Friday, May 20, 2011

Ram Ke Naam (1991)

Patwardhan's insightful and contemporary documentary on the Ayodhya riots, shot at the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, captures the historic moment acutely. When I watched it two days back, I realized its invaluable worth as a testament to the period and its relevance as a document of the movement that has haunted much of the political imagination of the country for the past two decades. Two things became immediately apparent by the end of the film. First, the people of the area, most of the low-caste Hindus of the surrounding villages, an overwhelming number of priests in Ayodhya itself, most of the Muslims of the adjoining districts were aware of the deleterious effects of the influx of VHP activists (called "outsiders" consistently by the different groups of people throughout the film) and their politics and did not wish to be swamped by the massive wave of communal hatred propagated by the leading politicians of the time. Second, the advent, the propagation and the final enactment of the agenda (of the demolition and the ensuing riots) could be attributed to a single political organization. Watching the speeches of Advani was a strange experience - here you could hear the words directly and witness their consequences; there was no tampering, no editing, no modification whatsoever to counter the exactness of the testament, of statements such as, "We will build the temple, at ANY COST," as he rode through towns, surrounded by growing mobs of people armed with weapons, intoxicated as much with liquor as by the electric hatred sparked off by the yatra.

Against the background of the imminent violence in the film, you hear the vague, calm, incoherent voices of young men who say that they would be prepared to destroy anything that obstructed their path; of law students who proclaim the certitude of Ram's birth and the inalienable right to that patch of land usurped by the tyrannous Babar so many centuries ago; of low-caste Hindu women who scoff at the temple-building project, saying that it would make no difference to their lives as they are prohibited from entering temples anyway; of Muslim elders of nearby villages and their forceful assertions that death is certainly at their doorstep and nothing could mitigate the disaster. In the film, you find the uncertain voices of young men easily swayed by the clarion call to defend the faith. They are incoherent and impressionable. There is so much naivete in their faces, in their words. The eerie calm of their statements ("Yes, people will be hurt, but this is about our religious honour.") hardly betrays the extent of the carnage yet to come.

Some priests of Ayodhya at the time, particular Mahant Lal Das, were vocal critics of the growing movement. He deplored the irrational hatred mongered by the invading VHP activists. He asserted that a delegation of Hindus and Muslims had submitted a memorandum to the president at the time and could settle the matter amicably amongst themselves. He rationalized the question of birth, saying that there was no need to focus particularly on that single patch of land housing the Babri Masjid. Lal Das was later assassinated. Other priests testified to the fact that they were part of the team made responsible for placing the idols in the mosque at the behest of the deputy commissioner in 1949, K. K. Nayar, who defied Nehru's orders to have the idols removed by citing communal tensions and thereafter ensured that the idols remained there. (Nayar later joined the Hindu Mahasabha and actively propagated the cause of the temple-project.)

The Allahabad High Court order last year took on an extra-judicial role and set about attempting to divide the land between the stakeholders. The order was challenged. At the time of the demolition, thousands of people lost their lives, across the country in different states, and not just in Ayodhya. The government of the time (the documentary makes clear) attempted to prevent the escalation of violence, but were thwarted by the momentum of the events.

Babri symbolized at that time the growth of a communal identity in Indian politics. It symbolizes today the uncertainty of our country's secular future.

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