In a country where politics and religion are inseparable, even seemingly harmless entertainment that draws its content from religious texts can have a potent impact on the political landscape. Ramanand Sagar’s televised version of the Hindu epic, Ramayan – first aired by public broadcaster Doordarshan in January 1987 – had changed India’s still-nascent TV entertainment industry. Perhaps unwittingly, the TV series also acted as a catalyst for the BJP’s Hindutva politics; giving momentum to the then dormant Ram Janmabhumi movement by the time Sagar’s 78-episode series concluded in August 1988.
Now, with the Coronavirus lockdown guaranteeing television channels a captive audience of nearly a billion Indians – as against the 650 million worldwide viewers that Sagar’s TV series alone clocked over the decades if Wikipedia is to be believed – the BJP-led Union government has decided, “on public demand”, to re-telecast Ramayan. The announcement by Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar about the government’s decision to have Doordarshan broadcast Ramayan twice daily – between 9-10 am and 9-10 pm – has been met with predictable applause from some quarters, possibly fuelled. A few hours later, the public was also informed that the televised version of another Hindu epic, Mahabharat, produced by B.R. Chopra for Doordarshan after the success of Sagar’s Ramayan, will also be aired twice daily.
For lakhs of Indians who joined the country’s burgeoning television audience between 1988 and the mid-1990s when privately-owned TV entertainment channels hadn’t yet swallowed Doordarshan’s monopoly on viewership, the full import of the government’s decision, with its undeniable political overtones, may be lost. For this section, other offerings from the DD stable – Alif Laila, Shaktiman, Surbhi, Captain Vyom, Chandrakanta, Malgudi Days, Turning Point, et al – may have a higher nostalgic value than Ramayan. Requests for re-telecast of these shows have flooded Twitter and other social networking sites.
For the generations born after the mid-1990s with the luxury to choose from multiple TV entertainment channels, the Centre’s decision may sound comical. Indeed, since Javadekar’s announcement millennials would have heard a fair share of stories from their parents or grandparents about the life-altering impact the Sunday broadcasts of Ramayan had on them – the religious high of seeing Lord Ram personified on screen by Arun Govil, the emotional upheaval over Deepika Chikhalia’s portrayal of Sita’s hardship during vanvas and the devotion for Dara Singh’s endearing (or amusing) Hanuman.
Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan Then
Undoubtedly, in Indian television’s history, Ramayan was a landmark. No television show before – or since – touched an 82 per cent captive viewership of the television audience; not even Mahabharat which had far superior direction and production value or any of Sagar’s later religious offerings such as Luv Kush and Krishna.
It is pertinent to note that until Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan burst out on telescreens in January 1987; Doordarshan’s programming was, as a policy abiding by India’s secular ethos, religion-neutral. The political events in the years leading up to the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government changing this policy to allow the streaming of Ramayan need to be emphasized. In the 1984 general elections, contested in the backdrop of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Congress party had won an unprecedented majority of 402 seats in the Lok Sabha and the BJP was reduced to just two seats. The Supreme Court’s Shah Bano verdict the following year and the Rajiv government’s efforts to overturn it under the pressure of the politically influential Islamic clergy triggered deafening accusations of Muslim appeasement by the Congress party. It is widely believed that in order to appease the Hindus in equal measure, it was Rajiv – not the BJP – who blew new life into the latent Ram Mandir movement by pressurizing then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Bir Bahadur Singh to have the disputed Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhumi site in Ayodhya unlocked in 1986 so that Hindus could perform religious rites. The plan to allow Doordarshan to air Sagar’s Ramayan was set in motion later that year.
Television, back in 1980s India, still had a certain enigma about it. Few households owned one, programming wasn’t 24X7 and the few serials which were streamed lacked the grand spectacle that Sagar’s Ramayan arrived with. Although serials that preceded Ramayan had strong performances, excellent scripts and usually some form of social messaging, Sagar offered a new combination – a Hindu epic produced with ostentatious sets. Even for those who did not worship Lord Ram – and this does not mean just people of faiths other than Hinduism but a large number of Hindus from across the country too – Sagar’s Ramayan offered to the viewer an unprecedented experience.
It is from here on that a subtle political messaging crept into Ramayan. Professor of Media Studies at the New York University, Arvind Rajagopal writes in his book Politics After Television (Cambridge University Press, 2001), “The Ramayan serial overlapped with the most crucial phase of the Janmabhumi movement, when it changed from an ominous but still relatively obscure campaign into the dominant issue before the country… With such publicity given to its pre-eminent symbol, the god-king Ram, the Hindu nationalist BJP was emboldened to declare, the by the middle of 1989, that the Ayodhya movement had ‘reached a state and status in Indian public life when it was no more possible to ignore its effect in politics’.”
If Rajiv had believed that by merely opening the locks at Ayodhya, changing policy to allow the airing of Ramayan on DD and throwing his weight behind the Janmabhumi movement’s torchbearers for performing shilanyas at the disputed site, the Congress would win over the Hindus, he was clearly wrong. Rajiv’s political naiveté was exposed in the years leading up to the 1989 general elections and it is still unraveling three decades later. The potent cocktail of corruption allegations in the Bofors deal, V.P. Singh’s rebellion and the Hindutva sentiments triggered by the Janmabhumi movement in the Hindi heartland, helped the BJP up its 1984 Lok Sabha tally of two seats to 88 seats in 1989. Rajiv’s Congress lost power.
Sagar, even if unwittingly, made his contribution to this churning too. For starters, the reference material for Sagar’s Ramayan was not the original text of the Hindu epic by Valmiki but Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas. The Ramcharitmanas, as is well known, makes notable omissions from Valmiki’s Ramayan and presents a character sketch of Ram as the embodiment of virtues – the maryada purushottam. This difference between the two texts is crucial as the Ramcharitmanas places Ram on a revered pedestal, amplifying his appeal among Hindus who may not have been Ram-worshippers but, even under the Vaishnavite off-shoots, chose Krishna or other Vishnu forms as their deity. Sagar also added to the script scenes which find no mention in any of the multiple retellings of the Ramayan but which bolstered the Janmabhumi movement’s push for a temple at the birthplace of Ram. “Sequences in the serial itself seemed to make explicit reference to the VHP’s campaign, with Ram uttering prayers to a parcel of earth from his birthplace, a novel interpolation in the story,” notes Rajagopal.
Through the most dynamic and disturbing phase of the temple movement that eventually led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 by Hindutva zealots, Sagar’s Ramayan was regularly applauded by members of the Sangh Parivar for magnifying the Mandir campaign’s reach. The late Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad often remarked during interviews to the media that Sagar’s Ramayan “was a great gift to our movement” and that “we owed our recruits to the serial’s inspiration”. Mahant Avaidyanath, then president of the Ram Janmabhumi Mukti Yagna Samiti and mentor to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, had also publicly lauded Sagar during a VHP meeting at Bangarmau in Unnao district of U.P for the “prachar prasar of Bhagwan Shri Ram”. Soon after the last episode of Sagar’s Ramayan was aired in DD in August 1988, the Congress and BJP had actively begun courting Sagar and the cast of his serial, urging them to join their political ranks. During the 1991 Lok Sabha polls, Deepika Chikhalia and Arvind Trivedi, who played Sita and Ravan respectively, contested as BJP candidates. Chikhalia won from the Baroda constituency while Trivedi was elected from Sabarkantha. Dara Singh, who had portrayed Hanuman too joined the BJP in 1998, a decade after Ramayan was aired, and was eventually nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government in 2003.
“The serial was sponsored by a Congress-led government, in the hope that its flagging electoral fortunes might be revived with an infusion of ‘Hindu vote’… it was the BJP, hardly any significant electoral force when the serial began in January 1987, that seized the opportunity afforded by the serial, and thereafter established itself as a major national party,” writes Rajagopal.
Re-telecasting Ramayan now
The return of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan to television screens comes at yet another crucial turn of India’s political firmament with the Hindu-right BJP under Narendra Modi having established control over large swathes of the electorate. The legal dispute over the title to the disputed site in Ayodhya has been settled in favour of Lord Ram and the process to realize the BJP and Hindu right’s long-cherished dream of establishing a bhavya Ram Mandir at the janmasthan has been set in motion.
Concurrently, the Congress party has been reduced to a caricature of its former self, fighting as it is for electoral survival. Secularism has emerged as a cuss word, thanks to the vast troll army on social media that sympathizes with the BJP and the call for finally establishing Ram Rajya – not Gandhi’s version of it but that of the Hindu far-right – have been so deeply embedded in the nation’s psyche that it barely needs iteration now
Doordarshan had a rich legacy of television serials from the 1980s and 1990s which not only provided wholesome entertainment but were also educative and social reform-oriented. The government could have picked out any of these serials for re-runs – from Bharat Ek Khoj, Hum Log, Nukkad, Malgudi Days and Buniyaad to Alif Laila, Captain Vyom, Chandrakanta or Space City Sigma to Mr. Yogi, Mungerilal ke Haseen Sapne, Karamchand and Byomkesh Bakshi or even Duck Tales, Dekh Bhai Dekh, Flop Show, or Mowgli – The Jungle Book. But, it chose Ramayan and Mahabharat.
It remains to be seen how Sagar’s Ramayan is received now by the public considering Doordarshan’s monopoly over television viewership has long been broken and the serial itself lacks the accouterments of a televised epic that TV and the more recent OTT audiences have become used to. Yet, the very choice of the government to revive a show which altered India’s social milieu like none other – and not necessarily for the right causes – should make audiences pause and think.
(Views expressed are personal)