Dark-gray cloud masses
Obscuring the horizon
Mile after mile after mile,
Traversing forested hills,
Skirting inaccessible jungles,
Swift as wing they covered
The face of earth.
Some did handsprings
Stamped their feet,
Clambered up hills,
Roaring and screaming,
Lakhs and lakhs of them,
The above excerpt from the Valmiki Ramayan’s ‘Yudhkand’ has for long been relevant to the birth of a new political discourse in India with Lord Rama at the epicentre in the dying decades of the twentieth century and thereafter. On several occasions a large number of citizens of contemporary India acted like characters described in these lines of the epic and at times they donned different garbs. On occasions, they have also not cheered the mythical hero, his memory or even sought to resurrect his dominance; but have often—like in Varanasi on one evening in May 2014—lined up on streets to cheer their own personification of the hero who, they believed, had capacity to provide them deliverance from bad days and ensure the arrival of the euphemistic achche din.
Hindu nationalistic politics in India from the mid-1980s has a fairly lengthy continuous narrative and can be viewed from different perspectives and with an assortment of stereotypes as main protagonists. Within the narrative of electoral politics, the dramastis personae was led—in the late-1980s and early-1990s by Lal Krishna Advani and by 2008 had begun to be increasingly dominated by Narendra Modi. In contrast, within the motley assembly of allied organizations of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in the late 1980s and 1990s there were ageing gents like the wiry Ashok Singhal who, though the inverse of Advani in gentility, articulated the same worldview. Though Singhal remains the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s presiding deity, the organization has reached a crossroads. That however, is a different tract.
As a reporter writing on the Ayodhya dispute in the years immediately after the locks were controversially opened and the shrine thrown open to Hindu devotees, there was a maze to wade through—literally to the actual site in Ayodhya past the numerous bylanes and hundreds of temples—both forsaken and engaged. There was also this complex web of organizations, bodies and individuals, each claiming the stewardship of the agitation. For a long time it was tough to comprehend the interdependence of these organizations and how a set up like the Shri Ram Janabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti was linked to the VHP. Or for that matter how the VHP was structured and what was the extent of control that the Kendriya Mag-darshak Mandal had on this affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Eventually the term Sangh Parivar came to be coined by a smart alec in the late 1980s. But the question still remained about one very important component of the Ram Janam-bhoomi Movement—the sadhus. With whom were they to be categorized? Were they not a bit of an oddity, lending religious sanctity to a movement which was essentially political?
Rajesh Pradhan explores not just these questions but many more and in the process produces an engaging text which explores one of the ignored facets of the Hindu nationalistic movement in India. The book begins on the correct premise that though sadhus are integral to daily life they have a peripheral existence and are often seen as social deviants or dropouts. Sadhus, says the author, can be seen ‘begging outside people’s houses and doling out all kind of advice as they sit among captivated believers…They might be at the centre of archaic religious practices but also at the centre of attention in the popular ritual of darshan, involving a direct visual encounter with a living holy symbol. In short, sadhus are commonplace fixtures of daily life in India.’
There is one set of sadhus—as described previously—who are not controllers of destiny in the sense that they have not been custodians of religion and do not ‘own’ temples or mutts. The other set of sadhus have abandoned homes and families but have gone on to build large followings and veritable empires. They have often participated in internecine conflicts either within their own order or with other sects and some of these takes have had liberal doses of gore. This trait of sadhus has been posited on a few medieval and modern narratives of the origins of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi conflict. Given their anarchic ways, it was very difficult for Indian political leaders to engage with sadhus because there was no surety when they would turn deviants and embarrass the political movement they had got drawn into.
As a result, sadhus were only peripherally drawn into the centre of the anti-cow slaughter movement during the post-Independence period in the 1950s and 1960s but the leadership of the movement remained firmly in the hands of the RSS. In 1955 the RSS’s first action after the lifting of the ban and formation of Bharatiya Jana Sangh was to launch a movement and collect signatures to demand ‘Gohatya Bandi’. Similarly in 1966-67 it created under the aegis of the VHP, launched in 1964, the Sarvadaliya Goraksha Maha Abhiyan Samiti. Both these agitations were supported by sadhus but they had no role in the leadership. Such marginal role of the sadhus was in contrast to the late nineteenth century when, Dayanand Saraswati, also described as a sadhu by Pradhan, brought the issue of preventing cow slaughter to the centre-stage.
The major part of the book explores the world of sadhus in their personal and spiritual context and when it steps out of this realm, it is devoted to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement which undoubtedly has been the ‘crowning glory’ of the Hindu nationalist movement. But contradictions existed in these two streams—also among different groups of sadhus—and this became evident in the first major confrontation with the State in Ayodhya—in October-November 1990 when Mulayam Singh Yadav was Chief Minister and BJP had announced withdrawal of support from the central government headed by Vishwanath Pratap Singh. The conflict was over asking volunteers assembled in the temple town to return after the government prevented the Kar Seva. The VHP wanted to press on with the agitation while the sadhus led by Swami Vamdev Maharaj (correctly given adequate attention by Pra-dhan along with Ram Chandra Paramhans) were in favour of a retreat. Eventually the politically motivated VHP continued with the agitation and this resulted in the death of several young activists and sadhus in police firing. The incident created schism between the ranks of sadhus and the VHP- propelled Sangh Parivar. In the 1991 elections, BJP attempted to secure formal support of religious leaders but this was by and large a failure.
The VHP at one point had been keen on developing the body of sadhus as a counter to the Muslim clergy which the VHP felt was instrumental in rallying Muslims in the pro-Babri Masjid agitation. This succeeded in the initial years of the Ayodhya agitation—in fact, the ‘breakthrough’ on October 30, 1990 was by a naga sadhu who drove a bus through the police cordon and in this way paved the way for the VHP Kar Sevaks to storm the Babri Masjid and damage it a bit while raising a saffron flag on top of the central dome. The participation of sadhus in the agitation remained at the same level as several of them had become part of the leadership of the agitation. Mahants Paramhans and Nritya Gopal Das were also beginning to visualize a more widened role for themselves in a Hindu India. But that section of sadhus who remained social dropouts did not provide the ‘spine’ on December 6, 1992 when the medieval mosque was eventually demolished. Dominant images of that time were not that of sadhus with ashes smeared on their face storming the Babri Masjid. Rather the faces of the activists resembled those who were out on the streets in every subsequent riot—be it in Gujarat in 2002 or in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. Why, the faces were quite like the saffron-bandana clad youngsters who thronged the streets of Varanasi on the evening when Modi’s cavalcade went through the city with much fanfare.
In recent years the sadhu as a political force has become irrelevant for the BJP and its leaders. In fact, even VHP has become a bit of a concern for the political leadership which has reaped harvest and wishes to reign in the fringe element. Pradhan argues with the help of a rich treasure of interviews that he conducted over a span of more than a decade, that the average sadhu does not often share the political outlook of the political proponents of Hindu nationalist politics on issues of secularism and relegation of Muslims to the margins of society. He also recognizes that after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the ‘ordered’ sadhu-dom got fragmented because barring Nirmohi Akhara and sadhus associated with it no one stood to benefit from any future construction of a temple in Ayodhya in place of the makeshift shrine that now exists.
The world of sadhus is complex and extremely fragmented because barring those who remain lifelong dropouts, they aspire to become heads of their own sects and wield considerable power and wealth to provide comforts. Aspirations of sadhus are different from Hindu nationalism though there have been periods when the two came together. The book is a powerful exploration of this world and will be handy to grapple with emergent issues should there ever be another nationwide upsurge like the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist. He is the author of The Demolition: India at the Crossroads and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.