June’s scorching, sultry heat seems to get the worst out of those in power in Delhi. It is the month in which Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency and threatened to extinguish forever the flame of liberty.

It seems June will also go down in history as the month in which the Modi government, regardless of whether it wins another term, sought to have the nation accord the same importance to a date as it does to August 15 and January 26.

June 21 is forever marked as International Yoga Day.

The inaugural yoga day last year was celebrated with tremendous fervour, understandable for a government, which rallied the United Nations to declare June 21 as International Yoga Day. What isn’t is the enthusiasm the government is once again displaying, apart from spending lavishly, to celebrate the second edition of yoga day.

This is why many think there is a concerted attempt to institutionalise International Yoga Day, to mark June 21 in special colour as some dates on the Indian calendar are. Dates become special because these are associated with momentous events, whether secular or religious. January 26 marks India turning into a Constitutional Republic, and August 15 signifies our freedom from British rule.

Likewise, on June 21, Lord Shiva is said to have become Adiyogi, or the first yogi. It is perhaps just a coincidence that on this day, in 1940, the founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, KB Hedgewar, died in Nagpur. The International Yoga Day indeed emphasises its Hindu provenance and the greatness of the Hindu tradition.

It is also gradually acquiring the official trappings of Republic Day and Independence Day, as this video demonstrates.


Coercion and yoga

Sure, you won’t get a day off on June 21. But there will be, as it was last year, a public performance of yoga – not in Delhi this time, but in Chandigarh– and government officials, from block to district, to state to Centre, are required to organise sessions or lectures or cultural programmes pertaining to yoga, as are government schools and universities.

The prime minister leads the Independence Day celebrations. Likewise, Narendra Modi is slated to participate in the mass yoga session at Chandigarh on June 21, as he did last year at India Gate. As it is for Independence Day and Republic Day, the formidable government machinery has been pressed into celebrating yoga day.

In April, the secretary, Ministry of Ayush, sent a letter to all his counterparts in the Central government asking them to prepare a detailed action plan for celebrating International Yoga Day. It appended a list of 21 yoga institutes whose services could be secured for “providing training to trainers” who could, in turn, teach yoga to others during the June 21 events.

There isn’t a line in the secretary’s letter saying whether participation in Yoga Day celebrations is voluntary or mandatory. Yet most bureaucrats feel coercion is designed into it. This is because no less than the prime minister patronises the day. The message consequently transmits down the bureaucratic chain – you can ignore yoga day at your own peril, not only at the Centre, but also in states where the BJP is in power.

Bureaucrats fear their reluctance to participate in the yoga day celebrations will be construed as defiance. It could become a stick to beat them with. So even those who believe it is wrong to drag the bureaucracy into celebrating International Yoga Day will prefer discretion to defiance and choose to organise a yoga programme, at least, perfunctorily.

Resentment brewing

But already there is a murmur of protest in Haryana, evident from the response of bureaucrats there to a letter from the director, Ministry of Ayush, Haryana, asking principal secretaries and additional chief secretaries to participate in a two-hour preparatory yoga programme on June 14, under “Brand Ambassador Yogrishi Baba Ram Dev ji”.

Senior bureaucrats went to the press to say they weren’t RSS stooges and were there to serve the “government of India and are not here to forward the agenda of any particular political party.” They also alluded to the coercion implicit in the letter, which said chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar was to be the chief guest at the preparatory programme.

The simmering resentment can be borne from the fact that none of the 15 principal secretaries appeared at the preparatory session on June 14, and only three of 21 additional chief secretaries marked their presence. Do also think of the message inherent in inviting Ramdev to lead the session – not too long ago, he said that if the rule of law not been there he would have beheaded lakhs of people for refusing to chant Bharat Mata ki Jai.

A senior IAS officer I spoke to said it is really the bureaucrat’s propensity to curry favours with his political bosses that inspires the latter to push their ideological agenda. “Participation in International Yoga Day would provide bureaucrats a chance to demonstrate their loyalty to political bosses,” he said. “If you carry a survey of IAS officials, I think 75% would be found to have attended the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shakhas.”

From this perspective, the wall insulating bureaucrats from the ideology of the ruling political party is collapsing. In fact, they are free to join the RSS in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.

De-secularisation of yoga

The RSS-BJP claims yoga belongs to all. No doubt, yoga is popular, not the least because it has been secularised, prompting people from just about every religious group to become its practitioners in the hope of relieving themselves from the stresses of life. The linking of International Yoga Day to Lord Shiva is a reversal of the secularisation of yoga.

Despite the BJP’s disavowal that it is not its ideological motivation that is driving yoga day celebrations, bureaucrats think otherwise. And because the participation isn’t perceived to be voluntary, yoga day has started to stoke resentment.

A former Haryana chief secretary drew for me an interesting parallel: “Can anybody deny the importance family planning has for India?” he said. “Yet when bureaucrats in the Indira Gandhi regime took to forcible sterilisation, there was a backlash.”

His point was that just because something is considered beneficial it still cannot be imposed on the people.

There is indeed a politicisation of yoga, of linking it to Hindutva. For instance, the Modi government last year publicised its quest to set two Guinness World Records during yoga day. These were to have the largest yoga lesson – or the maximum number of participants in a yoga session at a venue – and the most number of nationalities participating in a yoga lesson. Nobody doubted that these records wouldn’t be established, given that the Modi government is networked into an array of yoga institutions and boasts of massive resources.

This is why it is important to discern the subtext of last year’s publicity. It was as follows: Wouldn’t patriotic Indians seek to enhance the nation’s prestige by coming to India Gate, rolling out their mats, and joining Prime Minister Narendra Modi, no less, to set the Guinness records?

Thus, yoga and patriotism were hitched together, as the ban on beef and the slogan of Bharat Mata Ki Jai have been hitched to nationalism.

The sheer hollowness of the records was underlined when one of the two much-trumpeted records did not survive for even 60 days. The Guinness World Records told this writer that the International Society for Krishna Consciousness had 106 nationalities present at a yoga session on August 13 last year as against the 84 nationalities, who participated in the first International Yoga Day event at India Gate.

This tells you a lot about the trivial obsessions of Hindu nationalism.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.