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Live from Ramlila

columns Updated: Jun 04, 2011 22:01 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times
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There’s been a terrible misunderstanding. Or if you have to be perfectly honest, there’s been a total cock-up.

For all those folks whose mouths are going dry thinking about what will happen to this country after a yoga instructor has done to the UPA government what Raj Babbar did to Zeenat Aman in Insaf ka Tarazu, my advice: sit back and enjoy the show. It’ll last a few more days and then we’ll all go back to our respective foxholes.

So what makes me think that the whole Ramdev business is a Mount Kailash made out of a pimple and that this silly government has overreacted in giving the yoga instructor so much importance? As an amateur anthropologist with a TV remote control, I have ventured forth many times into the zone known as ‘devotional channels’. This is where I first encountered rather spiffy telecasts of bhajan sandhyas, Ram kathas, kirtans, aartis and religious discourses. This is also where I first met characters such as Swami Ramsukhdasji, Avdeshanandji Maharaj, Munishri Tarun Sagarji and Yogrishi Swami Ramdevji.

It isn’t the religious bits that makes me go to these channels. What interests me is the parallel universe of mofussil culture and entertainment they contain. This is another chunk of the Real India, inhabited by people better off than the one always cited by the usual critics of neo-liberalism, and yet a more familiar version of Real India than the one we only get to read about.

While the media seem to have become besotted with their discovery of a yogi taking on the ‘secular’ world of nation-running, the fact is that these ‘devotional’ gatherings, many of them tailored for back-to-back TV programming, have never refrained from venturing into the world of ‘forgotten values’, ‘western influences’ and ‘rotten politicians’. It’s not only Geet Govind and bhakti ras dharas that we hear here.

Mixed with the live telecast of Gau Katha and awakenings of Brahma Kumaris, there have always been discourses about how a woman should behave, the value of hard work, as well as the need to rid corruption from ‘our heart as well as society’. If there’s been a purdah between the religious and secular, it’s been only in our minds, children of Nehru and watchers of news TV debates — not in this space that would have been familiar to Gandhi and Vivekananda alike.

So to consider Baba Ramdev’s ‘entry’ into politics as something radical is akin to believing that Columbus was the first man to discover the Americas.

While watching the Ramdev Show on Aastha televised from the Ramlila Maidan — remember, the grounds are as much host to Ramlilas as they are to political rallies — I found little difference from the programmes I see on Sanskar TV, Zee Jagran and Aastha. There he was, the yogi instructor, winking away and smiling, listening to other worthies on the stage. Bhojpuri singer Manoj Tiwari broke into an open-mic remix version of ‘Raghupathi Raghava Raja Ram...’ segueing into a speech about Bharat Mata. I saw familiar scenes of Aunty-jis standing up and clapping, schoolgirls in freshly pressed salwar-kameezes listening with rapt attention as if they were management students at an APJ Abdul Kalam lecture.

But the moment I switched over to a news channel, the perspective changed. Apart from a reporter’s running commentary, the sight of Sadhvi Rithambara looking up the posterior of Father Dominic Emmanuel as the latter made a speech about Ramdev’s crusade became overtly political. (I imagined the speech bubble above her head: ‘Where’s Dara Singh when you need him? Oh, he’s still in jail for burning that Christian missionary!”)

So what we are seeing from the Ramlila Grounds is not a crusade against crime, but a tirade against sin. In the Aastha world, the two are — confusingly for us and the poor government — the same.