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If you are born in Uttar Pradesh or for that matter, in any other northern state of India, acquaintance to Ram is similar to those of a new-born getting familiar with the outer world. One understands Sita Ram, Siya Ram,Sitapat Ram,Siyavar Ram etc. are the words forRam conjoining his wife Sita, protagonist of a minimum of 300 Ramayanas written so far,based on the original Sanskrit Ramayana by Valmiki, written supposedly 3000 years back, like you learn other nouns.

In Uttar Pradesh, in particular, where I was born and spent a long span of the formative years of my life, most popular form of Ramayana was Ram charitamanas of Tulsidas. Nearly every Hindu household and in few of other religions too had it, in various forms and shapes. Children, like us, had a fun time during summer vacations when many families held Akhand Ramayana Path, where the whole Ramayana was to be sung uninterrupted with a challenge to complete the recital in 24 hours. We, the children, were not supposed to and were also not much interested in recital. We instead played around and feasted on the plentiful delicacies available at our disposal throughout the day and night. Every year we used to wait for this gala event.

There were also all women Kirtans or Satsangs, where a group of women met on a fixed day of the week for singing Bhajans. It was a great socializing event where women talked about themselves, their problems and the issues bothering them along with singing Bhajans. As I understand it today, back then it was a support group meeting pinched with a salt of Bhajans. Grandmother was a regular in one such group. Occasionally, when she was pleased with any of us, that child had privilege of accompany her. We kids were supposed to sit quietly throughout the boring ritual of Kirtan. Apart from an out of turn rendezvous, the main attraction was the laddoos or boondi distributed as Prasad. Moment of Arti was a moment of rejoice, and with great vigor we kid shouted Siyavar Ramachandra ki Jai, Pavansuta Hanuman ki Jai at the peak of our voice and were often justly rewarded by an extra laddoo or an extra amount of boondi.

In those years, words like Sita Ram, Jai Siya Ram, were the greetings like Namastey or Good Morning and were responded accordingly. Salam came in our vocabulary later when we learnt to greet Shafik Mian, a colleague of Bauji, my father. And the word so intriguing, that we children jumped around him in circle repeating ‘Salam Shafik Mian! Salam Shafik Mian!’ and went on and on till we were reprimanded. Shafik Mian, it seems did not mind our prank and matched our ‘Salam’ with his.

In brief, Ram mostly conjoined with Sita, his wife, was just an innocent way of greeting with no religious or political flavour that people of other religions, too, did not hesitate to respond accordingly, some fifty years back. Then as we grew and some of us took to atheism, greetings like Sita Ram or Jai Siya Ram were responded by a big Hooo…n.

In the meantime, Ram too was mutating -he was leaving Sita behind and was becoming Raja Ram. Ram Ram or Jai Sri Ram were new greetings. Now Ram was not associated with Sita,assumingly having inseparable qualities of kind and grace. He became the warrior Ram, the central slogan of Ramjanambhoomi Movement leading to the demolition of Babri Masjid.

During this period, I shifted my base to Calcutta.Making home in Kolkata,I made acquaintance with   Michael Madhusudan Dutta and his greatest literary work Meghnad Badh Kabya, an alternative view of Ramayana, from Meghnad’s point of view. That brought me toThree Hundred Ramayanas of AK Ramanujan and Ranganayakamma’s Ramayana: The Poisonous Tree, a Marxist Feminist version of Valmiki’s Ramayana. I also came across Du Saraswathi, a Kannada Dalit writer, theater person and activist performing Santhimmi’s Ramayana, the story of Sita who does not die but lives to create life. Saraswathi’s Sita is the first single mother, the first deserted wife and her Ram is an uncaring husband with a fragile male ego.

As Ram, bereft of Sita, was becoming more and more masculine, a political trope, so was my political awareness. To please the unhappy Muslim orthodoxy over Shah Bano Case, where the Supreme Court made it mandatory for a Muslim man to give maintenance to his divorced wife under the provisions of Criminal Law, the then Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi enacted Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986, reversing the effect of Shah Bano Verdict. The ‘Muslim Women Act’ was the beginning of communal Politics in a so called secular contemporary India. Rajiv Gandhi then went to please the population of the other end of the spectrum by pursuing the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Bir Bahadur Singh, to open the locks of Babri Masjid and allow religious rites inside the disputed structure.

Hindu-Muslim conflict on Babri Masjid,traditionally believed to be the birth place of mythical character Ram, is not new. The Masjid was built by Mir Baqi in accordance with the wish of Babur around 1528-1529. It is said that 50 years later, Tulsidas wrote Ramcharita Manas while residing in its courtyard. Nothing happened in next 300 years. It was in 1853 that armed mahants of Nirmohi Akhara occupied the site and claimed its ownership and attempted to build a temple or to use it as a place of worship. After intermittent clashes for two years between Hindus and Muslims, in 1855 a boundary wall was constructed, dividing the mosque into two courtyards, as suggested by the elders. Muslims prayed in the inner courtyard, while the Hindus prayed in outer one, known as Ram Chabutra. In 1883, the Hindus, for the first time, launched an effort to construct temple on the Chabutra, but were prohibited on the protest of Muslims, by the colonial rulers. A cow-slaughter in Shahjhanpur triggered Hindu-Muslim riot once again in 1934. Then was the mysterious appearance of idols in 1949 and the decision of Mahants to hold a week long recital of Ramcharita Manas in front of the mosque. The decision encouraging thousands of aggressive Hindu devotees to visit Ayodhya. Congress government under Nehru then in 1950, decided to lock the gates and declaredthe mosque a disputed area.

Series of civil suits followed. In 1950.Gopal Singh Visharad sought permission to worship, in 1959 Nirmohi Akhara demanded possession and Sunni Central Wakf Board demanded possession and removal of idols in the same year. Incidentally, while putting the lock on Babri, the then government had ordered the UP government to remove the idols, from the site, but the then Deputy Commissioner Mr K K Nayar pleaded inability on the ground of fearing retaliation by Hindus. K K Nayar’s refusal made him the darling of RSS, who resigned from the government job and after practicing law at the Allahabad High Court for few years, won Lok Sabha seat from Bahraich in UP in 1967 on Bharitya Jan Sangha ticket.

The demand of “Liberation” of Ayodhya by Dharam Sansad in 1984, challenged carefully preserved, theme of secularism. Mahant Avaidyanath formed Shri Ram Janambhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti and Launched Tala Kholo agitation. Series of small and big Ram Janaki Rath Yatras from different parts of India to Ayodhya were taken out. In 1985, VHP which had been active since 1982, filled a writ petition demanding reopening of disputed structure for worship by Hindus. 1984 saw formation of Bajrang Dal for young men and Durga Vahini for young women for militant actions. During this period VHP was also organizing international conferences for Hindu Diaspora.While this all was happening, the then Congress government must be blamed for inaction and letting the fire of communalism spread. In fact, Congress too by then under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and then of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was utilizing religious idioms.

In 1989, Sangh Parivar, began collecting the consecrated bricks with RAM written on them, the Ram Shilas, to lay the foundation of Ram Janamsthan Mandir in Ayodhya. BJP and RSS took several hundred thousand of Ram Shilas made of local earth in different places. Regular processions of cadres carrying these bricks, worshipped and consecrated by the local Pujaris and village elders, wrapped in saffron cloth were seen throughout the country to be taken to the spot at Ayodhya. The earth dug up at Ayodhya was brought back and redistributed in a heroic effort to unite all Hindus in nationhood, more a political stance than the conventional understanding.

Not only the then Congress Government allowed VHP to lay the foundation stone of Ram Mandir in 1989, its two senior leaders Buta Singh, the then Home Minister of India and N D Tiwari, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh graced the occasion. The decision of Rajiv Gandhi government gave impetus to the brewing Ram Janmabhoomi movement to become a huge one, surpassing the manageable limits and thus became a symbol of resurgent Hindu nationhood.

1990 was a historic year. Cashing on the resentment of Hindu community to the decision of VP Singh to implement the recommendations of Mondal Commission, BJP leader LK Advani launched Rathyatra from Somnath to Ayodhya in September. Though Advani was stopped in Bihar, communal riots that started from Kota in Rajasthan, just after the Shila Puja spread to Gujrat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – leading to BJP winning Assembly elections in these states in 1990. The unstoppable Sangh Parivar demolished Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 and a new phase of murderous riots began. The worst incidents took place in Mumbai, Ahemedabad, Benaras and Jaipur. Incidentally, it was the death of Prabhudas Vaishnani, one of 133 people arrested in Jamjodhpur town of Jamnagar on October 1990 for communal rioting in protest of the arrest of Advani, for which an IPS officer named Sanjiv Bhatt was sentenced for life a few weeks back.

1991 election campaigns saw trishul-wielding Sadhus in the political election meetings and rallies, making BJP the second largest party in Parliament with 119 seats. Demolition of mosque transformed BJP a party that challenged so-far unchallenged Congress rule. The trick of polarizing population on communal grounds, banking on violent militant cadres has provided rich dividends to RSS-VHP-BJP combination (Sangha Parivar). The cycle of violence and hate politics spins with ever increasing rate from Ayodhya to Godhara to Muzzafarnagar to Chattisgarh…..

During the decade, greetings ‘Sita Ram’, ‘Jai Siya Ram!’ etc. were transformed to political slogan of ‘Ram Ram’ and ‘Jai Sri Ram’ making people forget their hunger, unemployment, casteist tortures and many other ailments faced in day to day life by chanting these words. A macho Ram took the place of Maryada Purushottum Ram, the epitome of right thinking and right action, the so called relentless warrior of justice, inspiring devotion and piety in the hearts of Hindus now inspires frenzy and fear.

Last five-year rule of BJP at Center and in other states have seen killing of Left wing politician and writer, Govind Pansare in February, 2015; of academic M M Kalburgi in August 2015 and that of fearless journalist Gouri Lankesh in September 2017, by the same recruiter, frequently using the same weapon of the same right-wing organization. The cycle of assassination of dissenting voices, started with the killing of Dr Narendra Dabholkar, a medical doctor, social activist, rationalist and author from Maharashtra in August, 2013. The local police inaction and change in government further strengthened the resolve of murderer. It cannot be claimed that no journalist was ever killed for their fearless reporting against the interest of ruling class and capital, but where in two decades between 1993-2013, 11 killings were reported; in the subsequent five years (2014-2019) 15 journalists were assassinated. The rate of assassination is astonishingly high!

Last five-yearsalso witnessed a surge in arrest of journalists. Manipur journalist, Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha was kept in jail for a year under National Security Act (NSA) for criticizing the local and central BJP government. This June we saw Prashant Kanojia getting arrested from his Delhi residence by UP Police for tweet, criticizing Adityanath Jogi, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. In last five years more than 14 journalists were arrested. Chhatisgarh has seen arrests of journalists, writing against the government policy of development and deprivation of local people, mainly tribal, on the pretext of being Maoist or sympathizers, irrespective of the colour of the ruling party.

Country is also witness to mob lynching by Gau-Rakshaks that travelled a long way over the bodies of Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh, Pehlu Khan in Rajsthan to Tabrez Ansari in Chattisgarh. The disappearance of JNU student Najeeb Ahmed in 2016 still remains a mystery. Lynching of Muslims and forcing them to shout the slogans like ‘Jai Sri Ram!’, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai!’ and ‘Bande Mataram!’ has become a new norm to terrorize them. Not only on roads, this year we heard these slogans to heckle the elected Parliamentarians of other faith or parties while taking oath in the sacred house of Parliament, completely violating the basic fabric of the very constitution that they took oath of bearing full faith and allegiance to. There was no leader in Parliament to remind Pratap Chandra Sarangi, that refusing ‘Vande Mataram’ is not the disqualification of being citizen of this constitutionally secular country and also that Constitution is and will always be above Bharat Mata, a character created by the Sangh Parivar.

A day after the BJP won the landslide victory a slew of violent incidents took place. On May 22, three Muslims, including a woman were brutally thrashed over the suspicion of carrying beef. They were forced to chant ‘Jai Sri Ram’. In Gujrat a mob of 200-300 upper caste men attacked the house of a dalit couple over a Facebook post saying that Dalits are allowed to use village temple for dalit wedding ceremony.

With the oath taking and sloganeering on 18th June, a new spate of violence began. On the same night, Tabrez Ansari became the 18th victim of Mob violence in Jharkhand in last three years. Tabrez was forced to chant ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and ‘Jai Hanuman’ and was beaten all through.Before that, just a day after the Prime Minister Narendra Modi took oath, four construction labours were beaten up in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh for allegedly eating meat near a place of worship. Two days after the attack on Ansari, 26-year-old Shahrukh Haldar, was asked by the mob to chant ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and was pushed out of a running train in West Bengal. In the same week, on the night of June 27nd Faisal Usman Khan, was assaulted and almost lynched and was forced to chant ‘Jai Sri Ram’ in Thane, Maharashtra. On the same day, Mohammad Momin was attacked by three men and was asked to say ‘Jai Sri Ram’ in Rohini Secctor 20 in Delhi. The proud killers are regularly filming their deplorable act of violence and circulating in social media normalizing their crime against humanity.

It gives me immense pain that the old sweet greetings like Jai Sia Ram or Ram-Ram, significantly meant for the colloquial expression of love have turned into an expression of religious symbolism which infuriates frenzy and fears in the minds of people belonging to other religions, castes and political thinking. It is a war cry! The violence is so much so normalized that the perpetrators are proud of circulating these videos in social network platform. Even the people who try to raise their concern through an open letter to the Prime Minister are termed as anti-national. FIRs are filled against them. We see in a video how an MLA from Jharkhand is pursuing another MLA of different religion to chant ‘Jai Sri Ram’ in front of Jharkhand Vidhan Sabha. Imagine the same happening on any other street, locality, what could have happened? We all know the answer!

In such a scenario, where the religion and faith, so far considered a sacred affair, is being under attack by political hooliganism, childhood greetings are being converted into the instruments of hatred to treat the people of different religion, food habit and political thinking. Right minded people from all spheres of life should come together to save the sanctity of these greetings and help stop using these words for generating hate and crime and distracting people from the real problems of employment, education, health, labour and farming.   !!!!A ‘Jai Sia Ram’ in true sense!!!

Nisha Biswas is an activist based in Kolkata


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