How an innocuous chant evolved into a ‘war cry’

The Supreme Court had last week advised parliament to consider enacting a new law to deal with ‘horrendous acts of mobocracy’, warning that incidents of lynching and cow vigilantism might rise like a ‘typhoon-like monster’ across the country. This week the court sent notice to the Centre and 10 states to explain what they have done to curb menace as a follow-up of the steps it had outlined that need to be taken to deal with an increase in mob violence incidents last year.

The latest developments coincide with a letter sent by 49 prominent cultural activists, including film makers and directors, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expressing concern that the chant of Jai Sri Ram is being used as a war cry in attacks against minorities and dalits.

The letter itself provoked a strident response from 61 other intellectuals and cultural personalities, including classical dancer and MP Sonal Mansingh, filmmakers Madhur Bhandarkar and Vivek Agnihotri, actor Kangana Ranaut and lyricist Prasoon Joshi, criticising the letter addressed to PM for ‘selective outrage and false narratives’. Jai Sri Ram is a chant Indians have used for ages and is similar to ‘Praise the Lord’ chanted by Christians. It is certainly not a war cry, although it emotes a certain degree of belligerence as ‘victory to Ram’ automatically implies defeat of something or someone else. Otherwise, it is similar to the use of ‘Ram Ram’, which of course may be more secular and inclusive.

Jai Sri Ram acquired a certain negativity when it was used as a chant by kar sevaks when they brought down the dome of Babri Masjid in 1992. Since then, every time the Ram temple at Ayodhya is mentioned, chants of Jai Sri Ram rent the air as if in an air of militancy. Jai Sri Ram these days carries the stamp of BJP ‘re-loaded’ as well. The swearing in of newly-elected MPs in the Lok Sabha was marked by chants of Jai Sri Ram, which was rather unusual. It was used both to cheer the newly-elected BJP MPs as well as jeer others, particularly Trinamool MPs. The chant of Jai Sri Ram has been symbolic of BJP’s ascendance in Trinamool territory Bengal and ironically Mamata Banerjee played a part in making it so. An act of indiscretion by Mamata Banerjee at the peak of the Lok Sabha election campaign came as a shot in the arm of BJP to exploit the chant in its favour. While going for a campaign in the Midnapore district in the month of May, Mamata stopped her car to challenge BJP supporters who were chanting Jai Sri Ram in front of her convoy. The incident spread like wildfire and captivated the imagination of saffron elements, who saw the chant’s potential to arouse feelings against Mamata’s appeasement policy towards the minorities.

There were a series of such incidents when the Trinamool leader was found losing her cool when confronted with Jai Sri Ram chants. On a visit to the trouble-hit Naihati-Bhatpara area of North 24-Parganas district shortly after the announcement of election results, Mamata again over-reacted to BJP workers chanting Jai Sri Ram by getting down from her vehicle and apparently chasing them down. She ordered the police to take strong action against all those who were involved and this led to a series of arrests in the area later.

In the days that followed, wherever Trinamool leaders went the chant followed them. In fact, BJP capitalised on the issue by claiming that Mamata, in her anxiety to appease the minority community, was exhibiting disdain for Lord Ram and towards the Hindu religion. This set the social media on fire, which helped BJP consolidate its growing clout in West Bengal. It was announced that a million post cards with ‘Jai Sri Ram’ written on them will be sent to the chief minister's office and residence. Jai Sri Ram was actually getting on to Mamata’s nerves and the electoral prospects of her party.

Finally, when the election results came, it became clear that Mamata was actually walking into a trap laid by the clever saffron brigade. With Modi leading BJP back to power with an unprecedented mandate, the chant of Jai Sri Ram has assumed a new role as an instrument of Hindu mobilisation. Reports of mobs forcing members of minority communities to chant Jai Sri Ram are coming from different parts of the country at a disturbing frequency. Causing further worry is the use of the chant in mob frenzy against dalits and tribals, many of who have been killed for alleged thefts or other similar offences.

This is what provoked the 49 cultural personalities to write a letter to the prime minister, saying that Jai Sri Ram has become a provocative ‘war cry’ today that leads to law and order problems and incidents of lynching. It is a small reprieve for the government that the Supreme Court in its latest directive has not mentioned Jai Sri Ram per se. But the court has expressed serious concern over the failure of both the Centre and the state governments to effectively deal with the problem of vigilantism and lynching.

The writer is a freelance journalist.Views are personal.

- Arjavi Indraneesh

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