In January, the VHP — at its Prayagraj Magh mela convention — announced the organisation of a series of functions as part of Ram Mahotsav in villages across India before the Ram Janmabhoomi construction starts. These would be the same villages where Ramshila poojan happened during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement under the leadership of the RSS, VHP and Sant Samaj. This move may be observed as the VHP’s effort to sustain Ram-based memories among Hindus, through various celebrations, in order to strengthen the Ram-based religious public sphere in India.
After the SC verdict on Babri Masjid was delivered, the VHP organised a Ram baraat from Ayodhya to Janakpur. In that procession, the VHP organised meetings involving religio-social organisations and Ramleela committees working in villages, qasbas and cities in north India. The Ram Janmabhoomi issue strengthened Hindutva politics in India and Hindutva politics, in turn, kept alive the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Hindutva forces entered the religious public sphere through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement initially, but it evolved later as it entered and worked in religious public sphere.
The Ram Janmabhoomi movement connected with the grass roots using the cultural consciousness and memories of Ram, which was circulated and re-narrated in the religious public sphere of the country. The RSS, VHP and BJP forged a relationship with this vibrant religious public sphere. They facilitated the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which in turn strengthened their political-organisational influence in the electoral landscape of the country.
Most of the parties that claim to be secular stay aloof from the religious public sphere, which Hindutva politics gives due importance to, especially during their mobilisations. Religious-cultural actions have also contributed to the expansion of Hindutva ideology and politics. These spheres may evolve around a place, institutions, events and individuals: Sometimes, they evolve in fixed geographies like Ayodhya, Varanasi and Prayag which carry the attractions of the past and reflections of cultural heritage. A part of such public spheres may emerge around institutions like temples, mutts and akharas — which are woven with Hindu cultural-religious traditions. These spheres may also emerge while celebrating festivals like Dussehara, Diwali, Janmashtami etc. Finally, a section of such spheres can emerge around individuals like saints and kathavachaks (storytellers).
Religious-cultural public spheres also include Ram katha mandals, various kirtan mandals and Krishna bhajan mandals etc. — these create space where lakhs of people gather and engage in religious discourse, and also become a part of the discussion on a few issues of national-political importance. These events are organised in some states by regional-level trusts, associations and temple organisations in various parts of India.
These associations also help to develop mandapas — these, for example, are found in villages in Odisha, which evolve as village public spheres where religious stories are narrated. Many Ram katha pravachaks and Bhagwat katha storytellers attract lakhs of people in their gatherings. An interaction with these storytellers would reveal how most of them are impressed with Hindutva politics in one way or another. During their Ram kathas and Bhagwat katha pravachans, these storytellers also discuss issues like Ram Janmabhoomi and Article 370. In October 2019, Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath inaugurated a nine-day Ram katha utsav by famous storyteller Murari Bapu in Gorakhpur. That is also when he dropped hints about the possibility of a positive Ram temple verdict.
While such spheres are ignored by non-Hindutva political parties, they contribute towards the forming communities in the society. It enables the Hindutva groups to accumulate social capital that is later used for the expansion of their ideology. Hindutva politics, thus, is increasingly becoming influential due to its engagement with the non-political but socio-culturally and religiously powerful public spheres associated with the Hindu religion.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 28, 2020 under the title “The Fringe that isn’t”. The writer is director, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad
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