Updated: August 7, 2020 8:34:22 am
From the chants of “Jai Shri Ram” that followed in the wake of BJP leader L K Advani’s Rath Yatra in 1990 to the evocation of “Jai Siya Ram” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the Bhoomi Pujan of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya on August 5, 2020, India has travelled a fair distance.
The “Jai Shri Ram” slogan had come to symbolise the Ram Janmabhoomi movement; on Wednesday, as the movement culminated in the first step of temple-building, there was, perhaps, no need for a battle cry anymore. The gentler salutation of “Jai Siya Ram” could return to Ayodhya.
Between muscle and grace
“Ram Ram”, “Jai Ram ji ki” and “Jai Siya Ram” were the salutations once commonly used in the Hindi heartland, much as “Radhey Radhey” is the preferred way of greeting in Mathura and neighbouring areas. In life, Ram and Sita had to part ways but in photographs, greetings and bhajans, they were inseparable. “Siyapati Ramchandra”, “Siyawar Ramchandra” and “Janakinath” were all terms that spoke of Ram as Sita’s husband.
The cult of Ram, which appears to have strengthened in the 12th century after the Turkic invasions, consistently evoked a just and kind king. It was in this ideal reign that Gandhi located his Ram Rajya, incorporating the symbol of Ram in India’s struggle for freedom and quest for equality. Before Gandhi, Ram was drawn in as an ally in a peasant movement in 1920 in Awadh led by Baba Ramchandra, who travelled through the countryside reciting verses from Tulsidas’s Ramayana and urging people to replace the greeting “salaam” with “Sita-Ram”.
In the late 1980s, Sita was exiled again, as the Hindutva movement spread across India and “Jai Shri Ram” became its chosen battle cry. It decoupled Siya from Ram, stripping the invocation of gentleness and grace, recasting it instead as a singular show of muscular assertiveness. The changing chant was followed by a shift in image as well. The depiction of Ram in posters changed, with many doing away with Sita and showing a solo warrior prince instead.
In 1992, as kar sevaks mobilised by the VHP, Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena among other right-wing groups stormed the Babri Masjid on December 6, bringing it down, “Jai Shri Ram” became a shrill cry of triumph.
Director Kabir Khan, whose 2015 film Bajrangi Bhaijaan captured the playful spirit of Hanuman at a time when images of Rudra (Angry) Hanuman have become popular, said he used the salutation “Jai Shri Ram” in his film as, by then, it had become the more recognisable greeting. Khan, who belongs to Farrukhabad in Uttar Pradesh, said he grew up hearing both “Jai Siya Ram” and “Jai Shri Ram”. “We didn’t really dissect these things back then. It was benign and rooted in our culture. I used ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in my film merely as a peaceful salutation but now definitely the chant has become aggressive,” he said.
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In recent years, a number of cases have been recorded across the country of mobs attacking Muslims, and forcing them to chant “Jai Shri Ram”. Last June, a group of academics, filmmakers and activists wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to intervene in putting a stop “to the name of Ram being defiled in this manner.”
Its political currency was in show last June, when ruling party members chanted the slogan in the Lok Sabha to heckle the Opposition.
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Sita may have gone missing from the corridors of power and salutations but her story of grace, resilience and courage lives on in many folk songs, bhajans and traditions of the country.
Samhita Arni, author of Sita’s Ramayana (2011), said, “The folk Ramayanas preserve a female perspective and a female voice. Women’s folk songs preserve a very different Ramayana, which reflects their lived experience. What emerges is a very different Sita, one who is confused, who questions things sometimes, who is desperately sad after she is banished, and that sorrow is very moving. I think what happens in many of these versions is that when Sita has to deal with these things, she becomes a figure of courage, a figure of integrity.”
Maybe we can hear Sita’s story this time.
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