Hindutva at play

Print edition : August 05, 2000

Arvind Rajagopal graduated from Madras University and from the School of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. Since 1998, he is an Associate Professor at New York University.

In an interview with Darryl D'Monte in Mumbai recently, Arvind Rajgopal spoke about his forthcoming book, Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Indian Public (Cambridge University Press, New York, January 200 1). The book examines the impact of the screening of the Ramayan serial on Doordarshan in the late 1980s on Indian society.


In 1992, he co-authored Mapping Hegemony: CBS Coverage of the United Mineworkers' Strike 1977-78. The title refers to a strike which ushered in the Reagan era and underlines Rajagopal's analysis of the mass media as an instrument for fashioning po litical participation based on consumer choice.

In the 1990s, Rajagopal studied the interface between three seemingly disparate elements: economic liberalisation, the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and the role of the mass media. Just as the market treats society as a single, undifferentiated and homoge neous entity, the forces of Hindutva see the Indian people as a vast mass which is waiting to find, or rediscover, its common culture and identity. The catalyst in the process was television. Although Ramanand Sagar's epic was screened by Doordarshan, it spawned several variants in regional languages as the state monopoly over television was withdrawn. The telecast of the Ramayan was the precursor of the Ram Janambhoomi movement which in turn saw the ascendancy of the BJP to the status of the sin gle largest party. Rajagopal also points to the difference in the way the regional language media and the English language press treated the epic. Currently, Rajagopal is studying how Indian society is changing with the penetration of market forces into new areas of public life.

What arguments or events does your book seek to explain?

In January 1987, the Indian government began broadcasting a Hindu epic in serial form, the Ramayan, to nationwide audiences on a regular basis. This violated a decades-old taboo on religious partisanship, and Hindu nationalists made the most of th e opportunity. What resulted was perhaps the largest campaign in post-Independence times, irrevocably changing the complexion of Indian politics. The telecast of a religious epic to popular acclaim created the sense of a nation coming together, seeming t o confirm the idea of Hindu awakening. But if audiences thought they were harking back to a golden age, key Hindu nationalist leaders were embracing the prospects of neo-liberalism and globalisation. Eventually what became clear was that the nation was f irst and foremost a coalition of contending castes, creeds, and classes, even if Hindu nationalists came to power. In my book, I explain how these very different events can be understood in terms of a political terrain changed by the advent of television and liberalisation. Hence, Politics After Television.

Why the focus on media? What is the justification for a book like this appearing at this time, so long after the events?

It is generally acknowledged that the introduction of national television, and the televising of the Hindu epics in particular, have led to irreversible changes in Indian society. Most people agree that the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party on the one h and, and the spread of liberalisation on the other, are both linked to the new prominence of the media. In my book I have tried to understand precisely how these three factors are related. I have approached this topic through the event of the Ramayan serial.

Battle scenes in a tele-epic were seen as models for Hindu militancy, and at the same time, the serial itself began to echo themes from the movement. A new historical conjuncture was in formation. There was, for a while, the feeling of a great clarity ab out the character and causes of social problems and the nature of their solution. What drew little attention, in the process, was the prominence of the media itself. As facilitator rather than prime mover, television enabled a new order of social connect ivity. For the first time there was a visual medium that extended across the country, and stood for the nation, in some sense.

We have begun to take for granted the presence of Hindu imagery in public life, and the association of such themes with majority political power. But it was in this period (roughly, 1987-93) that it took shape. A new public language emerged, one that was more intimate to a section of the population and intimidating to the rest. It resonated with themes of collective empowerment, albeit in ominous ways. This was of course not simply owing to the broadcast of some television programmes. To attribute causa lity to television in this way does little more than confirm our own fascination with its power. What was important was that the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign echoed some of the serial's key themes, and went on to offer both a socio-political critique and a s olution, however limited these were. And while television created the awareness, it was the press that most helped advance the movement's cause. Specifically, it was the cultural differences between the Hindi and the English press, cultivated and manipul ated by the BJP, that created both sympathy for the movement, and the friction necessary for its ascent.

Although the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign harked back to a putatively golden age, it was also an attempt to bring the spheres of economy, culture and politics into closer alignment with each other. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders described it as a way of bringing the uneducated masses into the national mainstream, and of instilling the discipline necessary for liberalisation. Now, liberalisation is conventionally understood by the Left as a transfer of power to the rich, and by the Right as democr atisation. The Right's view is exaggerated, but should not be completely dismissed. In fact, the BJP used Hindutva to expand political participation at the expense of minorities, to extend its base, while carrying out economic reforms that reduced the pr otections available to the poor.

We tend to look for a linear relationship between events such as the serialisation of the Ramayana epic and the rise of Hindu nationalism, but you clearly do not point to a direct cause and effect?

Causal models may be linear, but real historical processes tend to be non-linear. Unless we can detail what actually happened, we may exaggerate the causal force of one element, which is arbitrarily designated as the first element in the chain of events. The Ramayan serial was initiated by a professedly leftist Secretary of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, S.S. Gill. Apparently Rajiv Gandhi expressed reservations about the departure from a secular policy, but Gill reassured him saying t his was a national epic. Once the serial started drawing mass audiences, that was considered ample answer to critics. You had the Congress government broadcasting the serial in the backdrop of certain happenings such as the Muslim Women's bill, drawn up after the Shah Bano case, and the opening of the Babri Masjid in 1986. Once the Congress realised that the serial was a success, it sought to make political capital out of it. But eventually it was the BJP that was able to profit by it - their party's 'b rand identification' with it was stronger and they had fewer inhibitions about playing the Hindu card.

In the serial itself, there were plenty of battle scenes, but for the most part, it was extremely slow and devotional in emphasis. If you talked to viewers, what they spoke about most often had to do with the virtues of Ram Rajya, as they saw it - the ki nd of feelings between a king and his subjects, between father and son and so on - that were thought to have existed before and had now vanished. It was very much harking back to a lost utopia. If it was originally meant to be cultural or political propa ganda, its impact was precisely the opposite: it served to remind people of all the drawbacks of today's age. This was another interruption in any straight line of causality. It was the BJP that was able to yoke this simmering discontent to their own pol itical criticism of the Congress party and the Babri Masjid issue.

Was the discontent with what you term the 'developmentalist' state, established through the Nehruvian consensus, encapsulated in the BJP's critique of its secularist policies?

Yes, all these elements came together. The perceived failure of the state to protect Hindu culture was of a piece with its failure to liberate market forces. The repressed energy of society, which was Hinduism, was equated with the repressed energy of en trepreneurial forces under the Nehruvian state.

Both these were somehow going to be released simultaneously in an outburst of Hindu creativity and prosperity. It is by no means coincidental that the BJP draws the bulk of its support from trading and smaller industrial classes. In the Gujarat Navnirman movement which led up to the Emergency, they were at the forefront.

It was about the time of the serialisation that the BJP began to be perceived by the English-language press and by big business as a likely replacement for the Congress. This involved a departure from its own traditional base of the trading classes, and now one can see some of that conflict, where these segments are not satisfied while certain others are. There was the idea that the BJP could come to power as a strong nationalist party to undertake ruthless action of the kind the Congress was never able to. Suddenly the BJP became the party of liberalisation, although until a few years earlier it had no economic policy except to follow in the wake of the Congress itself - Gandhian socialism, planned economy, and so on. It has not been appreciated suffi ciently why it is that the BJP alone of all the parties, has insisted on commemorating the Emergency. They gained the most from it by far. The RSS at this time became the organisation of the national opposition, thanks in part to Jayaprakash Narayan. For the first time, they were able to transcend their narrow base and go beyond the stultifying routine of shakha. With most national leaders in jail, they opened themselves to popular forces, and even tasted the fruits of their endeavours, in 1977. The period of the Emergency is quite critical in understanding how the Hindu Right has changed, but it has barely been studied. An effective national rallying theme was realised again with Ram Janmabhoomi, which brought a range of issues and groups toge ther. Once again, they were able to go far beyond their traditional trader class base, winning the confidence of sections of big business and the urban middle classes as well. In fact, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) formed the majority of the kar seva ks, pointing to the BJP's success in using Hindu themes while going beyond their previous bania base. It was in the wake of the BJP's rise that the lower castes began to assert themselves decisively, changing the balance of power in northern India. Event ually, the chief legacy of the Hindu nationalists may have been not upper caste domination so much as the introduction of methods that helped politicise such domination. What emerged was an era of more competitive politics, and more fluid electoral align ments and the realisation that no single party could any longer dominate the country. The BJP's attempt to establish sovereignty thus resulted, paradoxically, in the implosion of its claims about an undivided Hindu national family. I suggest that if we d o not understand the mechanisms through which the BJP advanced, namely through markets and the media, we cannot understand this paradoxical fallout.

So let us get back to the media. The market began to become liberalised after 1985 and more decisively since 1991. The serialisation of the epic began when the media was state-controlled but television was freed later on. Was there a convergence of t hese two forces?

The process began with the broadcast of the Asian Games in 1982 and continued with commercially sponsored serials. S.S. Gill, who tried to introduce developmental soap operas, brought in Hum Log; he did not want to abandon the government's mission of information and education. But the experiment was an utter flop because the sponsors did not want to underwrite such things. The pro-social aspect was jettisoned and it was continued as a family sit-com. The developmental component was carried over into the mythological serials, where it found its most lasting desi vehicle. Essentially what Ramanand Sagar did was to reformulate the Ramayan serial as a kind of parable about the nation state, projected back into the distant past. India was seen as always having pro-development rulers who were uplifting the lower castes, women in distress and so on. It endorsed the idealised view of Ram Rajya. Vedic sacrifices and rituals were s hown as scientific research and experiments undertaken for national defence. The rishis' weapons were described as nuclear missiles used for the benefit of the nation state. Many ideas about the modern national security state were carried back in time.

From my own interviews with the serial's viewers, this description of Hindu society was considered plausible. Here was Hindu modernity taking shape, whose fulfilment was being prevented by various latter-day avatars of the rakshasas - mainly politicians. The Ramayan serial was brought out at an extremely propitious time: there was state monopoly of television, one national channel. Everybody watched that or nothing else. During this smal l window of opportunity, this experimentation took place which succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of its progenitors. The sense of a Hindu civilisation which could be readied for a modern age came to inhabit the intimate spaces of daily life, with familiar ideas people could engage with. That a political party could take it up as a national campaign seemed a natural progression. Something very important happened in the course of this media development, once liberalisation occurred and state monop oly over TV was no longer maintained. You had the regularisationof the format of the mythological soap opera, which then branches off into regional channels - you have Tamil, Telugu variants. A new genre was carved out, which had not existed before, whic h forms a spectrum in the political and cultural life of the country. This has survived despite liberalisation.

You do not see any opposition between liberalisation, which represents modernisation and westernisation, and this kind of regression?

Opposition, contradiction and paradox are all politically creative energies that can be utilised. In fact, it is the lack of contradiction that would be worrisome for those who wish to mobilise popular energies. After all, what on earth did the demolitio n of a 16th century monument have to do with going into the 21st century? The Hindu nationalist party never lost sight of the fact that its audience was highly divided and had to be addressed in different languages and intonations. Advani, addressing vil lages, would say: "Ram Janambhoomi is not a political matter, it is religious; we want to restore the temple of Ram to its former glory." In the capital, he would say: "I am not a religious man, this is entirely a political issue; I am a secular person i n fact. There has been a misunderstanding of the concept of secularism and this is what we wish to correct." Astonishingly, the press never caught him out. It says a great deal about the kind of news routines that had been established, the editorial prac tices specifically in the English language press, and the mutual misunderstanding in the relationship between it and the vernacular press. This was accurately perceived and utilised by the BJP.

Were some of the visual symbols used in the serials carried forward in the rath yatra?

When the shila yatras were carried out, kar sevaks would actually dress like Ram and Lakshman in the TV serial. Party meetings would have painted backdrops with this iconography. The rath yatra itself resembled the kind of chariot we saw on TV. Repeatedl y, Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and BJP leaders like Ashok Singhal thanked Ramanand Sagar, who appeared at VHP conclaves. Interestingly, Gill revealed that Sagar and he were part of the same intellectual circle in Lahore. Sagar was seen to be secular and t hat was why he gave him the brief. Gill was critical of the serial and blamed political parties for making capital out of it.

There were some contentious reformulations in the serial which were clearly political. For instance, Ram carries around a clod of earth - we do not see this till way into the serial. At Chitrakoot, he suddenly pulls this bundle out of his waistband and p laces it on the mantlepiece in his hut and prays to it, hailing the sacred soil of the Janambhoomi. This is not found in Valmiki or Tulsidas. This is a solitary prayer that he enacts, which is highly unusual because all the rest are group rituals. This i s something between Ram and his birthplace, echoing the new individualist imagery and rhetoric that the VHP crafted with a specific end in mind: that only by plucking Ram out of the pantheon he belongs to can he inspire others to follow his individual pa th. These interpolations clearly echoed the VHP's campaign. You had Morari Bapu (the well-known religious speaker), in the videotapes of the serial at any rate, saying things like: "Pichhle zamana me, yudh me dharm tha; aur aaj kal, dharm me yudh aa g aya" (In the old era, religion entered war; now war has entered religion). He would repeat this three or four times, without further elaboration. This seemed to resonate with the idea that the Hindu religion was at war with Islam. There were various things in the serial which seemed to reiterate the themes of the VHP's campaigns.

From the Ramayan television serial.-


Do you see a geographical divide in the kind of Hindu mobilisation that has taken place? The hard core of the Ram Janambhoomi movement was largely restricted to northern and western India, exempting the south?

There were a large number of kar sevaks from Andhra at Ayodhya. The Ramayan serial was the first to achieve record viewership across the country, cutting across language and regional divides. The bulk of the mobilisation did happen in the cow-belt . But I think the Ramayan serial and others that followed it laid the basis for the kind of mobilisation that the BJP has been able to achieve today. In 1994, for instance, there was a mahila sammelan in Delhi which had tens of thousands of partic ipants from southern India as well.

Muslim viewers of the serial whom I interviewed would say that it is just entertainment - natak. They would point to inconsistencies in the story. Some also said: "Look at Ram Rajya and see how awful things are today." There was a wider range of r esponse among Muslims. The Hindu Right would always argue that the fact that Muslims watched the serial was proof that it was not communal. There are religious broadcasts elsewhere in the world but they do not have the same charge as they do here. The hi story of Hindu-Muslim relations is unique in that respect, taken together with the secular dispensation that we had. I do not know of a parallel to this sequence of events.

In what precise ways are you distinguishing your study from others on the subject?

I argue that Hindutva in the late 1980s and early 1990s is quite different from its earlier incarnations, and that understanding the nature of this difference is essential in coming to terms with the new terrain of politics. It has actually been argued, in some recent scholarship, that recent Hindutva represents an expansion of political space, and that it helped usher in globalisation. I tend to agree. But we must also specify the mechanisms through which this change has occurred, namely, through force s of the market and the media. These are the more enduring bases of the change. Without locating these conditions, we cannot grasp the paradox of Hindutva. Specifically, its combination of authoritarian politics and expanding popular participation. This points to new methods of political mobilisation, and television both symbolises this change and casts light on it.

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