Arrows In Ram’s Quiver
They like Barack
Obama but can’t stand AK Ramanujan. What is one to make of the young
men agitating over Ram?
THE LIGHT does not
fall as brightly as usual into the office of Dr SZH Jafri, Head of the
History Department at Delhi University. His windowpanes are being replaced
and the new glass is sheathed in brown paper. The floor behind his desk
is heaped with glass shards, the remains of old windows. Last week activists
from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of
the Sangh Parivar, entered Jafri’s office to hand him a memorandum. They
left it in pieces.
The ABVP’s argument
with Jafri began in January, when they were alerted to an essay prescribed
in a course called ‘Culture of India: Ancient.’ The essay, Three Hundred
Ramayanas by AK Ramanujan documents alternative telli - ngs of the
story in languages as varied as Balinese, Tibetan, Tamil and Gujarati.
Ramanujan was a major scholar on classical Indian literature and was awarded
both the Padma Shri and the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship for this. But
in the opinion of the ABVP, his essay is “malicious, capricious, fallacious
and offensive to the beliefs of millions of Hindus.”The offence lies in
a few scattered phrases. First, Hanuman is described as Ram’s “trusty
henchman.” When he shrinks himself to enter a small hole, a handmaiden
exclaims, “Look! A tiny monkey!” Later, in the Ramayana of the Tamil poet
Kampan, Indra is cursed with a thousand vaginas after seducing Ahalya.
Next, a Kannada folksong sung by dalit bards says Ravana became pregnant,
and gave birth — to Sita — with a sneeze.
Next, in Southeast
Asian texts, Hanuman is not celibate but actually rather “a ladies’ man.”
Finally, Ramanujan reports, the oral traditions of the Santals “even conceive
of Sita as unfaithful — to the shock and horror of any Hindu bred on Valmiki
or Kampan, she is seduced both by Ravana and Lakshmana.”For the ABVP, the
shock and horror were compounded by the discovery that the course instructor
was Upinder Singh, the daughter of the Prime Minister. They denounced
Singh for selecting the text and Jafri for allowing it. Undeterred by
the information that Singh did not compile the volume and Jafri was not
department head when it was adopted, the ABVP held a public protest, petitioning
the Vice-Chancellor to withdraw the essay. Slogans at the rally asked
what else could be expected from a Muslim department head and a Sardarni
On the 25th of February,
a delegation visited Jafri in person. It was led by Vikas Dahiya, a square-jawed
24-year old from Sonepat. With his hair gelled and peaked, and body-builders’
shoulders straining against the cling cut of his shirt, Dahiya looks less
like a former vice president of the DU Student Union than a swaggering,
popular partyboy. Accompanied by television crews, he led the delegation
into Jafri’s office.
Depending on whose
account you believe, one of two things happened in the office. Version
1, Dahiya explained, "My faith is like my mother and father. I know
the truth about my parents, and I cannot tolerate for anyone to spread
rumours about them," only to have Jafri spit back at him, "So
what relation of yours is Ram?" and fling the memorandum in his face.
Thus provoked, the delegates lost their cool. Says ABVP officer, Ashutosh
Srivastav: “His was the action, theirs was reaction.” Version
2, the ABVP weren’t carrying any memorandum at all and, as soon as the
cameras were set up, they directly began turning the place upside down,
shaking Jafri by his collar, breaking windows and attempting to overturn
his desk on top of him. The news footage only shows this much occuring.
“They must have turned on the cameras too late,” Srivastav suggests.
In the following days,
nine ABVP activists were arrested; three, including Dahiya, were initially
refused bail. History students, joined by other student union parties,
staged a counter rally. On March 3, HRD Minister Arjun Singh announced
an academic committee that would re-evaluate the text. The ABVP has staked
out the main gates of the Faculty, but for now the temperature has dropped.
The policemen are taking advantage of the good weather to picnic on the
BUT THE ABVP has no
intention of letting the issue go silent. “We will never compromise on
this,” says their spokesperson Nakul Bharadwaj. “They can unfairly lock
up our members, but we have ten lakh more.” Drinking coffee at
the Connaught Place Barista, Bharadwaj couldn’t look less like a brawling
right-wing youth leader. Instead, he looks like a law graduate (which
he is), stylishly dressed in jeans and a white shirt, spic and span. Like
Dahiya, and much of their generation of emerging ABVP leadership, he is
a study in contradictions: a 27-year-old from Palwal in Hary - ana, where
for generations his family has farmed and been affiliated with the RSS,
Bharadwaj moved to Delhi, earning the first professional degree in his
family, and becoming the spitting image of the successful Delhi chikna.
The different pieces of his worldview do not always sit together comfortably.
He has just returned from a sponsored tour of the United States, where
he became fascinated by Barak Obama. He is especially interested in how
Obama “reaches the youth across race, class and religion.”
Obama has his endorsement,
but the liberal enthusiasm slides back to militant orthodoxy when he speaks
about Ramanujan’s essay: “These academics don’t understand that they are
toying with our faith. They have this idea that it’s a written story,
a literary text, so it doesn’t matter if you say there are 3000 versions
of it.” He admits the plurality of Hindu traditions, but has no patience
for them. Apart from striking Ramanujan’s text from the syllabus, he proposes
that every deviant telling, mostly tribal and dalit, be erased. “They
should be banned. There is no debate on this.” He has little interest
in Ramanujan’s other work. “I’ve got nothing but abuse for him,” he says,
“He deserves to be shot. If he is such a great man about questioning religions,
why doesn’t he stand up for Taslima Nasreen when the Muslim goondas go
after her?” As it happens, Ramanujan died fifteen years ago.
Bharadwaj sips his
coffee. “It’s an organised conspiracy,” he says. The opposition to the
Ram Mandir, and the proposed canal through the Ram Sethu loom large. “The
DU administrators are puppets in the hands of Communists and the Congress.
Their intention is to erase our faith, beginning with the assumption that
the Ramayana is fake.” He calls this betrayal. Back in the university,
Dr Jafri is mystified at being selected for the ABVP’s wrath. “I suspect
it has to do with the fact that I organised the United History Congress
here last December.” The Congress, which was attended by 1600 historians,
attacked the content of NCERT textbooks put out during NDA rule.
“I grew up in Awadh,
a region where Ram is a deep part of the cultural ethos. In the rural
areas, everyone greets each other saying, ‘Ram Ram,’” he says. “It wasn’t
until the mandir movement began that people were encouraged to say ‘Jai
Shri Ram’ instead. In the end, I don’t think you can impose an elitist,
higher tradition on a lower tradition — it is too artificial. Jai Shri
Ram was a political phrase. It didn’t catch on.” But the tussle to erase
Hindusim’s rich pluralities and reduce it to a lifeless monolith persists.