Will a Kabir Devotee's Philosophy Trump Communal Bluster in Madhya Pradesh's Dewas?

Congress candidate and prominent bhajan singer Prahlad Singh Tipanya is using Kabir's verses to combat divisive religious rhetoric.

Hindu ye kehta Raam hamara, Musalman Rahmana. Aapas me doi ladlad marta, marm koi nahi jaana”(Hindu says about Ram, Musalman about Rahman. They kill one another, no one understands).

Quoting these lines from Kabir, Prahlad Singh Tipanya responds to questions about hate – a key issue in this election cycle. Tipanya’s soulful rendering of Kabir songs has earned him many accolades, including a Padma Shri.

Tipanya is contesting elections on a Congress ticket from Dewas, Madhya Pradesh. The constituency is reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates and Tipanya’s main opponent is BJP’s Mahendra Singh Solanki, a former judge.

Both Tipanya and Solanki are new to electoral politics.

Does Tipanya’s candidature have a significance that goes beyond calculations around vote share and winnability? Can his Kabir bhajans counter the divisive rhetoric from the likes of Pragya Thakur? These are pertinent questions, especially since Thakur is contesting from Bhopal which isn’t very far from Dewas.

Tipanya’s reading of Ram – through Kabir

As one of the most prominent bhajan singers from Malwa – where his constituency is situated – Tipanya is a well-known name in these parts of Madhya Pradesh. However, his decision to contest elections has come as a surprise to many, including his close friends and associates.

Tipanya answers the most obvious question – “Why politics?” – with a laugh and a line from Kabir: “Kabira khada bazaar me (Kabir stands at the market place)”. He stresses that Kabir was not a recluse, but somebody who attempted to make a change while being in the midst of people.

Also read: Kabir in His Time, And Ours

Similarly, he is not perturbed about whether the world of politics will have a corrupting influence on someone like him. According to Tipanya, it is problematic to categorise people as “good” or “bad”; he quotes Kabir again

Bura jo dekhan me chala, burana miliya koi. Jo dil khoja apna, mujhse bura na koi (I went in search of evil and did not meet anyone evil. When I looked inside, I could not find anyone worse than me)”

He explains his decision to enter electoral politics as a way to extend his social activism. Tipanya has been part of several initiatives which use Kabir’s bhajans to combat social issues. He feels that Kabir’s words are all the more significant in today’s time when religion is turning out to be a divisive force.

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Tipanya at a Congress Jila committee at Aagar. Credit: Fathima Nizaruddin

His take on Ram – a figure around whom much of political activity in the country seems to revolve around – is radically different from that of Hindutva’s assertions. Tipanya says:

Ram marta nahi, Ram maarta bhi nahi (Ram is indestructible, he does not die; he does not kill either). Ram is within each of us. He is not the property of Hindus or Muslims. Call him by any name – Ram, Allah, Jesus or Wahe Guru – he is still the same”.

This Ram of Kabir, the 16th century Muslim weaver from Varanasi is very much at play in the election efforts in Tipanya. Since the candidate is a star bhajan singer, at most places he visits, people want him to sing. And, the most popular song clearly is the one which begins with the lines “Zara halke gaadi haanko, mere Raam gaadi vale (Drive this cart slowly..Oh my Raam of this cart)”.

The audience, at places ranging from roadside tea stalls to marriage venues, wants to hear about this gentle Ram of Kabir who is a far cry from the arrow-wielding warrior Ram of Hindutva. Amidst the tensions of a typical Indian election season, this Ram might seem like an insignificant player – without weapons to mobilise hate mobs who can consolidate votes around him. However, a Ram who is present in everyone and can be accessed only through love does not seem to be an alien figure in these parts of India.

Kabir’s everlasting appeal

Malwa region has a tradition of singing Nirgun bhajans, including those of Kabir, which praise a Ram who is formless. These bhajans sung by folk artists inspired the work of Kumar Gandharva, the iconic classical singer, who was a resident of Dewas. Even today, despite the charms of television, people gather and listen to Kabir’s bhajans all night.

When Tipanya visits such gatherings, he is welcomed as the star singer from the Kabir bhajan circuit and not as a candidate. Demands for songs pour in, and lines like “Sab ghat Ram sadho ek he” (In every clay pot/body Ram is one) resonate in the air.

Also read: This is the Kabir That Modi Cannot Appropriate for Electoral Gain

“We have started building divisions of Hindu or Muslim, native or foreigner. We have divided God as well when that supreme power cannot be divided or separated. There is no need for temple bells, the bell which rings within each human being is our Ram,” Tipanya tells the gathering and continues to sing.

Many of the audience members at these gatherings are from Dalit communities. Among Tipanya’s core team as well, the sense of Dalit identity is quite strong. Nand Kishore, a Congress worker from Delhi who has travelled across the constituency to gather support for the candidate, has spoken about the need to spread the word of Ambedkar and Kabir to end caste hierarchies.

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Tipanya with a congress worker. Credit: Fathima Nizaruddin

He rubbishes narratives which argue that Hindus are in danger. “Actually, we Dalits are getting educated and upper caste dominance is now in danger”, he says. However, as a whole, the campaign does not rely on the support of any particular group. The effort is to weave together a support base by banking on Tipanya’s popularity in the region.

The electorate in Dewas

Dewas is not traditionally a Congress stronghold. In the last parliamentary elections, the Congress candidate lost by a margin of more than 2.6 lakh votes. However, in this election, while both Tipanya and BJP’s Solanki are newcomers, Tipanya is certainly the better-known person among the two.

But, as is often the case with Indian elections, it is difficult to feel the pulse of ordinary voters. In rural areas, Tipanya is popular because of his bhajans; Dewas is a constituency which has a sizeable section of the rural population. In the urban areas, while many describe Tipanya as a “nek insan” or good person, the BJP is often cited as the preferred party.

Bhavesh Agarwal, who lives in Dewas town, runs a school and is a traditional BJP supporter. He says he and his family will vote for BJP, but he has a grievance: “This is a reserved constituency. That should change”. Azhar Ajju, a watermelon seller, presents a different set of problems and says, “Look at this town. It has nothing. We don’t even have a proper park. Leaders come and go, the situation on the ground remains the same”.

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Tipanya greets an acquaintance at a gathering. Credit: Fathima Nizaruddin

Other voters talk about water and sanitation issues in the constituency. Among the outgoing government’s policies, GST and demonetisation are clearly the most controversial ones. But, apart from this, the communal card, which is at play across the country, will also determine the outcome of this election.

Also read: MP Saw a Close Contest, but the BJP’s Waning Popularity Is Apparent

A textile shop owner states that he will vote for BJP despite the fact that his business was badly hit because of GST. “We are Hindus”, he offers an explanation. Will Kabir’s philosophy which states that he is neither a Hindu or Muslim (Hindu kahu to hu nahi, Musalman bhi naahi) work against such polarisations along communal lines?

There are no certain answers to this question. But it is interesting to note that in this election, Pragya Thakur’s ‘Ram’ is not the only one gathering crowds in Madhya Pradesh. Dewas is roughly 150 kilometres away from Bhopal – where Pragya is contesting elections from.

Here large gatherings stand enthralled as Tipanya sings about Kabir’s Ram, who can also be called by any other name including Allah or Vahe Guru. This Ram stands beyond the scope of all divisive ideologies and reminds one about the futility of enmity on the basis of religion, caste or nation when all of us, in fact, come from one ghat (clay pot/body).

All translations by Ishq Fakiri

Fathima Nizaruddin is an academic and documentary filmmaker, currently based out of Delhi.

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