Politics of Faith: Regional Bulwarks To The Ayodhya Project

Politics of Faith: Regional Bulwarks To The Ayodhya Project

In eastern India, Lord Jagannath is a 'bigger' icon than many other Hindu deities. Till date however, the Lord, his brother Balaram and sister Subhadra have not been at the centre of any political battle unlike Ayodhya’s Ram temple

Jayanta Roy ChowdhuryUpdated: Sunday, January 21, 2024, 08:00 PM IST
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Idols of Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra | File Photo

Just as the Ram Mandir project is set to be the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s starting point for the national elections slated for this spring, regional rivals are using similar faith-based political projects to create bulwarks against the tidal wave of religious emotions that is expected to accompany the nationally televised inauguration of the Ayodhya temple.

Days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrival to keep his date at Ayodhya, Odisha’s chief minister Naveen Patnaik on Wednesday launched the Jagannath Parikrama amidst the chanting of Vedic hymns at Puri, one of Hinduism’s ancient centres, in a move which many see as an attempt by the wily strongman to take a leaf out of the BJP’s playbook to consolidate his hold on his flock of “believers”.

If the Ram Mandir movement is an attempt by a political party and its cohorts to create an overarching pan-India civil-religious movement, which can subsume local sects or strands of Hinduism into one Hindutva narrative, the attempt by Patnaik to invoke Lord Jagannath, or Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee to call on Goddess Kali, the presiding deity of Kolkata, are perhaps attempts to strengthen and invoke ancient local traditions which have stood the test of time to keep alive the catholic cultural-religious mosaic that is India.

In eastern India, especially among Odiyas and Vaishnavites, Lord Jagannath is a “bigger” icon than many other Hindu deities. Till date however, the Lord, his brother Balaram and sister Subhadra have not been at the centre of any political battle unlike Ayodhya’s Ram temple. Consequently, the Biju Janata Dal leader’s move to place him at a renovated centre-stage seems to have pre-empted any bid by the BJP to whip up Ram fervour in the coastal state.

Rice and betel leaf have been collected from each household in the state for consecration of the temple corridor project and some ten thousand lay followers will be bussed in every day to pray at the ancient temple.

Ironically, the BJP which has been accusing other parties of cold-shouldering the Ayodhya celebrations, has chosen to stay away from Naveen Patnaik’s Jagannath moment, accusing the BJD of turning the inauguration into a party affair.

If chants of “Jai Jagannath” are being used to ward off the appeal of the “Jai Sri Ram” slogan in Odisha, TMC’s firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee is attempting a similar faith-based political counter-attack by choosing to pray at the medieval Kalighat temple before launching a communal harmony march at about the time the Prime Minister will attend the Ayodhya temple inauguration.

The timing and symbolism of Banerjee’s move has left the local BJP leadership — which has long been trying to drum up “Ram” fever in Bengal without much success — fuming. The Bhagwa or saffron flag with the Ram-Sita motif, which has made its appearance in every village and suburb in north India, has perhaps as a consequence been largely absent in deltaic Bengal’s lanes and bylanes, except for a few Hindi-speaking-worker-dominated industrial suburbs.

Bengal’s first woman chief minister has already roped in Reliance Foundation to work on restoring the Kalighat temple complex, one of the most revered “shakti peethas” (hallowed sites of the Shakti or Mother Goddess cult of Hinduism) which attracts millions of devotees from across the country, in a clever move to rebuild a powerful temple without the state or her party being involved in it and yet reaping the political benefits which may flow from it.

Banerjee, who had come out of the Congress in the 1990s to launch her Trinamool Congress which has ruled the eastern state for the last dozen years, has also been careful to balance the use of Hindu religious symbolism with a politically-charged “Sadbhabana” or communal harmony rally which will host Hindu Sadhus, Buddhist monks, Christian priests and Islamic religious leaders in support of her “secular” credentials.

“Kali worship has been a folk religion which sprang up and spread without the support of the state, just the way many folk religious movements carved out spaces for themselves throughout the country. Invoking Kali or for the matter Jagannath as a counter to the Ram movement is perhaps an attempt at promoting catholicity in religion as against the straight jacket of a unitary religion,” explains Ranabir Samaddar, well-known political scientist and former director of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata.

Unlike Lord Jagannath, Kali or literarily “the dark one” has been at the forefront of politics in the past, when armed revolutionaries of the Agni Yug (1906-1931) invoked the goddess before setting out on individual or collective acts of violent agitation.

This gives the goddess a political omnipresence and prestige which transcends religion to command a patriotic reverence among people in eastern India, something which Banerjee and her tribe of advisors must have researched before embarking on their planned mission to take on BJP’s pet Ram Mandir project, almost head-on by invoking Kali.

At the same time, the act of politically pitting a local god or goddess from the Hindu pantheon against the unitary Hindutva narrative of the Ram temple movement can also have more than intended fall-outs.

As it is, the centre-state chasm has been increasing in southern and eastern India as the BJP concentrates with a narrative aimed at the Hindi-speaking heartland, which many in the fringes of India have not liked.

Regional parties which hold sway in many states in these two regions have already started murmuring against what they term as discrimination in the distribution of central largesse.

Leaders from southern states have also spoken of how they have contributed the most to the central tax kitty and yet of having been denied a “just share” when it comes to distribution of spoils.

The narrative of a northern religious-political movement and the counter-narrative of local religious fervour based on a different paradigm coming out of India’s borderlands may well contribute to this increasing chasm, to the dismay of not only the votaries of the unifying Hindutva narrative but also those who plead for a secular united India.

Jayanta Roy Chowdhury is former head of PTI’s Eastern Region network

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