BEYOND THE OLD BOOKS - Modern India and the discourse of faith

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By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 11.12.09

Among the few quirky sidelights of the parliamentary debates on the maverick report by Justice M.S. Liberhan on the events in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, was the speech by the Bharatiya Janata Party president, Rajnath Singh. Opening for his side in the Lok Sabha, the MP for Ghaziabad, Singh was predictably outraged that the report had named the legendary Devraha Baba as one of the 68 persons culpable of spreading communal disharmony 17 years ago.

As someone with roots in eastern Uttar Pradesh, the BJP president’s indignation was warranted. It was known that the Baba died in June 1990, well before kar sevaks turned the 16th-century shrine into rubble. To that extent, his inclusion in the commission’s rogue’s gallery was a travesty. Equally needless and unsubstantiated was the commission’s observation (para 69.22) that Devraha Baba issued “open threats by exhorting…dacoits to take to arms for Ram temple”.

A fierce reverence for Devraha Baba was among the few points of convergence between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party in a debate that was otherwise polarized on familiar lines. The Baba, who commanded a wide following and was regarded as a living deity, was a legend in his long lifetime. According to his devotees, the Baba, who was normally perched on either an elevated platform or a tree and blessed his devotees by touching his foot to their head, had supernatural yogic powers and was 250 years old at the time of his death.

Regardless of his exact longevity, celebrities flocked to secure his blessings. As Rajnath informed Parliament, President Rajendra Prasad, accompanied by the Uttar Pradesh governor K.M. Munshi, chief minister Sampurnanand, Lal Bahadur Shastri and C.B. Gupta, conducted a puja of the Devraha Baba during Kumbh Mela. Indira Gandhi too met the Baba and was said to be a devotee. Before beginning his election campaign in Faizabad on November 6, 1989, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, accompanied by the home minister Buta Singh, UP chief minister N.D. Tiwari and K.Natwar Singh, spent 40 minutes with the Baba, a move presumably linked to his bid to gazump the BJP.

Having established the bipartisan appeal of the Hindu seer, Rajnath went one step further. He made the astonishing claim, on the strength of “old books”, that “King George V went for darshan of Devraha Baba in 1911”.

Whether the King-Emperor departed from his dreary routine of being showered with expensive gifts by the Indian princes and attending grand dinners to confer a Royal Charter on a holy man who, in 1911, was either 170 years old or a mere child, hasn’t been documented in detail. The “old books” that Rajnath alluded to must contain details that historians have been unwise to ignore for so long. Regardless of the veracity or otherwise of George V’s darshan of Devraha Baba, Rajnath’s injection of this unknown and somewhat questionable factoid points to a larger malaise of a section of the BJP: the patent inability to blend the discourse of faith into a modern idiom.

To the BJP president who, by common consensus, had a limited target audience of his speechwriters and his “appointing authority”, a euphemism for the bigwigs of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, there was nothing unnatural in embellishing the documentation of the Devraha Baba’s spiritual and Hindu credentials with his transnational appeal — the paradoxical nationalist quest for foreign certification. To a less committed audience, it was further evidence of an inability to distinguish between legitimate history, conspiracy theory, mythology, bazaar gossip and plain banality.

This became somewhat more pronounced during his bid to debunk Liberhan’s suggestion that the mobilization for the kar seva was contrived and achieved through money-power and the misuse of state resources. What others would have substantiated by casually citing the election results of 1991, which elevated the BJP from a fringe player to the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh, Rajnath tried to do with a foreigner’s certificate. In his speech, he went on to claim that in November 1990, BBC Radio had claimed that popular participation in the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation was greater than that witnessed in the 1942 Quit India movement.

The claim, despite its inherent heresy, wasn’t incredible. L.K. Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra of September-October 1990 drew spectacular crowds and certainly redefined Indian politics. It is entirely possible that the numbers of those who turned up to chant Mandir wahin banayenge were greater than those who took part in Mahatma Gandhi’s least successful movement in 1942. Yet, the belief that the mass appeal of the Ayodhya movement could be demonstrated by invoking a BBC programme was laughable. It was reminiscent of an earlier age when village tea-shops were abuzz with titillating news allegedly originating from the BBC. All of us who covered elections in the pre-TV age recall being told by local pundits that BBC had forecast a victory for such-and-such candidate. In rural India, BBC was often the shorthand for the bush telegraph — in an age when the official media lacked all credibility. For Rajnath to invoke the same BBC is very revealing. It is also a bit incongruous in the context of his declamation against the “colonial mindset” of the report.

Equally, Rajnath was quite unfazed and bereft of any squeamishness when he approvingly referred to “genetic engineering”, a term suspiciously reminiscent of eugenics, and to DNA tests to argue that the genetic pool of India differed from that of Central Asia. This sudden burst of science was aimed at demonstrating that Babur, a Chagtai Turk, had nothing in common, at least genetically, with local Muslims who were converts from either the Hindu or Buddhist faith.

Ever since Nazi Germany used race and physical anthropology to perpetrate some of the worst crimes against humanity, the invocation of race and genetics in history and the social sciences have been viewed with considerable suspicion. These sensibilities were absent from Rajnath’s speechwriters, who are still bound in a ghettoized world of like-minded individuals. Their detachment from a new India that has become cosmopolitan and more Western was marked. They have become a caricature of the celluloid Borat from Kazakhstan whose pathological aversion to Jews and unfamiliarity with the social mores of America made him both funny and unacceptable.

The Liberhan report presented the BJP a handy escape route from the embarrassment of a misadventure 17 years ago. The shoddiness of the findings, its blunders and howlers and the absurdity of its recommendations made it difficult for even the ‘secular’ parties to use the report as a weapon of self-righteousness. The BJP just needed to ridicule the commission’s clumsiness, indicate its lack of even-handedness and hone in on Liberhan’s record of freeloading to get over an event best left to history to judge. L.K. Advani wisely chose to stay out of the firing line; and Sushma Swaraj in the Lok Sabha and Arun Jaitley in the Rajya Sabha did effective demolition jobs of Liberhan without simultaneously provoking a secularist backlash. The two politicians blacklisted by the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, discreetly signalled to the country that 17 years and two generations separated the past from the present.

Rajnath’s certitudes appealed to the fanatically faithful, but seemed comic to those for whom the Ayodhya years are a hazy memory. He showed quite conclusively why any BJP that chooses to be bound in ghettoized Hindutva will invariably hit road bumps in 21st-century India. Unwittingly, he also demonstrated why another BJP with a more contemporary idiom has a future as the rallying point of anti-Congressism.