This Ram is My Ram

The Right-wing is the final authority on the Ramayana, there's no space for debate or scholarly discussion

Khalid Akhter Delhi

In the recent past, Ram's legend and exploits have been more in the news for political reasons than religious or historical - be it over Ayodya, the Ram Setu or the recent controversy surrounding an essay by eminent scholar AK Ramanujan. It was included in the BA Honours text book for Delhi University's second year history course. Ramanujan had shown how the Ramayana is interpreted in different ways across India. This was not to the liking of a certain intellectually bereft section of India's rightists, and they reacted by vandalising university premises. This showdown by self-appointed moral policemen is yet another expression of their intolerance of liberal views. Although they say Ramanujan's essay is anti-Hindu, the entire issue is nothing but a carefully constructed controversy.
Acts of violence and vandalism by the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, is nothing new, and that too in the presence of the police and administration. Such attempts from the part of their long-term agenda to impose a dominant hegemonic Right-wing ideology that defines every aspect of Indian-ness in their own way, at the expense of a secular democratic space. Vinoj Abraham, faculty, Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvanthapuram, tells Hardnews, "The attack on AK Ramanujan's work on Ramayana is particularly worrying; that any form of plurality of thought, even within the same faith, is snuffed out. The right to freedom of expression, even when Constitutionally guaranteed, acquires little significance in the face of such institutionalised silencing, within or without the groups."
At the time of the inclusion of the essay 'Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation' by the late Padmashri scholar AK Ramanujan in the recommended reading list for Delhi University's second year history BA Honours course, one would have thought that the dissemination of various interpretations and narratives of the Hindu epic would have pleased the ABVP. After all, Ramanujan's essay in question illustrates and gives point-by-point analyses of the great dynamism and variety in what the scholar describes as the "telling" of the story of Ram within India and across the world. However, according to Manisha Sethy, faculty in the Department of Comparative Religion at Jamia Milia Islamiya University, this plurality and multiplicity does not fit in the paradigm of 'uniform nation, uniform civil code, uniform culture and now the uniform Ramayana' of the RSS.
A recent incident that took place in Baroda University, where an exhibition depicting Hindu gods and goddesses was vandalised, should also be seen in this context. Right-wing conservative parties want to capture political power and also the intellectual and cultural domain and redefine everything to fit into their own paradigm. The controversy and attacks on SZH Jaffrey, head of the Department of History at Delhi University, have everything to do with rewriting and redefining India's past from a particular perspective. Jaffrey in an All India History Congress recently criticised history books written during the previous NDA regime.
Criticising the ABVP vandalism, Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Avijit Pathak says, "Any serious research is possible in a society that allows freedom of expression," and added, "Ramanujan may not be liked, but this calls for a debate and his views should be protested through counter arguments. It can't be resolved through lumpenism." He unleashed an array of bullet points against the Right-wing parties and also thinks that the space for debate and dialogue has shrunk even in a Left-ruled state like West Bengal. "Civil space is becoming anti-dialogue," he says.
Mukul Manglik, professor at Ramjas College, concludes by saying that such sentiments and violence can never be the base for what is to be taught and thinks this whole episode is an attack on the secular democratic political structure of the country.