The Ramayana and Politics

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For the last few weeks, many dinner tables in India become used to a certain buzz that suffuses the air around 9 PM, there is a hurry to finish up the supper and unwind in front of the living room TVs.This long hiatus is turning out to be a lot more boring than the English lectures in universities but an hour of the mythological show 'Ramayan' on the Doordarshan Channel which itself, has got a new lease of life is constantly making the long days end well.

For our families, like this new lockdown, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan has become a part of the lives and schedules, everyone knows that they have to settle their chores and office work and sit together to watch the telecast.
This is quite rare in some families as none of the award shows or sports events have been able to parade the whole family in front of TV sets before.

Pubic Demand

Since it was brought on by the government on "public demand" the show has received a similar flatter across the country which DD National also commemorated on their official Twitter handle by affirming their 500K followers about the show's stupendous viewership of 77 million in a single day.

This latest success can be attributed to more than one factor. Firstly the timing could not have been any better, with the lockdown reducing people's entertainment options. Also, the DD National channel is free to air and wide in reach and the announcement got a strong endorsement from the government itself.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javdekar announced the telecast and later tweeted a photograph of himself watching the show (when a bash ensued, he deleted it soon after). Even more, than it was for the young audience the latest broadcast of Ramayan was a complete Déjà vu moment for the people born in the 60s and 70s or as they are fondly called - the Generation X. 

The capacious Epic had first hit the TV screens of the country in January 1987 and ended in July 1988 broadcasting every Sunday, seventy-eight episodes in-all with a four-month break in between.

A Taste of Nostalgia 

There are many parallels between the late '80s and today. With 3 million TV sets being sold annually and the market still not liberalized, the timing of its preface was as good as today. Many belonging to Generation X may recall how it used to feel like a curfew outside at 9 AM. With markets closed, factories, hospitals, and hotels all used to observe immense absence on Sunday mornings.

People used to long for Sundays because unlike today there were only a handful of TV shows to indulge in. Children and elderly alike, everyone used to wake up early, take their respective "holy" baths to get ready for the show even if a family didn't have a TV set neighbors from 3-4 households used to sit together to enjoy the show. So much was the craze that just before the show began the TVs were garlanded and coated with sandal-wood paste.

Huge Success 

Doordarshan was bombarded by letters and positive reviews from viewers who considered the show as sacred as if they were being given 'darshan' by the gods themselves. The charm of the serial cut across religious boundaries. Muslims watched it with enchantment while churches rescheduled their services to avoid a clash.

As the social scientist Philip Lutgendorf wrote, ‘never before had such a large percentage of South Asia’s population been united in a single activity, never before had a single message instantaneously reached so [an] enormous audience’.

Unwitting Turn of Events 

Akin to everything else in India, politics has a major part of its foot in religion. Nonetheless, any incidents of a state-sponsored program catalyzing the campaign of an opposition party have still been few and far between. The 1987 Ramayan telecast had a contingent nature to it. It was albeit unintentionally, introduced in a backdrop of uncanny political furor where the young, liberal PM Rajeev Gandhi, still new to politics was discovering his first steps in the sludge of vote banks and propagandas. 

The infamous Shah Bano case was recently concluded which saw the government's policies translating from liberal to conservative. Rather than bringing a more austere Uniform Civil Code the Congress government passed the ‘Muslim Women’s Bill’ in a venture to regain its Muslim popularity which was lately going downhill after the Supreme Court's landmark decision. 

Once he had pleased the Muslim voters, it was time to consolidate the lost votes from the Hindu extremists. It was in this quest that in 1986 Prime Minister also allowed the opening of the gates of the long quarreled 'Babri Masjid' for Hindu devotees to worship lord Ram's infant deity.

The telecast of the Epic unwittingly brought millions of devotees of this decentralized and pluralistic religion which previously worshipped different deities, lacked a holy book, a unique and singular god, or a single capital of the faith under a single name of 'Ram'. This along with Rajeev Gandhi's vicious policies proved to be a major fillip for the committees, organizations, and (of course) political parties that had their policies and strategies zoomed into 'Hindutva'. 

The opening of the locks of the mosque emboldened the newly formed Vishwa Hindu Parishad.They now sought nothing less than the annihilation of the mosque, and its replacement with a grand new temple dedicated to Ram. This was a watershed moment for the Bhartiya Janta Party. The VHP along with the RSS thus provided a new impetus to its drowning campaign. 

Impossible to Ignore 

With such publicity given to its pre-eminent symbol - the god-king Ram - the Hindu nationalist BJP was heartened to declare that halfway through 1989, the Ayodhya movement had gained such a standing in Indian public life when it was no longer possible to ignore the show’s effect in politics.

The BJP along with its "cultural" hands shrewdly used the Ayodhya kerfuffle with the evergreen topic of “cow-slaughter" to target the minority community and benefit from the bifurcation. Caught in the chain reaction, the Prime Minister not only lost the devotion of the Hindus to BJP but also the trust of the Muslims to other parties.

In 1992, L.K Advani led a nationwide campaign on a carefully selected trail across the Hindi belt - all of which responded enthusiastically to the Ramayan show - to the doorstep of the Babri Masjid and changed India's political discourse forever. Throughout these years Sagar’s Ramayan was regularly applauded by members of the Sangh for magnifying enhancing the Mandir campaign’s reach.

The late Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad often remarked during interviews to the media that Sagar’s Ramayan was an excellent gift to their movement and even went on to say that they owed their recruits to the serial’s inspiration. Soon after the last episode of Ramayan was aired on DD in August 1988, the Congress and BJP had actively begun courting Sagar and the cast of his serial, urging them to join their political ranks.

During the 1991 Lok Sabha polls, Deepika Chikhalia and Arvind Trivedi, who played Sita and Ravana respectively, contested as BJP candidates. Chikhalia won from the Baroda constituency while Trivedi was elected from Sabarkantha.

After 33 Years 

33 years on since Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan first hit our black and white and colored TV screens. The political spectrum of the country has gone head over heels with Narendra Modi's BJP firm as ever at the center, in Uttar Pradesh and also in Ayodhya promoting the same thinly veiled propagandas.

The Babri Masjid too, lies demolished, with a grand temple set to be created after a stamp of legitimacy by the Supreme Court. Rajeev Gandhi's wife Sonia is the incumbent president of the Congress party the future of which looks rather bleak, to put it mildly. It will suffice to say that the Congress of today is what BJP used to be in the late 80s and early 90s.

A mere perusal of Indian history advises that akin to BJP's turnover, a strong opposition along with allies has always found a way to cash in to even the smallest of blips by the Central government even if one of the ally is a bizarre one. It is yet to be seen what the opposition of today finds an ally in even though it looks rather unpropitious to happen anytime soon.

Similar to the change in our TV sets, the society has also undergone drastic changes, the unions have changed, the cars and localities have changed, foreign policies stand upended, allies have mutated and what not. Still, uncannily, we maintain this single similarity, the same old Ramayan playing on the same old Doordarshan with deserted outdoors, traffic stopped and the grass growing.

Written by - Rudransh Khurana

Edited by - Arnav Mehra
The Ramayana and Politics The Ramayana and Politics Reviewed by Arnav Mehra on June 21, 2020 Rating: 5

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