the political domain. It emphasises on Hindu moral virtues and ‘varna’-based social justice and sees Ram as a symbol of religious nationalism or Hindu rashtravad. For this cultural organisation, Ramrajya represents Dharamarajya, the rule of righteousness, and Ram, a temporal representation of Dharma of the people who are in majority and whose ‘pitrabhumi’ (fatherland) and ‘punyabhumi’ (holyland) are within the ‘Indian’ boundaries.

Ram’s Raj: Ram, Rashtra and the Hindutva 

In the 2014 Lok sabha general elections, Narendra Modi thumped his chest as being born Hindu and thus he is a Hindu nationalist. The question arises: why has one to assert being Hindu (living along with 85 per cent Hindus) and this automatically makes one a nationalist? What is left unsaid is that those who are not Hindus are not nationalists—but this is also said with a caveat that all those whose father-land and holyland is in India are Hindus thus including Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists but simul-taneously excluding Muslims and Christians (their holyland being Mecca and the Vatican—and thus they are not Indian!). The ‘nation’ and nationalism evolves and is constructed amongst the people with the help of images and imageries. The mighty Hindu cultural organisation attempts to construct the image of the rashtra (akhand bharat) with the help of Ram by coining slogans like baccha-baccha Ram ka, janmabhoomi ke kam ka (every child belongs to Ram and thus would work for freeing Ram’s birthplace at Ayodhya) or jo naam na le Ram ka, wo Pakistan ka (the one who does not call for Ram is a Pakistani —thus anti-national). Even the mnemonics to rote learn cos, tan and sine were constructed as Hara Bhara Hindustan, Bhukha Pyasa Pakistan, Chand Tara Shamshan (prospering Hindu-sthan and impoverished Pakistan, moon and stars are in a crematorium—Chand Tara are with reference to the Pakistan flag).

The construct of Ram also helps in crafting paradigmatic others as the god Ram is anti-thetical to the demonic Ravan, similarly—Hindudom, Hindu nationalism and Hindutva thrives upon being anti to others Semitic religions and all those whose holyland is far away. The Hindutva nationalism even does not sound being guided by ‘Hinduism’ but the Arya Samaj which, being a revivalist and reformist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries, was influenced by the thought and thinking of confused cohorts who were neither core religionists nor nationalists. The Ram politics and rashtravad (nationalism) took a pendular position where they sounded nationalist at one point and religious extremist at another. Nation and nationalism, as is the truism, has always sheltered the coward—which religious extre-mists are the most.

Buddha, Periyar and Ambedkar: Nemesis for the Ram politics 

The Ram politics could engulf the populist mood in independent India only in the decade of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was never the so- called ‘secular’ and never secular Congress politics but Dalit assertions and movements which proved to be a nemesis for Ram politics. The attempt of Brahminism via Ram idolisation was first countered by Buddha and Buddhism. The Brahmins attempted to proclaim Buddha by hailing him as the ninth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu (Hindu mythology asserts that Vishnu —the preserver in the triumvirate of Hindu Gods had nine incarnations—tenth, the Kalki, is still to happen). On proclaiming Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, Wendy Doniger in her study argued that the Buddha ‘avatar’ which occurs in different versions in various Puranas may represent an attempt by Brahminism to slander the Buddhists by identifying them with the demons, whereas Glasenapp attributed these developments to a Hindu desire to absorb Buddhism in a peaceful manner, both to win Buddhists to Vaishnavism and also to account for the fact that such a significant heresy could exist only in India.

Periyar, through his Self-Respect Movement, protested against the upper-caste politics, led by the then Congress party. He claimed that the Congress party is a pseudo-social body which sheltered under its roof only the reactionaries and orthodox upper-caste people who were deadly against any real change of the social structure. He argued that to a human being it is the protection of his suyamariyadai (self-respect) which is his birthright and not swaraj (political freedom). While criticising Hinduism and God-politics, he said: “Hinduism is not a religion. It is founded by a small group for their own vested interests and built on ignorance, illiteracy and exploitation of the people. God, religion and man are the social interventions of the upper castes and Brahmins, with a view to securing their own superiority.” In a discussion with Gandhi at Bangalore in 1925, Periyar asserted that if the society was to be saved, then the Congress, Hinduism and Brahminism should all go. During Periyar’s time, the Hindutva-based cultural organisation was a fledgling one and was simultaneously in doldrums where it shared power with the Socialists in 1977 or did not create any ruckus on the Ram temple issue till that was given to it on a platter by the Congress politics in 1985-86. The Ramlala appeared in 1949 in Ayodhya and hardly was an issue for this mighty cultural organisation till the mid-1980s.

Ambedkar was always sceptical of Hindu extremism as caste-based fundamentalism. He argued that “the Hindu religion was to be found as one which is not intended to establish liberty, equality and fraternity. It is a gospel which proclaims the worship of the superman—the Brahmin—by the rest of the society.” (Dr B.R. Ambedkar in Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah) On Gandhi’s idea of swaraj and ramrajya, in his presidential address given at the South Indian Social Reformers Conference held at Madras on November 26, 1928, he said that “it is myth to believe that untouchability will go if we get swaraj. Swaraj, dharmraj, ramraj, harishchandra raj and theraj of the very gods are actually responsible for originating and organising this blot on humanity“.

Post-Ambedkar it was the mandal politics which always kept ‘kamandal’ politics in check. Kanshiram and Mayawati, even in their earlier journey while establishing the BAMCEF or DS4 or BSP, made the internal conflicts of Hinduism and political Hindutva to come to the shore. The later OBC politics of Mulayam, Laloo and Nitish further brought chinks to the Ram politics; that is why Ram and Ram politics went into hibernation. Both the Congress and BJP wanted to experiment and exploit again Ram on the issue of Ramsetu or Adam’s bridge but again it was the Dalit awareness and politics which obstructed the gory, divisive and exclusionary Ram politics.

Ram has and had multiple divine meanings. It is the political Ram which fights for the unilateral meaning, interpretation and story of Ram. This Ram imagination and imagery carves an impossible idea of a suave Hindu, a Hindu who is to become a maryada purushottam but has to simultaneously take on the demonic Ravan by sheer numerical might (Hindi as a national language) or should behead the paradigmatic others (Muslims and Christians in this case) or should bring the shudra (low caste) and nari (women) to task. This political Ram would create more wedges where there are none, would create meanings otherwise whereby Jai Shri Ram would not sound as a benign greeting but an outcry as a political slogan.


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Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh (Dharamshala, District Kangra). Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh (Dharamshala, District Kangra).