TV gods and nationalist demons

Politics after Television
September 28, 2001

In Indian politics in the mid-1980s, Hindu nationalism suddenly changed from being a marginal factor into a force arousing great hopes, fears and controversy. Television became widely available and popular in India at this time. What role did it play in the transformation? This is the subject of Arvind Rajagopal's book.

The key event here is undoubtedly the broadcasting by Indian state television between 1987 and 1990 of a serial dramatisation of the epic Ramayana , one of the most sacred narratives of Hinduism. To say that this TV serial was a sensational success would be a miserable understatement: while it was on the screen, cabinet meetings had to be abandoned because ministers did not turn up and even the ubiquitous beggars disappeared from the streets.

India is exceptionally religious in outlook, but no country has a more vociferous and dominant lobby claiming to uphold what it regards as the truly "secular" values of the national constitution. For these politicians and opinion formers, the TV Ramayana 's awesome popularity was very disconcerting. They are never happier than when shooting down Hinduism's claim to being a single religion with mass appeal: for them it is a bewilderingly various, often conflicting congeries of myths and customs, worked into a preposterous unity by naive western 19th-century orientalists. These "secularists" often explain away the rise of Hindu nationalism as being merely the result of an opportunistic and unwary government's Hindu doctrines clad in all the new-found glamour of TV being broadcast to India's innocent and often illiterate millions. No wonder, they argue, a Hindu claim to the site of a Muslim mosque at Ayodhya as the god Ram's birthplace won mass backing at this time; no wonder the mosque was demolished, unleashing massive Hindu-Muslim rioting; no wonder, a few years later, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won elected power. This was all the fault of misused TV, which lent a semblance of reality to the ludicrous idea of a Hindu nation.

Rajagopal begins sensibly by dismissing the idea that such a sea-change in Indian politics can be attributed to a TV serial. Nonetheless, he gives a central importance to analysing the overwhelming public enthusiasm for the TV Ramayana . Unfortunately, he makes claims for the significance of these broadcasts that show little cultural or historical sense. "The weekly broadcast of popular serials like the Ramayana ... inaugurated a new era not only in television but in politics as well, with the popularity of these serials allowing the ambivalent status of religion to be exploited, and to sanction Hindu nationalist initiatives in the name of the peopleI as the era of economic reforms approached. Hindu nationalism saw its opportunity to act as a hinge or point of transfer between old and new dispensations, providing assurance of a symbolic continuity between them, with the Ramayana available as part of its armoury." He does not even consider the possibility that the serial's success merely confirmed the fealty of countless Indians towards Hindu values and mythology: that it was a symptom, not a cause, of Hindu nationalism.

According to Rajagopal, it is crucial that the Indian state lent the serial prestige by broadcasting it on state television and in "primetime". Does he seriously suppose viewers would have cared if the broadcaster had been a private one? Recent Indian history - Indira Gandhi's electoral debacle in 1977, and later Rajiv Gandhi's failure in elections - has shown that Indians may disdain intense state propaganda on TV and radio. Rajagopal's indignation on this score will seem eccentric to people in most of the rest of the world. In Britain, for example, not only at Christmas and Easter but at other times too, Christian-oriented programmes are given lavish "primetime" space on the BBC, and non-Christian religions do not get even remotely the same exposure. Like nearly all Indian "secularists", Rajagopal never wonders how other countries handle the problem of religious minorities in an enlightened way without state secularism.

Very much an adept of the "who says Hinduism exists" school, he labours mightily to prove that there is no such thing as a uniform text of the Ramayana . When it is clear from the little snippets of viewer reaction to the TV Ramayana he quotes that most Hindus see the story as representing the pure, non-commercial values of a Hindu golden age, Rajagopal deploys a large amount of theoretical erudition to suggest that Indians needed the myth of a golden age at a time of economic change, the late 1980s. In other words, the TV serial hooked them not because of their devotion to the Ramayana as such, but because of their radically changing social and economic circumstances. An awkward question arises, however: if the Ramayana is so various and undefinable as the author says, how could one version of it evoke so powerfully a pan-Hindu utopia across so many Indian languages and social sectors? All the turgid theorising in the world will not get Rajagopal past this blatant contradiction.

For he sees Hindus from behind a thick barrier of abstract, recondite social theory. His text bristles with statements such as the following, trying to explain the political power of an apparently archaic epic: "We are obliged to admit, given the co-existence of diverse genres such as the epic and the novel, the possibility of the reflexive appropriation of historical sensibility , something that becomes possible when one's historical era is experienced as self-conscious, amid a disenchanted world." This seems to be merely a complex way of saying something banal: people can be nostalgic about an imagined past in unsettling times. More important, such abstract language is useless for explaining why the Ram-centred movement has changed Indian history. What is needed is a quality distant from this author: empathy. One needs extended testimonies of how the stories, characters, moralities and circumstantial details of the epic form Hindu imaginations from childhood: the experience of the epic from inside, not, as here, its analysis from outside in terms of media-studies jargon and philosophical abstractions.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

Politics after Television: Religious Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Indian Public

Author - Arvind Rajagopal
ISBN - 0 521 64053 9 and 64839 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £42.50 and £15.95
Pages - 393

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