The arc of TV news in India is long but of late it has bent towards lunacy. India Today journalist Ankit Tyagi recently learned this the hard way.
It was about 4 pm on October 16. The Supreme Court hearings on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute had just concluded. At 6 pm, India Today aired a live show from Ayodhya, “Ayodhya Showdown: Temple Town Reacts After Case Hearing Ends”. Tyagi was the show’s anchor.
Shot within the expansive premises of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, an organisation formed to oversee the construction of a grand temple at the disputed site, the show pitted a Muslim-Congress combine against the perceived custodians of the Hindu faith.
To represent the former, India Today invited Taslim Ahmed Rehmani, head of the Muslim Political Council of India, “Muslim scholar” Shoaib Jamai, and Deepak Kumar Jha, “political analyst and Congress supporter”. To ostensibly speak for the Hindus, there was Rajudas, wrongly introduced as Hanumangarhi temple mahant “Ravidas”, sadhus Karpatri Maharaj and Mauni Baba, and Siyaram Qila temple priest Karunanidhan Sharanji.
The Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas in Ayodhya, where the TV news shows are held.
Over a tumultuous 20 minutes, the show saw Tyagi pacify a loud Ayodhya audience, warding off aggressive sadhus and calming down enraged panellists. Passions were so inflamed that by the end of the show most panellists hardly had their voices heard.
Here are three such sadhus from Ayodhya who have made a name for themselves preaching not on the “spiritual channels” but our very sanskari TV news channels.
“I was four years old when the Babri mosque was demolished. I remember coming here then and being among those who made arrangements for Kar Sevaks. After the mosque came down, there were just pipes and rocks in the rubble. But all of us took something away from there, as an artefact from that historic day.”
This is Rajudas, 31, whom you might have seen on TV. A swashbuckling saffron leader, he is the go-to person for almost every news channel whenever there is an important development in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case.
Broad-chested and a few inches shy of six feet, Rajudas lives within the precincts of Ayodhya’s Hanumangarhi temple, a powerful religious institution that controls a significant part of the town’s economy. His room stands barely 10 yards from the medieval idol of Hanuman which is worshipped every day by hundreds of visitors. Rajudas has two cats, whom he looks after assiduously.
Rajudas in the living quarters of Ayodhya’s Hanumangarhi temple.
Since the 18th century, the Hanumangarhi temple has been run by militant Vaishnavite sadhus who identify themselves with the Ramanandi sect, an influential monastic order that worships Ram as its titular deity. The temple has four mahants, each leading an administrative unit, or patti – Hardwari, Basantia, Ujjainia, Sagaria. There are 56 sadhus under each mahant.
Rajudas, who is often introduced on TV as a “mahant” of Hanumangarhi, is actually one of the 56 sadhus under Santram Das, the mahant of Ujjainia patti, although the term “mahant” is often used interchangeably by sadhus in Hanumangarhi.
The walls in Rajudas’s living quarters are painted saffron. There’s a bed in one corner with his own portrait hanging above it. Beside the bed is a long sofa where Rajudas sits, a polythene bag wrapped around his right foot. “I was in Gonda yesterday to check on one of our properties and hurt myself,” he explains. “This is to protect my foot from infection.”
As the journalist Dhirendra Jha notes in his book Ascetic Games, the Hanumangarhi sadhus have traditionally had more stakes in the secular domain than the sacred one. Theirs is not a world of spiritual quests but one of business interests, power struggles, political allegiances, and bloody rivalries. This explains why Rajudas’s CV reads more like a party worker’s than a priest’s.
Rajudas on Times Now, India Today, Zee News and ABP News.
When he was a college student, Rajudas was a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. He was a wrestler to be reckoned with at the Saket Mahavidyalaya in Ayodhya. “I was initiated into the Ramanandi sect shortly after college. I also met Ashok Singhal and Praveen Togadia of the Vishva Hindu Parishad in 2004. They gave me the position of an organiser in the Bajrang Dal in Ayodhya and that’s how I got fully involved in the Ram Mandir issue,” Rajudas says, stroking one of his cats.
As a Bajrang Dal functionary, Rajudas’s profile involved fighting “westernisation” in the streets. “Once, we set out in gangs to stop Valentine’s Day celebrations in the town on February 14,” he recalls. “I was arrested and spent three days in jail. But that’s how I climbed the organisation. I am now a member of the VHP. I have even worked for the Bharatiya Janata Party during the state election in Ambedkarnagar in Uttar Pradesh.”
In fact, Rajudas even demanded a ticket from the Ayodhya BJP to contest the 2017 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh. When he did not get it, he defected to the Shiv Sena, only to return to the BJP a day later. “Yogiji invited me for a meal in Gorakhpur. He consoled me,” Rajudas explains.
In 2018, Rajudas unsuccessfully ran for the post of mayor in Ayodhya. A special song was composed for his mayoral campaign. “Mayor banenge Rajudas, hoga Ayodhya ka vikas; Ho jao taiyar saathiyon, phir Hindutva ko jagana hai,” the song went. “Rajudas will be the mayor and bring development to Ayodhya. Be prepared friends, we have to rekindle Hindutva.” There are also YouTube videos of Rajudas asking Hindus to buy weapons on Dhanteras, and punching Samajwadi Party supporters at a polling booth.
Given this, TV news channels should start introducing Rajudas as a Sangh Parivar functionary, not as a “mahant” at Hanumangarhi.
The precincts of the Hanumangarhi temple in Ayodhya.
This double life of a sadhu and a political worker comes with its share of problems. Rajudas’s guru, mahant Santram Das, is not fond of his disciple’s political life. “Guruji scolds me for it. He often tells me to get lost. Kehte the dimaag kharab hai jo sadhu hokar ye sab karte ho,” an amused Rajudas admits. “He says my head is rotten that I do all this while being a sadhu.”
It is not only this teacherly disapproval that makes Rajudas’s double life difficult. In recent years, the Hanumangarhi sadhus have grown increasingly distant from the VHP. They blame the Sangh affiliate for being slow on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, with their leaders even accusing the organisation of keeping the Hanumangarhi establishment in the dark about the status of the dispute in the Supreme Court. The monastic order believes, moreover, that it has historical claims in this case and that the Sangh’s claim to the Janmabhoomi is disproportionate.
“Many sadhus don’t like the VHP at all. But I don’t agree with it and I am not happy with their ideas,” Rajudas says. “You see how Christian missionaries work. They work with Adivasi communities and eventually convert them. It’s a proactive mission. But our mahants, with one gaushala, one Thakurji ki ghanti and two disciples, spend all their lives in this temple and do not even step out to safeguard Hindus. If you can’t do that, don’t call yourself a fucking custodian of the Hindu faith. At least the VHP reaches out to Adivasis.”
He takes up one of his cats in his arms and begins examining its paw.
Rajudas feels strongly about his faith; his fiery eyes and swearing make this amply clear. “The Dalits today have started worshipping Ambedkar because the wrong kind of people have infiltrated their ranks and brainwashed them. Ambedkar can be a mahapurush, but he can’t be a god. So, why worship him? Sadhus haven’t looked after the Sanatan Dharma and Hindu society is getting divided because of this.”
Ram, according to this sadhu, is both a mahapurush and a god. “He was a great man,” Rajudas adds, “and Babur was a goon, a pillager. That is the plain truth. The Muslims have tried to contaminate our society by destroying our centres of culture. The British did the very same. That is why we want a Ram Mandir.”
He pauses. “The cat’s paw is swollen. Get some betadine,” he orders one of his disciples squatting quietly in the corner.
In spite of these views, Rajudas does not believe the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute is a “Hindu-Muslim issue”. “This is a matter of Ram’s birthplace, not Hindu or Muslim,” he argues. “There is no difference between Hindus and Muslims. We are simply fighting against the Ayodhya verdict which gave a portion of the land to Muslims. We know that there was a temple beneath the Babri mosque. So why is a part of the Janmabhoomi being handed over to the Muslim party?”
So, will there be celebrations in Ayodhya if the Supreme Court rules in favour of the Hindu parties? “We’re not planning any celebrations. We do not want to intimidate anyone,” he says. “Muslims might intimidate Hindus when they’re the majority, but we Hindus don’t do that.”
He proceeds to apply betadine to the cat’s swollen paw.
“Aaj Tak ke Rohit Sardana kehte hai ki Yogiji se dar nahi lagta, Modiji se dar nahi lagta, lekin Maharaj ji aapse zaroor lagta hai.”
Aaj Tak’s Rohit Sardana says he doesn’t fear Yogi Adityanath or Narendra Modi but he does fear me, declares Ayodhya’s Karpatri Maharaj. If you watch TV news shows that feature sadhus, you might have seen him on India Today, Aaj Tak, Zee News, Republic Bharat.
Unlike Rajudas, Karpatri does not live in the Hanumangarhi temple complex. He has a small and austere room in a dark and dingy corner of Ayodhya, near the famed Ram ki Paudi. He’s returning from a Republic Bharat show when this correspondent meets him outside his room.
Karpatri Maharaj at his home in Ayodhya.
On TV, Karpatri is loud, shrill and rabid, adept at shouting over other panellists. But off stage, he did not give this correspondent even a quarter of the trouble he gave India Today’s Ankit Tyagi, on whose show he screeched, “Babur lootera hai, Babur aatankwadi hai, uska samarthan karne wale aatankwadi ho sakte hai.” Babur was a pillager, he declared, Babur was a terrorist, those who support him can also be terrorists.
Karpatri came to Ayodhya from the neighbouring district of Basti about 25 years ago. He was part of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and was in Ayodhya when the Babri mosque was demolished. “I became a sanyasi because I had no expectations from the world. That is what sanyas means: sanskar se na koi asha.” Sanyas means having no expectations from the world, he says.
There’s a reason why Karpatri stays away from the power centre of Hanumangarhi. He says he detests politics. “About 80 per cent of sanyasis here are political. My followers also tell me that I should join politics. But why would I do that? If I become a Member of Parliament, will I go and touch Yogiji or Modiji’s feet as most politicians do? Can a maharaj even contemplate doing that? I believe in austerity and this is my life,” he says, looking around at his room.
Karpatri’s room is about 15 feet long and six feet wide. There are two diwans of differing heights, an idol of Ram, a small refrigerator with utensils around it, and a rat rummaging somewhere in an adjoining kitchen.
Karpatri is a “saint nationalist” in theory and practice. “I perform yagnas and kathas in the name of our nationalists: Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ashfaqullah Khan and the rest. I recently performed one in Gorakhpur,” he says. He claims he can perform katha, or a recital, in four languages, Hindi, English, Urdu and Sanskrit. “I dream of building a temple to martyrs. My father was a fighter in the Azad Hind Fauj. I’m the son of a real patriot.”
In his dictionary, the word “Hindu” has a different definition. “Jo bhi heen ki bhawna se door hai, wo Hindu hai. Heen aur door — Hindu.” he explains. “Whoever is distant from the feeling of inferiority is a Hindu. Even Muslims or Christians can be Hindu that way.” Then comes Ram: “Ram ki paribhasha hai: Rashtra ka mangal.” Ram means the good of the nation.
Why is he so aggressive on TV? It’s because of the “decadence” of the Hindu society, he claims. “I see Brahmins who are now engaged in strange professions. They sell clothes or cook samosas and are content with it. They should kill themselves. When I meet these Brahmins, I tell them that I’ll take them under my tutelage for three months and give them lessons in nationalist kathas. They can then go around the world and spread the word. It’s more honourable than what they already do.”
Only Brahmins? “Not just them, anyone. Harijans should also be endeared.”
Karpatri Maharaj on India Today and Aaj Tak.
On the subject of a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Karpatri says the Supreme Court will likely give the same judgement as the Allahabad High Court in 2010. “But there should be no politics in the name of Ram,” he clarifies. “And there should be no mosque in the heart of Ayodhya. There can be mosques outside the city’s heart, but not inside it. And there should be no mosque in the name of Babur anywhere.”
Karpatri believes there is no discrimination between Hindus and Muslims in Ayodhya. “There is no problem with Muslims as such. The man who prepares clothes for Ram idols in Ayodhya is also a Muslim. Our problem is with those who do politics in the name of Muslims and those who promote Talibani sanskriti, like those associated with the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party,” he claims. “When sadhus say Jai Shri Ram, these parties say Jahil Shri Ram.”
This doesn’t mean Karpatri completely approves of the BJP. “You can’t name a leader in the BJP who was part of the freedom struggle,” he says. “Most of them were from Congress, a party which opened the locks of the Babri Masjid under Rajiv Gandhi, and let the Babri mosque fall under Narasimha Rao.”
Why don’t we hear these views when he’s on TV? “The subject never comes up,” he reasons.
He adds: “I don’t take any money for appearing on these channels.”
How does he make ends meet then? “I just do. It’s the grace of God.”
“One of my disciples works in Aaj Tak. So, hours before a show, he called me and said, ‘Guruji why don’t you join as well’. That’s why I went,” says Karunanidhan Sharanji, head priest at the Siyaram Qila, located on the banks of the Sarayu river.
Tyagi’s show on India Today was Sharanji’s debut on news TV, and he spoke about “Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb” – India’s syncretic culture – and said in Ayodhya Hindus respect Muslims, so Muslims should respect Hindus and hand over the so-called Ram Janmabhoomi.
Karunanidhan Sharanji on India Today.
In his little room inside Siyaram Qila, Sharanji, donning a white robe, sits on a large cushion. The walls are adorned with large portraits of Hindu deities. In the company of these gods, the priest laments the state of “saints” in India: “Saints are the guides of society. There don’t just exist for bhajans. Chanakya was also a saint and he was a kingmaker. We have had a huge role in India’s history. Even in Ayodhya, it was saints who saved other mosques from destruction in 1992.”
Sharanji came to Ayodhya in 1986. Like Rajudas, he met Singhal and got involved in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, led by the BJP’s LK Advani, in 1990. “A mosque was not demolished in Ayodhya. I’m not prepared to believe this,” he says. “It was a temple that was demolished by Babur in 1528. In 1992, it was only this blot by the Muslims that was eliminated.”
In his worldview, what India needs is a Hindu Rashtra where everyone is equal: a theocratic state shorn of secular pretences. “Politics in today’s India is all about religious and caste appeasement. Most say they don’t believe in caste but that’s what they perpetuate,” says Sharanji. “Take the Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act, for example. How can a person be arrested without trial in a just land?”
While he agrees that caste discrimination needs to go, Sharanji says caste identity is the foundation of the Indian society. “Caste should be eliminated as a custom. There should be no differentiation on the basis of caste,” he explains. “But caste is an identifier in our society.”
The Siyaram Qila in Ayodhya, where Karunanidhan Sharanji is the head priest.
These ideas might find acceptance in Ayodhya, but aren’t there enough people in metropolises who might find caste and religion archaic? “That’s nonsense,” he says. “All countries are embracing religion as their fundamental driver. Islam in the Middle East and Christianity is countries like America.”
But the American constitution separates politics from religion, doesn’t it? “No. The Pope still gives orders in America,” he shoots back.
Sharanji continues, “The kids in cities are exposed to Western culture when they grow up. Theirs is a secular upbringing so it’s only natural that they don’t embrace caste and religious identity. Secularism is a useless thing. It’s the media that goes around town with secularism and whatnot. This is a country of saints. It was divided for the longest time because of sects and castes, and exploited by Muslims and the British.”
For the next 15 minutes, in a digression of rage and disgust, Sharanji launches into a discourse on MK Gandhi and BR Ambedkar. By the end of it, he probably realises his views may not be fit to print. “Please strike off everything I said about Gandhi and Ambedkar. Don’t publish it,” he says.
He then smirks. “And even if you do publish it, I’ll simply deny it. One can do these things in media, right? I’m learning.”