Saturday, June 11, 2011
Saviours robed in saffron
Other countries have a man on the horseback, who comes at the crucial hour to save the nation, India has had the man in saffron. The men on horseback are worldly wise, but our Indian saviours are different. Unlike their counterparts in the other parts of the world—the reborn Bolivar, the imagined Lenin and the Mahdi— the Indian is usually a person who shuns the material world and insists that the answer lies, not in seizing power and consolidating the boundaries of a nation or movement, but in rediscovering the power within, call it spirituality or “national character” if you will.
In the contemporary era the man who has spooked many putative saviours of our times is Mohandas Gandhi. He is the gold standard— an ascetic, who had unparalleled command over matters temporal. Not many people could have stopped a communal riot by the sheer application of moral power. We have had many “swamis”, ” sants”, “babas”, even some self-styled bhagwans and avatars. But that no one has sought to set himself up as a “mahatma” is a tribute to Gandhi’s enduring and benign relevance to this country.
But one thing the Mahatma was not, is a man of saffron, that most beguiling colour for Indians. It is the colour of war and sacrifice, of things sacred. It has been for long the colour of renunciation and piety, donned by sadhus through history. Faced with certain defeat, Rajputs donned saffron as a sign that their battle would be to the death. But over time, charlatans and crooks have realised just how easy it was to fool people by donning this colour. Ravana clad himself in saffron when he lured Sita across the Lakshman rekha.
One of the biggest hijacks occurred when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a proto-fascist organisation, took over the colour and, it has since poisoned our entire approach towards this colour that has meant so much to the people of this country. Over the years it has sought to yoke the mesmeric power of the colour to its political agenda of creating a country whose flag will be saffron in colour—the bhagwa dhwaj. The RSS’s strategy has been to appropriate the Hindu spiritual tradition and harness it for its political goals, so along with the colour, it has also “taken over” sadhus and sants of yore like Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Dayanand Saraswati and even Mahatma Gandhi.
In the post-independence era, the Sangh Parivar sought to use Swami Karpatriji, a learned asetic who had formed the Dharma Sangh to protect orthodox Hinduism in 1940, and later founded the Ram Rajya Parishad, a proto-religious political party. Encouraged by the RSS and its political wing, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, this body took up an agitation against the Hindu Code Bill, a major exercise to codify Hindu marriage and succession law, initiated by nationalists like B.R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru. However, the agitation failed to gain much traction with the masses, and despite opposition in Parliament, mainly from within the Congress party itself, the bills were passed.
The next stage in the RSS strategy was to found the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in 1964 which would act as an umbrella outfit where the various factious sects and swamis could meet in one organisation to follow a single agenda. The issue that was now taken up was the need to ban cow-slaughter, a seeming no-brainer in a country where the pre-dominant population was Hindu.
The movement peaked in November 1966 when some one lakh sadhus, some branding their trishuls, met outside the Parliament house where they were addressed by Swami Karpatriji and Swami Rameshwaranand, a Jana Sangh MP who had been suspended from the Lok Sabha because of unruly behaviour. Caught up in his own rhetoric, Rameshwaranand called for an assault on Parliament, even while another MP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee beseeched him to retract his call. The rally degenerated into chaos, hundreds of cars and scooters were set ablaze and the police had to open fire to quell the mob which threatened to physically overwhelm the Parliament House.
The next turn of the RSS was in the Ram Janambhoomi movement, which after initial success, has also petered out. Over time, the quality of the sadhus and sants associated with the VHP, too, has declined. Many of the leaders of the principal sects, such as the Shankaracharyas have become wary of associating with the VHP because they know that it is following the political agenda of the RSS. So, it is not surprising that they have had to create their own sadhu, and Ramdev was ideal for this. Principally a yoga teacher and a yoga-Ayurveda entrepreneur, Ramdev is in some ways a kind of empty slate on which the RSS can write its megalomaniacal schemes to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra.
Over the decades, as people have become more educated and the country more modern, they have learnt to discriminate between secular achievement and Nirvana. That is why Baba Ramdev’s message on the advocacy of Hindi or organic farming has had little resonance. It is significant that Ramdev had to bring his own crowd with him. In Delhi all he got, even from the RSS and others, were event tourists who are wont to pop up anywhere, whether to see the destruction wrought by a fire or a flood.
The RSS’s experiment with trying to foist their man of saffron on the Indian populace is bound to fail. Indeed, in each succeeding cycle it loses that much traction. In fact, most of the causes they have taken up are now defunct. The cow-slaughter issue is kept alive through various BJP state governments. As for the Ram Mandir movement, it has become a weak echo of what it was.
The appeal of the messiah or the guru comes partly from the lack of education and partly from the belief that there are short cuts in life. Salvation, power, money can be had through a mantra. The really powerful are those that dish all of this out. Men in white khadi, or those in saffron. For others it is a desperate belief. This is, in part, the consequence of the challenge of modernisation that we confront. To go through the lengthy process of building institutions and social mores is not for us—the short cut that a man in saffron offers us is so much more simpler.
The Ramdev movement has predictably raised the issue of “civil society.” We have had Anna Hazare and his crew demanding that their role be recognised because they are “civil society.” But what does that mean?
It is a self-declaratory claim of secular sainthood—white outside saffron inside, if you will. Actually by the narrowest definition, civil society relates to institutions and organisations outside government, legislatures and the judiciary.
They are watchdog groups involved with human rights, doctors without frontiers, certain types of professional bodies like the federations of journalists, legal aid institutions, and small NGOs such as the society for prevention of cruelty to animals and so on. For fighting corruption, as indeed crime or lawlessness, the constitutionally mandated body is the state and its organs. There can’t be any short cuts here.
This work cannot, by any definition, be done by groups that aim to displace or bypass our constitutionally mandated system, defined by the elected legislature and the executive and judiciary it creates.
Mail Today June 7, 2011