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Many Ramayanas and Hindutva Brigade

February 27, 2008

A lot of you must have seen the edit in today’s HT condemning the act of vandalism and the news of the arrest of three ABVP activists. You must have also seen reports in today’s newspapers about the demonstration yesterday in Delhi University of students and teachers demanding punishment to the guilty and reiterating the pledge that the text should not be expunged just because ABVP/BJP finds it objectionable. For those who want to look up, the text in question is A K Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, also available in a volume edited by Paula Richman: Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia (OUP; 1991.)

You see the ABVP has been sitting on a dharna/hunger strike in DU over this for something like three months. They have been trying to put pressure on the department which is currently headed by Prof. SZH Jafry, quite clearly a soft target. Dr. Upinder Singh’s name was also dragged into the controversy to kill two birds with one stone: The ABVP thought it would be able to embarass the Prime Minister as well, as Dr. Singh
happens to be his daughter. The PMO was quick to deny having got anything to do with the DU controversy.

But beyond these bare facts, the most interesting story is that of media involvement in the incident. After several rounds of meetings with the delegates, the department was not convinced to withdraw the syllabus which was duly passed by the academic bodies in charge of the syllabus-making, etc. So the ABVP decided to do something dramatic. About 10 days ago, Rajat Sharma of India TV shame — which I think lacks both resources and ideas and yet wants to stay up in the ratings — roped in Vinay
Katiyar and others to debate the issue on Prime Time. It was obvious that Katiyar Saheb had not read the text and looked rather unwilling to comment. But Rajat Sharma kept highlighting the text out of context and goading him to do something about it. On which he assured that he would look into the matter. It is not a surprise therefore that the ABVP activists insisted on waiting for the camera crew to arrive before they
staged action the day before and even less surprising was the fact that once again it was India TV that played the footage big time. By yesterday of course other TV channels swung into action and now a diversity of voices seems to be emerging.

I want to end this with a personal anecdote. I used to be always intrigued by my grandfather quoting or paraphrasing some reference or the other uttered by some Gosain ji. He read, rather sang, Ramcharitmanas everyday after bath but I could not imagine it is Goswami Tulsidas he meant each time he referred to Gosain ji. My confusion also flowed from the fact that our village had a small but respectable population of the Gosain sub-caste of Brahmins, who earned their living by practising Ayurvedic medicine and assisting the Brahmin priests at rituals. I also remember that Akhand Kirtan was held every now and then in the village temple and groups took turns singing ‘hare ram hare ram ram ram ram hare hare, hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare’so that recital chain remained unbroken for a few days. The important thing to note is that the upper caste group had a rather classy and genteel style of singing, but when the other caste people got into the Mandap, it came alive with robust enthusiasm: bhakti seemed to have been transformed into a certain charismatic euphoria. However, I do not have any memories of upper castes either questioning, tutoring or forbidding the non-upper castes to sing the way they did. All these memories came alive to me recently when I listened to Chhannulal Mishra’s recital of Sundarkand: the classically trained Banaras artist rendered the Manas in 5 different ways some of which was clearly regional and folksy. He also freely remixed the Manas with local take-offs on the same theme. I wonder what the ABVP would want to do to these obviously pre-Hindutva practices. I am sure they will go mad if they read something like Maithili writer Harimohan Jha’s Khattar Kaka. Even if I want them to, I am in a way glad they don’t read as much as they should!

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