Ramayan Serial and Ram Janambhoomi Movement

Ashok Ogra
As the nation witnesses the ‘pran pratishtha’ ceremony at the Lord Ram temple in Ayodhya on January 22, one is reminded of the fever that gripped the nation when the epic Ramayan was telecast first time on Doordarshan (DD) in 1987.
Two questions arise that need further examination: what prompted the then young Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to direct the national broadcaster to start airing a serial on Ramayan. DD had always avoided religious programming.
Second question relates to the impact the Ramayan serial has had on the audiences. There are scholars who argue that the serial was crucial to the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation.
A wit among media circles once observed that Jawaharlal Nehru was a visionary, while his daughter Indira Gandhi was a televisionary. The quip was a cruel backhanded compliment to Indira Gandhi who manipulated Doordarshan, to project her own personality among the nation’s vast audiences. It is also true that DD witnessed massive expansion during her tenure.
However, when Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister in 1984 he brought in a whiff of fresh air and encouraging DD to produce programs that are robust and creatively done. Everything seemed to be going just fine for the new PM, but a storm was brewing, gathering strength in the power corridors of Delhi.
The Shah Bano Case of 1985 became a turning point in the career of Rajiv Gandhi. Shah Bano, a poor helpless woman, was denied alimony by her husband Ahmed, who had married another woman. Ahmed lost the case in the Supreme Court.
The Mullahs were up in arms. The apex court had held the right to maintenance beyond iddat. Fearing backlash from the Muslim community, Rajiv cowed down and passed the Muslim Women (Protection on Divorce Act), 1986, and thus overturned the verdict. Justice was denied, but the policy of appeasement emerged victoriously.
This act of Muslim appeasement angered the Hindus who constituted roughly 82% (1981 Census) of the population. It was difficult for any party to ignore their sentiments.
To appease the Hindus, Rajiv started paying equal attention to ‘Ram Janmabhoomi,’ and complied with the opening of the gates of Babri Masjid in 1986. He brought up the subject of telecasting a serial on the epic Ramayan. This was not part of an RSS plot. This was a suggestion by the PM himself.
However, many a power lobby in the Congress Party felt that broadcasting Ramayan would topple the apple cart of politics and the ruling government. The then Information & Broadcasting Minister V.N. Gadgil felt a Hindu mythological serial would give rise to Hindu power. He feared that Ramayan would instill a sense of pride in the Hindu community and increase the possibility of the BJP coming to power.
Apparently, the only exception was the left-leaning Secretary of the ministry S.S. Gill who vehemently argued that these were classical epics, purely depicting our culture, and not necessarily religious.
Rewind to 1976: noted Bollywood film director Ramanand Sagar on a visit to France saw the colour television first time and discovered its potential. According to his biographer, Prem Sagar (his son), ‘On seeing colour programs on television, Papaji went into deep thought over his glass of red wine. The awakening had happened as ordained. He announced to the three of us, “I am leaving cinema … I am getting into television. My life’s mission is to bring to mankind the virtuous story of Maryada Purushottam Shri Ram.”
The industry people thought that Ramanand Sagar had lost his mind. After all, theirs was a successful production house and things were going fine for them in cinema, so why would they even think of moving to TV?
It is believed that another important reason that made Ramanand Sagar shift from cinema to TV was the increasing hold of the mafia in Dubai on the film industry. Not only Papaji but also a number of other serious dedicated filmmakers considered the future of Indian film industry to be dark, with the mafia increasingly interfering in the film business.
Meanwhile, the first flush of public affection for Rajiv was beginning to fade in the middle of his term. He had already begun to display panic once the Bofors gun deal controversy surfaced. Also, the shadow of the Shah Bano Case had not left Rajiv’s mind. Amidst this and a need for Hindu appeasement, he saw an opportunity to maintain political equilibrium. He made up his mind to have Ramanand Sagar produce a serial on Ramayan. He argued that these epics were our cultural heritage and needed to be shown with pride and in all their glory. He moved the minister V.N. Gadgil to another ministry. The new minister Ajit Kumar Panja approved the commissioning of a religious serial, Ramayan, on state-controlled television, Doordarshan.
Thus, Ramayan was finally aired in the 3rd week of January 1987 and went on till July 1988. Noted Bollywood director B.R.Chopra was requested to produce a serial on Mahabharata that aired from October 1988 to July 1990.
Rest is history: for 78 weeks between 1987 and 1988, India, courtesy Doordarshan, was hooked on a heavenly opiate: the Sunday morning serialisation of the Ramayan. Variously termed, the ‘religious serial’, the ‘soap opera of the gods’ and so on, the television drama, had notched up a mind-boggling viewership of 85 per cent.
People looked forward to Sunday mornings with a new set of rituals and none moved when the serial was on. If there was a power failure there would have been a riot. Examples of its popularity were legion: brides refusing to participate in wedding rites till the end of the episode; an entire train kept waiting while the driver and its passengers caught up with the latest installment. (Telly-Guillotined, How Television Changed India, Amrita Shah).
There are commentators who argue that the serial was crucial to the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation that resulted in the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. It is worth mentioning that the origin of the rise of the Hindu phenomenon and the process of Hindu self renewal can be traced to the social and religious reform movements of the mid 19th century. The central figure of this cultural awakening was Raja Ram Mohan Roy who is considered the ‘father of the Indian renaissance.’ He along with Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and many others represented the rise of Indian consciousness in Indian society. While Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s ‘Vande Mataram’ galvanized the masses, it was Veer Savarkar who gave Hindu nationalism a doctrine- though he drew a sharp distinction between Hindutva and Hinduism.
It is true that the first recorded legal history in Ayodhya dispute dates back to November 30, 1858 (the same year Bhadur Shah Zafar was forced into exile), when an FIR was filed by one Mohd Salim against a group of Nihang Sikhs who had installed their nishan and written “Ram” inside the Babri mosque. However, barring minor incidents since then, it never took the form of a movement. It was only when VHP President Ashok Singhal started the Ram Janki Rath Yatra in 1985 that the Ram Janambhoomi movement gained traction at a mass level.
Incidentally, within the Congress party too, there were voices that supported the soft Hindutva cause. According to one western diplomat, “Most of Nehru’s ministers, like most of the party caucus, were provincial mediocrities, ill-educated, narrow minded; some were cow worshippers and devotees of ayurvedic medicine and astrology.”
Meanwhile, the stranglehold of the Congress began to weaken after 1967 when the Jan Sangh emerged as a force in north India in the wake of pro-Hindi and anti-cow slaughter agitation.
It was a Congressman Dau Dayal Khanna who in the presence of the former cabinet minister Gulzari Lal Nanda supported building a Ram temple at the disputed structure when attending a VHP Sammelan in Muzaffarnagar in 1983.
During 1980s, the noted journalist, Girilal Jain, became a strong votary of Hindutva resurgence describing the Babri structure representing an impasse between what ‘Babur represented and what Ram represents.’
And yet, when the epic were being telecast, the scholars failed to gauge how much the masses had been mesmerized by the serial. According to Jawhar Sircar, former CEO of Prasar Bharti, having kept an antiseptic distance from Hindu epics and puranas, left liberals just could not fathom how a mythical character could re-define politics and kindle so much Hindu fervor, infusing thereby weekly shots of holy adrenalin into Hindus.
Prof. Arvind Rajagopal of New York University takes a more nuanced view of the connection between the telecast of the epic and the Ram Janambhoomi agitation. According to him watching Ramayan serial was an excuse for social gatherings in neighbourhoods which often had only one T.V. The audience comprised of all religious backgrounds. The show was thus the revival of Indian consciousness where the legacy of Shri Ram was revered and India’s culture was celebrated.
“I found that they rarely read the show in political terms, except to idealise the distant past and mourn the corruption of the present. To this diffuse sentiment, the BJP added aggressive anti-Muslim and pro-Hindu themes, pitched differently in rural and urban areas, with different appeals for Hindi and English audiences.” (Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India).
It must be mentioned that the BJP used the popularity of the serial to launch campaigns, and saturate party activities with posters, flyers, and flags, buttons, wall hangings, scarves and other knick-knacks and gewgaws, while the blaring of chants and songs filled the air continuously.
Prof. Arvind further adds that the intention to telecast Ramayan serial was not to change the political balance between majority and minority, but to increase the audience for the new medium of communication, and in the process, strengthen the power of the government itself.
Regardless, the fact remains that whether it was Shah Bano case or banning The Satanic Verses or the idol placed secretly inside the Babri Masjid in 1949 or unlocking the site for worship in 1986 or facilitating the telecast of Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Congress took the initiative, the BJP reaped the maximum benefit, and the Congress was then tarred as a public enemy. What else does a “Congress-mukt Bharat” mean, after all?
(The author works as Advisor for reputed Apeejay Education, New Delhi)