Now that Uttar Pradesh has a chief minister who has gone on record as recently as February 25 2017, to promise, “Agar Samajwadi Party jeetegi to Karbala-kabristan banega, jabki Bhajapa ki Sarkar banegi toh Ayodhya mein Ram mandir banega (If Samajwadi Party wins, Karbala and graveyards will be built, but if Bharatiya Janata Party forms the government, the Ram temple will be built in Ayodhya)”, it seems like a good time to revisit the 1991 documentary Ram ke Naam (In the Name of God).
Anand Patwardhan’s film has been raising hackles for more than a decade now because it is a myth-buster. Shot mostly in 1990, before the demolition of Babri Masjid, Ram ke Naam tells the story of how one particular site in Ayodhya became the birth place of Ram. The issue was yet to become as toxic as it is today, especially since Babri Masjid was still standing, but the campaign to build the Ram Mandir was in full force. People spoke candidly to Patwardhan. From members of Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal to common folk, opinions and stories are shared freely. What emerges is a story, not about Ram, but of how authorities have been manipulating their subjects for centuries.
For instance, did you know that of the numerous Ram janmabhoomis (birth places of Ram) in UP, it was the British we can thank for Babri Masjid becoming the chosen spot? Until 1949, both namaz and puja were conducted in this compound without much friction, according to Patwardhan. Then, in 1949, a group of militant Hindus forced their way into the mosque and placed idols of Ram inside. A few decades later, this story would change. It would be retold as Ram miraculously appearing inside Babri Masjid. Who doesn’t love a good miracle, after all?
Following the break-in of 1949, the idols were not removed. Instead the mosque was sealed and the issue was referred to the courts. A court-appointed priest was given the task of conducting the daily pujas and taking care of the idols.
Patwardhan was able to track down one of the men who had placed the idols in the mosque. Mahant Ramsevak Das Shastri says, on camera, that he participated in a plan to place the idols of Ram in the mosque and that it was organised by the district magistrate of the time (KK Nayar, who would later ensure Shastri and the other accused were released on bail; and even later, join Jan Sangh). “My primary task was to install Lord Ram there [in the masjid],” Shastri tells Patwardhan. “That I achieved.”
Another Hindu point of view comes from the court-appointed priest at the time when Patwardhan filmed Ram ke Naam, Pujari Laldas, who describes this whole Ram janmabhoomi issue as “a political game”. He points out that as per Hindu tradition, if a god’s idol is in a place, it’s already a temple, which means demolishing Babri Masjid would be to destroy a temple as well as a mosque.
It isn’t surprising that pro-Hindutva groups have been doing their bit to make sure Ram ke Naam isn’t seen, particularly by the youth. As recently as in 2014, a college in Pune cancelled a screening of Ram ke Naam at the last minute. Patwardhan alleged that the organisers had been intimidated by Right-wing groups. Considering how scathing Patwardhan is in the film, it seems like a credible explanation for the cancellation. Patwardhan is biting in his criticism of BJP leaders like LK Advani, groups like VHP and the callousness with which Indian politics has fanned communal flames in order to score popularity points.
Ensconced in 2017, when the BJP juggernaut has ridden its way through general elections and numerous state assemblies, it’s chilling to hear locals in UP, in 1991, say they belong to a non-BJP party, but because they’re Hindu, they feel BJP deserves their political support. It’s also a remarkable film to watch in our contemporary age of echo chambers. The interviewers in Ram ke Naam did not dismiss those they disagreed with, but listened to them and let them know they were being heard. Of course Patwardhan has selected his subjects carefully, but the story that is pieced together isn’t one that would have warmed the director’s heart. Here was a belligerent India that didn’t care about harmony, that was taking pleasure in putting down one community because it made the other feel empowered.
In 1992, on December 6, Babri Masjid was demolished and a makeshift temple was constructed. It was a brutal moment for India because it confirmed what the privileged sections had wilfully ignored – that religious fundamentalism’s roots run deep. Twenty-seven years later, we’re back at a crossroads similar to those at which Patwardhan shot Ram ke Naam. Enthusiasm has been whipped up for a ‘grand’ temple, the one that Yogi Adityanath has promised his followers. Just as the Mandal Commission had resulted in a sharpened awareness of caste and prejudice back then, today Dalit identity is again an issue that has our polity and society floundering. There are students committing suicide, in reaction to injustices meted out to them for not belonging to savarna society. Rather than Hindu-Muslim harmony, the conversations are about ‘minority appeasement’ or majoritarianism.
You need not agree with Patwardhan’s unabashedly Left-leaning politics. However, if it is free speech to say there should be a mandir at the site where Babri Masjid once stood, then remember that there is another reading of the ‘history’ that has been put forward by the Right wing. Pujari Laldas says of communal politics at one point in Ram ke Naam, “There is a storm, but we mustn’t lose our bearings.” As pertinent as his words feel even today, one can’t help but feel we’ve realised the priest’s worst fears already.
Watch the documentary here: