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Communalism

Travelling Under the Shadow of Saffron Flags

A journey through contrasting opinions of India, by India.

From Patna in Bihar to Jodhpur in Rajasthan, spanning the vast expanse of the Hindi heartland, one can witness a spectrum of sights: from humble huts and sturdy concrete houses to upscale shops and bustling roadside eateries. Saffron flags bearing the inscription “Jai Shri Ram” and images of Ram wielding his bow and arrow adorn rooftops, fluttering proudly.

As the train traverses through the Sultanpur district of Uttar Pradesh and Alwar in Rajasthan, nearly 800 kilometres apart, a stark contrast unfolds. Beneath the waving flags, one encounters impoverished dwellings, ubiquitous fodder tubs, and cowherds guiding their cattle through fields of mustard and wheat. All pass by in a blur of motion.

Meanwhile, as the road progresses through Meerut in Uttar Pradesh and approaches Gurgaon, now known as Gurugram, in Haryana, a different scene emerges. Columns of smoke rise from factories punctuating the skyline, juxtaposed with sleek skyscrapers and rows of cars lining the streets below – a testament to wealth and modernity.

The flags vary in size, but they share the same colour, the same slogan of “Jai Shri Ram,” and the depiction of Ram. “People are celebrating the ‘pranpratistha‘ [consecration] of Ram at Ayodhya. Babar had demolished the temple to build a mosque. Modi has rebuilt the temple,” remarked a young passenger who said he was a management graduate in search of employment.

Also read: Ayodhya: Once There Was A Mosque

This passenger was among a group of youths returning from a wedding event in Dausa. They prided themselves on their knowledge of current political affairs. They expressed strong criticism towards Nitish Kumar but believed his switch to the Bharatiya Janata Party would benefit Modi’s prospects.

“Nitish is a palturam [habitual turncoat], he has no principles, but Modi will benefit,” said one young man. Another had a barrage of insults for Jayant Choudhary but expressed satisfaction that he was aligning with Modi.

They boasted about their knowledge of history as well. “Babar and Aurangzeb demolished temples and built mosques. Modi is building a temple. That’s good,” they proclaimed proudly, almost in unison. Some emphasised their connection to the legacy of Maharana Pratap.

“Do you know about Hakim Khan, the commander of Maharana who met martyrdom fighting valorously against the Mughal army at the battle of Haldighati in 1576?” I asked.

A young man, tearing open a sachet of gutkha, popped its contents into his mouth, and looked at his mobile phone screen. “Yes,” he said, “His name was Hakim Khan, but he was a Rajput, not a Muslim.”

Others shared sweets among themselves. 

Saffron flags in a marketplace. Photo: Nalin Verma.

Namaz

A middle-aged person, adorned with flowing beards and a round cap on his head, settled into his seat on the side berth and quietly began to offer his prayers. Once finished, he kindly offered me two pieces of dates and a slice of bread, which I accepted.

“Are you, too, a Muslim?” inquired one of the youths. Before I could respond, another interjected, “Is it even a question worth asking?”

After they vacated the lower berth and disembarked at Rewari, another passenger, who introduced himself as a court clerk from Jaipur, descended from the upper berth and sat facing me. “These youths are being swayed by a poisonous wind. They show no concern for jobs or careers. They will be doomed if Modi returns to power,” he remarked solemnly. 

His words were in contrast to those of a banker in a black suit and matching tie whom I met at a wedding party in Jodhpur, loading a variety of savouries onto his plate. “These items are associated with Modi ji,” he remarked, pointing at dhoklas. He smiled and murmured “Jai Shri Ram.” Another guest chimed in, “Modi has announced he will win 400 seats!”

But in the bustling Paharganj area of New Delhi, taxi driver Sukhvinder seethed with anger toward Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Modi’s guarantees…it’s all a big farce,” he exclaimed. “He has made our lives hell. We’re losing jobs, and the prices of essential commodities are skyrocketing.” Sukhvinder recalled Modi’s attempt to enforce a draconian law against drivers, which was only withdrawn under pressure.

“If he returns to power, he’ll bring back that law,” he warned.

“He jailed Satendar Jain and Sanjay Singh [Aam Aadmi Party leaders and Delhi ministers], and he will do the same with Arvind Kejriwal [Delhi chief minister]. Are he and his party men honest while all others are corrupt? Enough is enough,” Sukhvinder declared passionately.

“Manmohan Singh was the best prime minister,” Sukhvinder concluded.

However, Shatrughan, another taxi driver from Ayodhya, working in Delhi, held a contrasting view. He greeted me with a “Jai Shri Ram” and said, “Modi ji has built the house for Ram. We, the dwellers of Ayodhya, are happy.”

He went on to narrate how businessmen had distributed flags free of cost among the people.

Ram Rajya

Mahendra Nath Ojha, a former professor of Hindi at the Delhi University and former civil servant who was contemporary of the Union finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman at the Jawaharlal Nehru University offered to make sense of the contrasts.

“The BJP’s Ramrajya is an anti-thesis to what Valmiki, Tulsidas and other saints propounded in their epics on Ram. Ramrajya has nothing to do with the Sangh Parivar’s portrayal of Hindu Rashtra. Ram symbolises struggle, sacrifice, justice, equality and everything about how a human being should live like in the world,” he said.

Ojha, who is also a poet and an expert on Bhakti literature, quoted a verse from Tulsidas:

Jau aniti kachhu bhakhav bhai, tau mohi barajo bhai bisrai.”

If you see any wrongdoing, convey it to me without any fear, it says. In this verse, Ram, as a king, advises his subjects never to fear injustice and to inform him about all wrongs.

When asked if Indian society has changed with the adoption of radical Hindutva over values of inclusion, tolerance, and accommodation, Ojha responded, “Indian society is inherently inclusive and accommodative. In fact, the Indian constitution adopted at Independence embodies the pluralism and spirit of co-existence that has been the hallmark of our society since time immemorial. From Valmiki to Tulsidas, and from Vedvyas to Kabir, you will find threads of unity in diversity. Of course, the Sangh Parivar is using religion for political gains. But it is simply a dark spell, like a storm. Make no mistake, no storm lasts forever.”

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist, author, media educator, and independent researcher in folklore.