How the humble saffron became a divisive political tool 

The colour sported by the CJI when in Gujarat recently has become one that is associated not so much with spirituality as with hatred and violence.

Published : Jan 11, 2024 00:12 IST - 8 MINS READ

Chief Justice of India Justice D.Y. Chandrachud visits Dwarkadhish temple in Gujarat’s Devbhoomi Dwarka district on January 6.

Chief Justice of India Justice D.Y. Chandrachud visits Dwarkadhish temple in Gujarat’s Devbhoomi Dwarka district on January 6. | Photo Credit: PTI

I have three kurtas in different hues of saffron. It is a colour I do not dislike. But after 2014 it has become increasingly difficult for me to wear those kurtas. I did not stop wearing them suddenly but gradually they have gone into disuse. There is a reason behind it.

After 2014, thanks to WhatsApp and other social media platforms, I started getting images and videos of saffron-clad goons attacking Muslims. Beating them up, torturing them, killing them. I also saw goons with saffron pattas and stoles storming areas where Muslims lived, attacking, violating houses, mazars, and mosques.

Saffron very rapidly became a colour associated with hatred and violence against Muslims. It has been used as a competitive colour, often to oppose Muslims. How can one forget instances of Hindu boys and girls wearing saffron turbans and scarves only to oppose hijab-wearing women?

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I also see young people sporting the colour in kurtas, stoles, and turbans as a sign of assertion or perhaps religious dominance. I see the colour suddenly being adopted by universities and other institutions, in hoardings and publicity material, as the theme colour in public functions.

Politics of exclusion

The saffron colour has morphed from being just a colour to one that announced your association with an ideology, a politics that is narrow, which tries to create a group identity of Hindus, not the traditional one based on inclusion, but one based on exclusion of those who do not belong.

On my campus and on other campuses, I see the colour flaunted by those who regularly indulge in violence against students who dare to have their own voice and who refuse to speak in the language given by a party. I also see it being used or worn by those who seek to associate with the not-so-newly minted idea of “nationalism”.

I have seen many new converts to the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh donning saffron to publicly announce their affiliation. Over the last decade, I have seen the colour used by Vice Chancellors, teachers, and students to announce their loyalty to a particular ideology.

VHP and Bajrang Dal members at a procession in Bhopal in April 2022. The colour saffron evokes a feeling of subservience, mob mentality, and violence, not the sacred emotions or thoughts or the idea of sacrifice and renunciation that Indians and Hindus traditionally associated the colour with.

VHP and Bajrang Dal members at a procession in Bhopal in April 2022. The colour saffron evokes a feeling of subservience, mob mentality, and violence, not the sacred emotions or thoughts or the idea of sacrifice and renunciation that Indians and Hindus traditionally associated the colour with. | Photo Credit: FARUQUI A.M.

You can be sure that if you sport a saffron patta, you are less likely to be charged by the traffic police for violation of traffic rules. They are aware that saffronised people belong to the party and it is better not to mess with them.

The colour evokes a feeling of subservience, mob mentality, and violence, but whatever it does, it never evokes sacred emotions or thoughts or the idea of sacrifice and renunciation that Indians and Hindus traditionally associated the colour with. It has now become a colour of domination. It has a threatening air.

I feel that it has become something like the infamous Swastika of the Nazis. So, after 2014, every time I have touched one of my saffron-hued kurtas, a thought has crossed my mind about the reaction it could evoke in a Muslim’s mind. How would I be seen? Would I look threatening?

I often ask myself: am I overreacting? Am I exaggerating? At times, my wife chides me for giving up a colour. I have seen my friends wearing it, claiming they will not allow the colour to be usurped by violence or by Hindutva. But it sounds unconvincing to me. If I enter a Muslim locality wearing this colour, I will be looked upon with fear and suspicion. Imagine five, or even two, saffron-clad persons entering such a locality. Imagine the menace the colour will instantly acquire.

So, this is my decision: I will not let this colour touch my body again. I do not want to be part of the Hindutva group identity.

Wearing saffron

All these thoughts came to my mind when I saw our serving Chief Justice of India (CJI) wearing a spotless saffron kurta as he visited a temple in Gujarat. It also struck me that his wife wore a saffron stole. Or a shade of it, as some friends suggest. They were on a pious mission. Visiting temples. But wearing saffron is not an essential uniform that must be worn when one visits a Hindu sacred space. I belong to a Hindu family and we come from Vaidyanath Dham or Deoghar. It is a popular pilgrimage place for the devotees of Shiva. I have never seen devotees wearing saffron while visiting the Shiva temple there.

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Saffron does not automatically lift you to a spiritual plane. If anything, in recent times, it does the opposite. Moreover, I saw the Chief Justice walking on a red carpet, which is a very worldly touch. The CJI was walking to the deity in his capacity as the CJI, which explains the red carpet treatment.

One can say it is the CJI’s personal choice and we are unnecessarily reading too much into it. But that is the issue. When you wear the colour in these times, it is to make a point. To underline your religiosity publicly, a religiosity which has political overtones.

The CJI did not leave it there. According to media reports, he referred to the dhwaja atop the Dwarka and Somnath temples, the two temples he visited during his two-day visit to Gujarat, and said, “I was inspired this morning by the dhwaja at Dwarkadhish ji, very similar to the dhwaja I saw at Jagannath Puri. But look at the universality of the tradition in our nation, which binds all of us together. This dhwaja has a special meaning for us. And that meaning which the dhwaja gives us is—there is some unifying force above all of us, as lawyers, as judges, as citizens. And that unifying force is our humanity, which is governed by the rule of law and by the Constitution of India.”

Mixing religion with Constitution

Ramachandra Guha has rightly criticised him for mixing religion with the Constitution. “For the Chief Justice of India to claim a congruence between the flag that has traditionally flown above Hindu temples and the modern text that is the Constitution of India is tendentious and misleading (to say the least),” he wrote in a recent column.

The CJI is doing this at a time when another constitutional authority, the Prime Minister, is asking the whole nation to celebrate the inauguration of the Ram temple being built on land that belonged to the Babri Masjid, after its criminal demolition was overlooked in an act of judicial innovation. Mr Modi is calling it an end to the 500-year-old exile of Ram. The wait has ended, and we know for whom.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs Bhoomi Pujan rituals for the construction of the Ram mandir in Ayodhya on August 5, 2020. Modi recently asked the whole nation to celebrate the inauguration of the Ram temple being built on land that belonged to the Babri Masjid, after its criminal demolition was overlooked in an act of judicial innovation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs Bhoomi Pujan rituals for the construction of the Ram mandir in Ayodhya on August 5, 2020. Modi recently asked the whole nation to celebrate the inauguration of the Ram temple being built on land that belonged to the Babri Masjid, after its criminal demolition was overlooked in an act of judicial innovation. | Photo Credit: PTI

Large sections of Hindus appear to have been misled. And the CJI cannot shy away from his responsibility for this state of the nation. It was he and his fellow judges who dragged the Indian state into this religious act. It was an unprecedented decision to ask the state to facilitate the building of a temple, which was the symbol of the victory of a divisive politics.

It cannot be the job of a secular state to be involved in the construction of a religious place. This act, like the “Hindutva is a way of life” judgment of the Supreme Court given by a predecessor of the present CJI, has obliterated the separation of religion and state.

The CJI and his brother judges waxed eloquent about the secular fundamentals of the Indian state. They quoted the 1991 Places of Worship Act (which ensures status quo of religious places) to assert that what they were doing with the Babri mosque could not be repeated. But very soon, the CJI upheld an order by the Allahabad High Court and allowed the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to conduct an investigation of the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi.

Thus, when the same CJI so touchingly talks about “Dwarakadhishji” and “Somnathji”, he makes a statement. It is again not an innocent statement when he says, “When I visited Somnath ji this morning, I was deeply moved that this is the first temple in India that has a zero-waste facility. Let us be inspired by making every court system in the State a zero-waste facility. It is then that we will be truly inspired by the ideals of these great temples, which dot the landscape of Gujarat….” It is a political statement.

Also Read | Whose Ayodhya?

We are being asked to take inspiration from the Dharma Dhwajas to ensure justice and from the zero-waste facility of Somnathji to ensure cleanliness in our workplaces. Religion, cleanliness, unity: who mixes up all of these?

When the CJI laced his speech with Gujarati, none other than Prime Minister Modi applauded him. There were other times and other CJIs who would have been embarrassed by endorsement from a political authority. They would have shied away from publicity. CJIs are not supposed to be public figures. The lure of popularity can do many things to you and judges know they are only human and can be affected by it, so they consciously turn reclusive.

Moreover, as many a senior lawyer have commented, a politician has to know the people and talk to them. That is why they travel across the country. Judges do not have to talk to the people to do their job. They have to keep a conversation with the Constitution alive. Leaving it and turning to the masses leads them to do what they did in their judgments on Babri mosque and Jammu and Kashmir.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University and writes literary and cultural criticism. His latest book is Muktibodh Ki Lalten.

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