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Gandhi’s Ram vs. Modi’s Ram

In the midst of the current fervour over Lord Ram, it is sometimes only too easy to forget that this is hardly the first time that the lord’s name has been used as a rallying cry.

The first major political personage to try and mobilise people in the name of Ram was Mahatma Gandhi.


The second—though he encouraged only a fanatical, right-wing faction—was LK Advani. And now, Narendra Modi is the third.


   Secular liberals are often embarrassed, in retrospect, by Gandhi’s willingness to use Hindu symbols. They shouldn’t be. Gandhiji referred to Hindu gods because he wanted to speak in a language that reached the general public—especially the Hindu majority—in an era where imperialism had made Indians unfamiliar with normal political discourse.


   Hence the many references to ‘Ram Rajya’ as an ideal state. Or the use of such bhajans as Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram (which some believe was written by Tulsidas).


   And though Gandhiji was never embarrassed by his devotion to Lord Ram—in his autobiography, he wrote that “Ramanama is an infallible remedy for me” in times of fear and doubt—he was also clear that ‘Ram Rajya’ was not about a narrow sectarian state and that Ram’s name was used to spread unity not division. In fact, in the version of Ram Dhun that was sung at his meetings, the line “Ishwar Allah Tero Naam” was added to the original bhajan.


   None of this was considered controversial until the mid-1980s. Secularists sang Ram Dhun as a tribute to India’s diversity and children were taught that Gandhi’s last words after he was shot by a Hindu fundamentalist were “Hey Ram”.


   According to historian Patrick French, Gandhiji did not actually say “Hey Ram” just before he died. The quote was made up. But it was widely repeated perhaps as a way of drawing a distinction between Gandhiji’s conception of an inclusive Hinduism and the bigotry of the Hindu fundamentalist who murdered him.


   So, when did liberals begin to be embarrassed by references to Lord Ram? When did Ram’s name become the property of the Hindu right?


   It probably happened in the mid-80s when Ram came to be associated with the claims of denial of rights to Hindus and the so-called appeasement of Muslims.


   In a relatively short space of time, Gandhiji’s conception of Ram was replaced by Advani’s. And it had to do with the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute.


   The battle between Hindus and Muslims over a patch of land in Ayodhya was decades old. Muslims had long worshipped at the mosque on the site. Hindus said the mosque had been built after destroying a temple that stood on the very spot where Ram was born.


   As the quarrel raged, the state government locked the gates of the mosque. In 1986, the Congress, in the form of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Vir Bahadur Singh-led government, manoeuvred to get the locks opened, thus reviving the dispute. Even so, it would have remained a local issue had the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) not launched its own agitation.


  "Advani’s invocation of Ram stirred up passions, caused riots and eventually, a mob of Sangh Parivar supporters demolished the Babri Masjid while Advani and other BJP leaders either watched or provoked the mob."

   Seeing the potential in the VHP’s movement, Advani turned it into a national issue. He was helped by the fact that the most popular TV serial of the decade was Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, so Ram was on top of many Hindus’ minds.


   An injustice had been done to Hindus, Advani proclaimed, the very birthplace of Lord Ram had been handed over to Muslims who were refusing to give it back.


   The argument caught the public imagination and led to the rise of the BJP. To further stoke sentiment, Advani then toured North India in a Toyota van, which he called a rath, accompanied by an actor dressed up as Ramanand Sagar’s Ram.


   This Ram became a symbol of vengeance. Hindus had to punish Muslims who had taken over their lord’s birthplace. They had to get rid of the so-called Babri Masjid, and reclaim what Advani now declared was the holiest spot for Hindus.


   Advani’s invocation of Ram stirred up passions, caused riots and eventually, a mob of Sangh Parivar supporters demolished the Babri Masjid while Advani and other BJP leaders either watched or provoked the mob.


   From that point on, Gandhiji’s Lord Ram—the divine figure who symbolised the unity and inclusiveness of India—disappeared from the public imagination.


   The greeting “Jai Siya Ram”, which had been used by Hindus of all shades of political opinion, also melted away to be replaced by an aggressive “Jai Shri Ram” as a symbol of militant Hindutva.


   That was where things stood until a few years ago. Ram was no longer the Gandhian symbolism of unity-in-diversity. But equally, the Advani characterisation of Ram had also run its course. You can’t really see Ram as a symbol of Hindu victimhood and “Muslim appeasement” in today’s India. Whatever else Hindus may be, they are certainly not victims in Narendra Modi’s India. And while we can argue about the status of Muslims in our times, it is very hard to see them as the pampered minority of Advani’s caricature.


   That leaves the way clear for a third characterisation of Lord Ram. Some of the rhetoric surrounding the Ayodhya celebrations recalled Gandhi and his vision of Ram. The Prime Minister himself quoted Gandhiji and even RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat talked about Ram as a symbol of unity. Earlier, in the weeks leading up to the Ayodhya event, Modi had begun a deliberate outreach to other communities. And even during the celebrations, much was made of the presence of Muslims at the 22 January ceremony; the suggestion being that the battles of the recent past were now forgotten and everyone had united behind the Ram temple.


   There is also the personal iconography associated with Narendra Modi himself. In the days before the ceremony, we were told, the Prime Minister had slept on the floor and survived on a diet of fruits and coconut water. The way he was featured at the event suggested that after Lord Ram, his was the most important presence at the temple.


   You could, of course, make the predictable points about Modi becoming a Hindu Hriday Samrat. But I think it goes beyond that. Over the last few years, the Prime Minister’s actions have sent out the message that he is not just another politician. Instead, he is above politics, a legend in his own lifetime, a sage who remains above the fray and works only for the advancement of India and its people.


   But is he a sage for all Indians? Or just for Hindus? Is the temple a symbol of Hindu triumphalism? Or is Ram back to being the unifying figure of Gandhi’s time?


   Frankly, it is too early to tell. Now that the temple movement has reached some sort of climax (though the temple itself is not ready) and a third term seems assured, the Prime Minister can afford to move on.


   But will his party be willing to do that? While the PM’s messaging was about unity, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was busy dismissing Rahul Gandhi’s latest yatra as a ‘miya yatra’. One of the saddest aspects of the BJP’s recent triumphalism has been the appropriation of the language of the roadside bigot by senior political figures. In Mumbai’s Mira Road, Muslim homes were bulldozed without any due process after mobs attacked Muslim properties following the Ayodhya ceremony.


   Will all of the BJP’s leaders be willing to abandon the rhetoric of hatred and prejudice? Will they stop demanding that more mosques should be torn down because there may be temples below them?


   Do they even want to stop?


   The answers to those questions will determine the kind of India that emerges during Modi’s next term. Will Lord Ram become a symbol of a united and resurgent India? Or will he remain a symbol of a Hindu victory?




  • Rao 02 Feb 2024

    Well, there is only ONE Ram. Siya Ram or Shri Ram does not change his divinity. Using his name & broader Hindu culture to justify Non-Sanathana Dharma viewpoints or policy would be absolutely wrong. The Temple for Prabhu Ram is correcting a wrong that was done in the 16th century absolutely not hindu triumphalism. Some folks are indeed acting like it is which is also wrong as well.

Posted On: 24 Jan 2024 10:30 PM
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