Not the Parliament India needs 

By Jyoti Punwani| Published: 25th June 2019 04:00 AM

In 2011, when Kiran Bedi, a prominent face in Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption (IAC) movement, publicly ridiculed Members of Parliament as being two-faced, she was condemned across the political spectrum for denigrating our elected representatives. Indeed, in those heady days, when people thronged the Ramlila Maidan to support the IAC demand for a Jan Lokpal Bill, Parliament itself was the movement’s main target of attack.

Much anguish was expressed then about “lowering the dignity of the temple of democracy”. But were Anna Hazare and his followers wrong? Hadn’t our elected representatives become the hypocritical, arrogant creatures obsessed with preserving their own privileges, that the IAC portrayed them as? By 2011, we had seen the spectacle of bundles of notes being displayed in the Lok Sabha during the vote on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Worse was to happen: In 2014, in protest against the Telangana Bill, MP L Rajagopal used a canister of pepper spray, and three MPs were hospitalised. 

Yet, none of this could compare with the shame one felt while watching the oath-taking of the newly elected MPs to the 17th Lok Sabha last week. Had it been just one or two MPs shouting “Jai Sri Ram”, it could have been brushed aside. But when the slogan reverberated in Parliament repeatedly, there was no ignoring its implications.

Eyewitnesses to the Ayodhya movement of the 80s and 90s know how the harmless traditional greeting of the North—“Jai Siya Ram” (“Siya” referred to Sita), was transformed into the Hindutva war cry of “Jai Sri Ram”. The age-old image of the popular deity: the serene-faced prince-turned-forest-dweller, bow and arrow at his side, flanked by Sita and Lakshman—was replaced by the image of a warrior with a bow drawn to vanquish his enemy. Neither Sita nor Lakshman mattered in this new symbol. 

There was no mistaking the enemy: those who opposed the building of a Ram temple in place of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The centuries-old masjid was described by BJP leader L K Advani, the face of the Ayodhya movement, as a symbol of national shame, while Ram was a symbol of the country’s heritage. Those who opposed this movement to demolish the Babri Masjid and assert our “cultural nationalism” could only be “Ram drohis” and by Advani’s logic, “deshdrohis”.

It was in those dark times that the most heinous crimes were committed in Ram’s name. Policemen threatened Muslim women during Indore’s 1990 riots that they would “give” them sons who would be “Ram bhakts”. Police records showed that during the post-Babri Masjid demolition Mumbai riots, Muslims were lynched to the chants of “Jai Sri Ram”, and, in one particularly horrific case, a woman was assaulted, placed on logs of wood and burnt, with the crowd chanting Jai Sri Ram. Ten years later in Gujarat, and again in 2008 in Kandhamal, Odisha, Muslim rape victims and Christian tribals recounted how their assailants raised this war cry while subjecting them to savage violence. Jai Sri Ram became the marker of the Hindu conquest of minorities. 

This war cry is now back with a bang, thanks to Amit Shah and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. The Union home minister used it as a campaign slogan in Bengal just six weeks ago to assert his party’s Hindu identity; the latter continues to see red every time she hears it. In the communally motivated attacks that have taken place since the election results, the assailants have forced their victims to recite Jai Sri Ram. Significantly, this wasn’t a regular feature in the cow-related lynchings of Muslims.

So, when newly elected BJP MPs raised this slogan while beginning their Parliamentary terms, the message was clear: they were unequivocally and aggressively proclaiming their Hindu identity. They could have been stopped in their tracks if pro-term Speaker Virendra Kumar had halted proceedings till all slogan shouting stopped. He was, don’t forget, minister of state for minority affairs till the Lok Sabha polls. But Kumar is an RSS product, as is the new Speaker, who ended his first address after taking over with “Vande Mataram”. Om Birla, incidentally, was elected unopposed. The PM, fresh from his sabka vishwas speech, could have expressed his displeasure. But he was smiling when chants of Jai Sri Ram preceded Babul Supriyo’s oath. 

This writer has refused to believe in the doomsday pronouncements being made since the Lok Sabha results, about “Hindu Rashtra’’ having arrived. Not all the 335 million (38% of the 67% turnout) who voted for Narendra Modi did so as Hindus; indeed, they were not even all Hindu. 

But it appears that BJP candidates who were elected see their victory primarily as a victory of Hindutva. If, while taking an oath to uphold a Constitution that declares India to be a secular country, they shout a Hindutva war cry, or even chant Sanskrit slokas, it’s obvious that they believe they were elected as Hindus, and see themselves as representatives of a Hindu country. Those who countered their slogans with other religious slogans didn’t help. The scene left one mortified. Are we now to have a Parliament where our elected representatives see themselves as Hindus and Muslims? This is not the Parliament that the Constitution envisaged. This is not the Parliament we want as Indians. 

Jyoti Punwani

Freelance journalist based in Mumbai


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