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Taxi journalism and Bajrangbali

India has a history of festivals spreading to different parts of the country either for greater cultural interaction or political mobilisation

Mornings in a large part of the Hindi heartland often reverberate with chaupaiis (verses) of poet-saint Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas. In one of the most widely sung and popular verses, Tulsidas runs out of possible simile or metaphor to describe the radiant beauty of Lord Ram’s face. He goes on to write that Ram’s face is like Ram’s face only, it can’t be compared to anything else:
Tulasidas ati ananda dekhake mukhaaravinda
Raghuvara chhabike samaana raghuvara chhabi baniyaan.
The uniqueness that Tulsidas lends to visual imagination of his deity’s countenance is also accompanied with freedom of interpretation. In an oft-quoted verse imbued with essence of conceptual plurality in seeing divine forms, Tulsidas writes: Jaaki rahi bhavna jaisi, prabhu moorat dekhi tin taisi (The way one approaches the Lord or whatever be one’s sentiments, one sees Lord in that image only).
That’s obvious in the ways in which not only Lord Ram but numerous Hindu deities are visually depicted, sculpted and painted. Ranging from affectionately benign to divinely paternal or maternal, angry to belligerent, the various episodic moods of epics find expressions on faces of not only Ram but deities like Shiv, Vishnu, Durga, Krishna and many more.
On any long trip through a Hindi heartland state like Uttar Pradesh or Bihar , you can see numerous hues and moods of the popular deity Lord Hanuman in several one-deity modest temples that can be spotted on the roadside.
So, it becomes an amusing case of cultural naivete when a supposedly “militant” version of Lord Ram or that of his devotee Hanuman frightens a section of opinion makers in media as signs of muscular Hindutva. That’s what Nilanjana Bhowmick’s recent piece in The Wire, which has triggered different reactions, has ended up doing.
Alarmism is the default dialect of the language which one not only finds in a significant section of English media in India as well as writings on India in international press. Bhowmick’s article reminded one of Asgar Qadri’s piece in The New York Times last year which imagined sari as a fashion statement of the rise of Hindu nationalism.
Bhowmick’s eagerness to reach sweeping conclusions seems to be a journalistic version of a danger that Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mocking Bird” had forewarned with these words: “People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for”. Unsurprisingly, she chose her cab driver to be the voice of her own set of anxieties. One wonders whether writers and journalists ever quote their drivers if their views aren’t what they have already concluded.
Two blind spots are easily identifiable in seeing Noida’s public space through the prism that Bhowmick seems to have gone there with.
First, the trappings of taxi journalism are many, though that hasn’t reined in its proliferation. It’s essentially rooted in treating anecdote as news, and by extension, as evidence for all that one always believed.
Two years ago, in a piece in The Times of India, advertising professional and social commentator Santosh Desai reflected on how anecdotes have become a convenient tool for reinforcing preconceived ideas.
“On the basis of these fragments of conversation, we proceed to make sweeping declarations ringing with certitude. Interestingly, all these conversations miraculously find evidence to support one’s previously held views,” Desai observes. If anyone had read what Bhowmick had written last year when a new Uttar Pradesh government was sworn in after winning massive electoral mandate in state Assembly polls, it would be clear what she was seeking through the anecdote of a taxi ride.
“Foreknowledge is a symptom of our times — we know before we see. We are in most cases, not looking for evidence, but for confirmation,” Desai explains. He goes on to perceptively spot the danger in such narratives:
“The anecdote can often be the one-off, a peculiarity that does not speak for the whole. What becomes headline news is often the atypical, rather than the norm, for more often than not, the norm is not newsworthy. An anecdote of this kind serves a purpose, that of highlighting how bad or good things can be, but fails as document of how things are.” That’s the primary failure of Bhowmick’s taxi-tale too.
Second, Bhowmick sees signs of aggressive intent in Hanuman Jayanti celebrations in Noida. The unprecedented celebratory ambience in the satellite city of western UP is interpreted by her as signs of ascending “Hindu extremism”. Similar fallacies were peddled by a section of English media when Ramnavami religious processions wore a new look last year in West Bengal.
If people pitching such processions as a show of militant Hindu mobilisation in West Bengal had any idea of how Ramnavami processions are carried out in neighbouring states like Jharkhand and Bihar, they won’t be so scared. With the mythological image of Lord Ram etched in the religious psyche as a warrior of righteousness and standing for martial sublimity, carrying light weapons in processions to mark his birth has been a common practice.
Sample a news report filed from Ranchi on the eve of Ramnavami last year and you may realise how swords are part of the festive spirit in Jharkhand’s capital city, located about 400 km from Kolkata. A Hindi News 18 report says, “With the Ramnavami procession round the corner, shoppers are heading towards Ranchi’s markets in huge number to buy swords, daggers, javelin and flags”.
It’s a report on the festival, talking about average shopper and not religious groups. Any Ramnavami procession in neighbouring Bihar similarly features swords and light-weight weapons as a symbolic ritual to mark the fight against evil.
Now if the element of novelty assigned to public processions on Hanuman Jayanti in Noida is reflected on, what’s discounted is also significant. India has a history of festivals spreading to different parts of the country either spawning originally as a product of greater cultural interaction or for political mobilisation.
In the pre-Independence phase, one may remember how Lokmanya Tilak used Ganesh Utsav as an annual public event for harnessing the collective spirit of nationalist objectives.
It was a form of cultural appropriation of identity for political objectives of the national movement. A different set of factors can also shape spread of festivals. In post-independence phase, for instance, the growth in popularity of Raksha Bandhan is attributed by many to Hindi movies like Chhoti Behen (1959). In their approach to assimilating festivities, societies aren’t static entities, they are open to influences.
There are ways in which public space is dynamic and amenable to cultural and political influences. If Hanuman Jayanti celebrations are seen as empowerment of a type of voices coinciding with the state government being run by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it resonates with how Modi’s rise to power at the Centre in 2014 was seen by a section of commentators. It was interpreted as a moment of catharsis for a large section of people feeling uncomfortable with the vacuity of political correctness, which had degenerated into a form of selective prudishness. A kind of disquiet that builds up when there is a case of imposing a political protocol of non-believers on a country teeming with believers.
“For a generation that felt that elite modernisation was a hypocritical affair conducted by groups which used words like ‘secular’ to dismiss the thought processes of a middle class more rooted in religion. By articulating such anxieties, Modi soothed their wounded subconscious. And this ‘wounded class’, tired of pseudo secularism, elite cronyism and majoritarian hypocrisy, voted him to power,” wrote sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan.
To that limited extent, Bhowmick’s use of “extremism” can probably be replaced with catharsis, if one is somehow determined to read a political context to it. What, however, wouldn’t be that easy to assign is the interchangeability between the Prime Minister and UP chief minister in signalling a new celebratory culture in public spaces.
A different person coming back from Noida, after hopefully taking part in Hanuman Jayanti festivities, would have a different story to tell. Perhaps a tale from a Metro coach carrying thousands every day to Noida. It may just be a joyous tale of redefining public space to celebrate Pawanputra’s birthday. A tale which would accept various faces and moods of Bajrangbali, as Tulsidas did.
This article has been re-published with the permission of Newslaundry. Read the original article on www.newslaundry.com