How a 1980s TV soap did the spadework for Hindu nationalism

Mythologies after television
Mythologies after television
Image: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
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In his book, Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India, NYU media scholar Arvind Rajagopal explores the role played by emerging communications technology in Indian politics during the 1980s. The Hindu nationalist movement had long been on the fringes of the Indian polity in the years following independence, but had not yet found its way into the mainstream. In the years leading to the demolition of the Babri masjid (mosque) in the north Indian town of Ayodhya, the sociopolitical fabric of India was undergoing a sea change that was led in part by the growing prominence of the television in India.

As TV sets became commonplace in every Indian household, coverage of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement (the movement to restore the birthplace of the Hindu deity, Ram by demolishing the Babri masjid and building a temple in its place) reached Indians across the country in an unprecedented way. Simultaneously, the growth of the televisual medium also coincided with a landmark media event that inadvertently energised the janmabhoomi movement: the weekly broadcast of the serialised version of the Ramayan, a soap opera based on the Hindu epic of the same name, on state television. The television show lent the movement generous helpings of legitimacy and faith among the Hindu public and marked a crucial flashpoint in Indian politics.

In light of the looming verdict over the Ayodhya land dispute, Quartz approached Rajagopal for his thoughts on the origins of the janmabhoomi movement, the enduring significance of the Babri demolition in present day politics and the role played by evolving communications technologies in the Indian public sphere. Edited excerpts:

In your book, Politics after Television, you mention the role of “mythological soap operas” in the Ramjanmabhoomi movement—for our readers, how would you define these soap operas? What role did the Ramayan and the televisual medium play in galvanising the movement?

The very idea of a mythological soap opera begins with the Ramayan—there was nothing like it before. Doordarshan was unsure of how it would play. Only when ratings grew did the show move from Friday evening to Sunday morning. In the process, a soft spot in the broadcasting calendar was turned into advertising prime time. Audiences watched it out of piety but the use that was made of it was political—the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) put its weight behind the Babri masjid andolan (movement), which was begun by a Congress member, Dau Dayal Khanna. A Congress government initiated the show, but the BJP got the benefit.

What role does the Ramayan (the epic, not the soap opera) play in the Hindu nationalist tradition? How does the soap opera fit in conjunction with other heterogeneous tellings of the story?

Hindu nationalists from Savarkar to Golwalkar hardly mention the Ramayan. Their concern was to avoid traditional religion, which they thought was sectarian through and through. They wanted to invent a new tradition which would be national. Hence, Golwalkar thought we should worship “the living god”—the bhagwa dhwaj or the bicornuate saffron flag. But in the television version of the epic, (director) Ramanand Sagar built-in elements of Hindutva. RSS speeches were incorporated into the show (I have referred to it in my book). The idea of Ram’s birthplace is also introduced into the plot, where Ram is carrying around a clod of earth from his janmabhumi (birthplace)—even when wandering in the forest for 14 years.

What was the nature of the news coverage of the movement and the eventual demolition?

Broadly, the English news coverage saw the Ramjanmabhumi campaign as a threat to law and order, while the Hindi press was open to the religious claims being made and often saw the movement as reflecting majority sensibility. The demolition was an inflection point; thereafter Hindi news never looked back and gained more and more influence. The masjid was called disputed property, but in fact, its legal ownership was not in question. But popular mobilisation was allowed to settle a juridical issue, and that shifted the terms by which the issue was judged thereafter.

How have new media technologies (social networking platforms, WhatsApp etc) impacted the Hindu nationalist movement in the recent past?

We can take the long view. The Congress was the dominant force in (Indian) media after independence. Even when television came on the scene, the Congress tried to continue its dominance in that arena. Eventually, the BJP took over—helped by the combination of Hindu epics and popular mobilisation. But with the BJP’s dominance of social media as well, it is going to be hard for an effective oppositional force to come together.

Will the media play a role in the impact of the 2019 verdict as well?

The political template seems to be set for confirming the Hindu faith of the majority; legal evidence may not provide adequate counter-weight.

What is the ongoing relevance of the Babri demolition in present day India?

A very diverse religious tradition is being consolidated along Semitic lines—with one main god (Ram), one key text (Ramayan), one holy city (Ayodhya) and hence one leader—who is in the political, not the religious field. Of course one can think of objections—what about Krishna, the Gita, etc? Objections can be managed, but consolidation is going on meanwhile, and history is being rewritten too.

The Babri demolition was said to rock the foundations of secular India—what impact will the 2019 verdict have on secularism in India?

The more consolidated and streamlined Indian history becomes, the longer the lineage of Hindu struggle against Muslim oppressors, ergo, the more secularism becomes a means of redressing historical wrongs, and thus of majority assertion taking on the sense of a beleaguered historical minority belatedly expressing itself on the national and the world stage.