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Raavan’s legend lives with Ram

Raavan’s legend lives with Ram

IT will be Dussehra in a few days, mostly celebrated in north India as the day Lord Ram vanquished the demon king Raavan and rescued his wife Sita who the ruler of Lanka had kidnapped. Of course there are many other versions of the Ram-Sita and Ram-Raavan stories but religious puritans and revivalists have willy-nilly forced people to make do with just one narrative.

Otherwise, in several parts of India, there are temples dedicated to Raavan too. He is described as a follower of Lord Shiva, a great scholar, a capable ruler and a maestro of the veena. His 10 heads represent his knowledge of the six shastras and the four Vedas. Jain and Buddhist accounts of the Ram legend vary from the version of Valmiki Ramayan embraced by votaries of Hindutva.

For example, in Jain accounts Raavan was called Dasamukha (10-headed one) because when he was young, his mother gave him a necklace made of nine pearls. She could see his face reflected nine-fold.

Be that as it may, two candidates nicely fit Kaifi Azmi’s verse that borrows from the dominant legend of the Ramayana. The candidates for our purposes are Subhash Chandra Bose and Hardik Patel. There could be others, but these gentlemen, from different passages of time in India, nicely illustrate an unusual point the poet had made.

Apney hatho’n ko padha karta hoon, ... kabhi Geeta ki tarah/ Chand rekhao’n mei’n, seemao’n mei’n, zindagi qaid hai Sita ki tarah. Ram kab lautengey maaloom nahi. Kaash Raavan hi koi aa jaata. (I read my palms again and again like a holy book. The lines have trapped my Sita-like existence that someone forsook. Ram will be late and may be gone for days. Could Raavan, meanwhile, liberate me from time’s gloomy maze?)

In the dominant Indian narrative, we can’t really imagine Valmiki’s Raavan as a liberator much less a defender of a moral cause. In poetry though one could conjure the imagery, as Kaifi did. And yet, when Hardik Patel hit the country like a storm many of my politically moderate friends felt relieved. They believed he could humble their powerful bête noir. When the dust settled and Narendra Modi’s amazingly potent challenger turned out to be an out-and-out right-winger, at par with his quarry, the Kaifi verse came to mind. Had fascist Raavan come as a catalyst of change because the democratic Ram had been delayed?

Another friend quoted from Josh Malihabadi. Ab boo-i-gul na baad-i-saba maangtay hain log/ Woh habs hai ke loo ki dua maangtay hain log. (The scent of flowers, the morning breeze seemed farfetched though nice/In this suffocating stillness a blast of searing heat would suffice).

The 22–year old Patel’s worldview, as it turned out, was brazenly communal, which it need not have been. I say this because farming communities across India were not at all communal. The virus of religious prejudice in the sense we have known it for over six decades has been an urban phenomenon. Over time, particularly intensively since the run-up to the Ayodhya outrage, it was consciously grafted on the rural canvas, which has otherwise remained primarily caste-oriented in nature.

Hardik Patel believes he is a protector of Hindu honour. He wants to turn India into a Hindu rashtra. His great hero is Bal Thackeray, the late founder of Mumbai’s neo-fascist Shiv Sena. Yet, he had an ace up his sleeve that moderate and even leftist detractors of Modi, if they are still around, could only dream of. He had the political clout and the will to rock the Modi establishment to its foundations. This is one ability that most middle-caste rural communities have usually claimed — Hindu Jats, Sikh Jats, Yadavs, Patils and so on. Infusing them with religious prejudice is a work in progress. Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh recently was a successful experiment in this endeavour.

Indeed, Gujarat’s Patels had once backed the Congress but became bedfellows with the Bharatiya Janata Party after the Congress hitched its wagon with a numerically formidable combination of lower-caste Hindus, Dalits and Muslims. A huge Patel diaspora in the United States has threatened to stage protests when Modi visits there later this month. In the contest of two raging right-wing formations can the moderates experience a sense of relief? They seem nicely bankrupt politically, so who knows.

The moderate Indians’ romance with Subhash Chandra Bose has been older and more muddled. The communists ruled West Bengal for 30-plus years as allies of the Forward Bloc, which follows Bose’s socialist pretensions. In other words, no one was prepared to discuss his flirtations with Mussolini and Hitler. Bose was a product of the militant if occasionally obscurantist Hindu opposition to colonial rule. Even Maulana Azad fell for the harnessing of religion in politics from the Bengali militants. The ill-conceived Khilafat Movement was the maulana’s brainchild, which Gandhi, rather predictably, patronised.

True there was a basic difference between Bose and the other admirers of Italian fascism, namely the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha (and their latter day offspring Hardik Patel). Bose believed he could align with Britain’s European and Japanese detractors to liberate the country from colonialism. (It is another matter that he also wanted to impose a 20-year-long spell of ruthless dictatorship in India after it became free.)

Kaifi’s musings to seek out Raavan as a catalyst to freedom though poetic in its intent had a potentially tragic encounter with reality, albeit in a somewhat confused and ironic way. Such has been India’s ambivalence in its long wait for the promised Ram Rajya.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2015

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