People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
February 11, 2001
Kumbh Mela--The Media Event
THE Kumbh mela at Allahabad was not just another religious gathering we are told. This is very true. The Kumbh mela of this one-month was no ordinary religious gathering, taking place as it did, in the wake of the RSS-VHP threat to galvanise its Hindutva army for another onslaught at Ayodhya.
In this context it also became a big media event. It was characterised as the first show of the millenium, also likely to be the biggest show ever on earth---a spiritual spectacle that represents a flowering of popular faith and confluence of cosmology and mythology. We were told it was a stupendous tribute to peoples voluntarism and the states (Hindu power?) organisational skills. We were treated to pictures of foreigners immersed in the Hindu faith as much as in the Ganga-Sangam waters. Of Naga sadhus rushing to take their plunge. Of the lakhs taking their holy dip on the important days. And so on and so forth. This was the biggest story for the media till the tragedy of the earthquake took over. The media excelled in trivializing everything else for the time that it could.
A few lakhs of people do go to the kumbh to affirm their faith. This is not surprising in a land where religion still holds a deep significance for people. It is also nothing new that should have evoked the wonder that it did for the media. And there are many other things to be noted about the kumbh than what the eulogizing media covered.
Through history this historic event has been an occasion for the playing out of rivalries between different akharas, and asserting control over organised religion. The kumbh has also been the scene of considerable sectarian violence, not merely verbal. The battles fought between the different akharas were ferocious and deadly. In the twentieth century it became the most significant site for middle class, urban-based, communal organisations to propagate their version of the unified monolithic Hinduism, and to reign in, and garner support of, the traditional akharas for their communal politics. In the last few decades the RSS, and the VHP since its institution, have sought to organise this world to play its Hindutva politics.
They have tried to draw upon the traditional image of a patriotic Sadhu samaj in defense of nationalism and religion, celebrated and synthesized in the imaging of the Hindu Rashtra by Bankim Chandra in his novels. They have also consciously picked up the threads from the overlappings in the assumptions and values of Indian nationalism and Hindu communalism, which abounded in being co-existent and intermingled in the different phases and thoughts of nationalist leaders, through a definite notion of the Hindu rashtra in VD Sarvarkar and MS Golwalkar.
Kumbh melas became occasions for these organisations to flex their muscles, to create networks that moved with facility from the world of organised religion to the world of organised politics, and as easily took on the mantle of faith, religiosity, social service, charity and above all samaj (society) ---the world of pitrabhumi (fatherland), as synonymous with punnyabhumi (sacred land). The formation of the RSS with its ideology of the exclusivist Hindu rashtra, coincided with these developments within the religious kumbhs.
The incorporation of the traditional bases of organised religion, particularly in the context of the proposed Ram mandir, has been part of a well thought out strategy on the part of the RSS and its political affiliates. To that extent they have also tried to attract the support of sadhus and other religious figures associated with Hindu sects throughout India. This strategy is obviously based on two premises:
One, that these sadhus present the crucial access to popular sentiment, particularly in rural areas, and to urban masses through the pilgrimage centres and religious tourism sites.
Second, is that sadhus represent in the popular mind a patriotic force that defended Hindu India against foreigners---Christian and Muslims-- an image that they have themselves been instrumental in pushing through.
The 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid was preceded by a very political exercise that show-cased images of saffron clad sadhus in support of the movement for the temple at Ayodhya. At the 1989 Allahabad kumbh mela two organisations, devoted to Hindutva, marked their presence in a big way. The VHP and the Bharat Sadhu Samaj (BSS), held conferences culminating in aggressive statements and resolutions to "capture" the birthplace of Ram. The BSS was upstaged by the VHP and its leaders not only invited the VHP to its convention but also pledged support to the VHP programme. This was a big achievement for the VHP because of the massive membership of locally prominent religious figures from all over India in the BSS.
This subsequently carried out campaign of one brick from every village, and one rupee from every Hindu in the village was announced on this occasion, and timed with the "auspicious" days when ordinary people take their special dips. Thus leadership-sponsored campaigns were given a very public image, and semblance of massive "national" sentiments. They were also designed to create in the public mind media images of the Ram temple movement as inseparable from Hindu nationalism, and the entire Hindu religious leadership, the mandir and popular sentiments.
A pamphlet published by a Baba, who at that time was described as the "non stop kirtan (singing) conductor" just outside the Babri Masjid, was distributed in lakhs. The pamphlet told the "true story of a series of sixty-five battles during mughal rule between Muslims and sadhus for the "liberation" of the site, peaking with the battles during the reign of Aurangzeb. The images and concocted facts were designed to provoke hatred against the Muslims, apart from creating verbal and almost visual images that became standard in the coming years.
November 9, 1998, marked the first onslaught on the Babri Masjid, and the consequent demonisation of the Mulayam Singh government, and the new RSS constructed lore of lakhs of karsevaks sacrificing their lives for Ram Lalla. On December 6, 1992, the demolition of the Masjid was effected.
The recent kumbh mela saw the playing out of these discourses and strategies in much the same way. This is what explains the holding of the Dharam Sansad by the VHP during the kumbh on January 19, 20, 21, and the determined effort to proclaim a deadline for the building of the Ram temple on this very occasion---despite the fact that it was in no position to set a definite deadline, given its political compulsions and the complexities of electoral designs.
The decision publicised related to the ultimatum to the union government to hand over by March 12, 2002, the 28-hectare plot of land acquired by the government, to its "legitimate owner", the Ram Janambhoomi Nyas, the VHP-controlled trust for the temple construction. The Ram Mandir Nirman Samiti (the Ram Temple Construction Committee), another body, warned that if this was not complied with, the Hindutva activists would do the needful in a repeat performance of 1992.
The current kumbh saw a relative absence of the drama and the tussles that characterised earlier occasions. Many of the sects and traditional sadhu bodies are already in place; discerning observers, one of whom stayed close to the Naga akhara, did note how many of the traditional organisations were only too conscious of their loss of power in the face of the RSS-VHP dominance and control of the mela. The kumbh also signified resentment but resignation, by different sects in the face of the VHPs efforts to present the kumbh as a showcase of a unified monolithic Hinduism. The organisational control of the VHP and the RSS was very much in evidence, despite the lakhs of ordinary people to whom this was an occasion to reaffirm their faith and take a holy dip.
This control was achieved by the Sangh Parivar amidst small murmurs, and despite the refusal of the All India Akhara Parishads refusal to participate in the Dharm Sansad, through a very manipulative strategy. The VHP has reportedly sponsored and funded the establishment of its own akharas. There were already 35 such outfits at this kumbh mela, and the VHP was able to talk over the heads of the Akhara Parishad to issue its ultimatum to the elected government on the temple construction. This is the strategy that the Sangh Parivar had adopted in Ayodhya itself where, from a position of almost no support in the 1980s, the Hindutva politicians have begun to control the organised religious network in Ayodhya in the 1990s.
A BJP government in UP had actively assisted the demolition of the Babri Masjid, sanctioned and promoted the anti-minority campaigns and agenda of the Sangh Parivar. It laid out its machinery and public facilities for the recent "world" programme at Agra, and has now facilitated not merely the kumbh, but the VHP control over the kumbh. Thanks to the UP government, the VHP camp overshadowed all the others in size and grandeur, including that of the Shankracharyas, at the sponsored Kumbh Nagri. Security at the camp was at its best, with metal detectors, barricades and armed policemen day and night. According to a frontline report, top government officials were in regular attendance to ensure that the camp did not suffer any shortage of amenities such as water and electricity, and the UP government brought out numerous advertisements, at public cost, that can only be termed sectarian and objectionable in a secular state.
One must not be complacent that the recent event passed off "peacefully", without any mishaps, despite the much-orchestrated campaign about the ISI, or announcement of any definite dates for the construction of the temple. The VHP has been able to establish its credentials as the authority that will decide on the timing, it has been able to project its leadership over the organisational set-up and has used the event to establish networks, and to show that the controlled event involving lakhs of people, is its achievement --- in total contrast to the chaotic managements of the government.
The plans for this year include a relentless hate campaign against the minorities, and reinforcing the sagging communal temperature among the people disappointed with the performance of the BJP government, and meaningless politicking. The campaigns will culminate with the deadline, designed to coincide with the UP elections. As Ashok Singhal, the VHP president says:
One can see that the Sangh Parivar is going to intensify its politics of communal polarization. Apart from reporting in one or two magazines, all this went unremarked. It is not without reason that the mainstream media, sympathetic to its designs, was only talking of the "incredible organisation" and scenes of devotion at the kumbh, and even today in the context of the earthquake in Gujarat, is trying to make us believe that the RSS shines where the government fails to tread.
The media needed to look beyond the showcase event that the kumbh ostensibly was. As it turned out the coverage was no different from that of the foreign media which projects India in stereo-typed images.