Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to Ayodhya for the inauguration of the Ram Mandir on August 5 dressed for the part. His hair and beard had been modelled on the image of the ancient sages that we had imbibed from Amar Chitra Katha comics. And when he spoke, he seemed to have struck all the right chords in speaking of the diversity of the Ramayana traditions, even though the temple where he was speaking was built by ending the very diversity he was invoking. His statements only served to underline that the Sangh’s view of Ram and the Ramayana had triumphed so radically that even diversity could now be paid lip-service.

The prime minister referred to the “different Ramayanas” with ease: “You will find Ram in different forms, in the different Ramayanas, but Ram is present everywhere, Ram is for all. That is why Ram is the connecting link in India’s ‘unity in diversity’”, he said. He was able to do so confident in the knowledge that the different Ramayanas that once may have troubled his compatriots have been consigned to archival projects or narratives most in the country have never encountered. And the small pockets of the Hindi heartland where the different traditions are still alive, do not matter. They are electorally insignificant, and even so it is only a matter of time before the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh overwhelms them.

In 1993, shortly after the destruction of Babri Masjid, as karsevaks laid siege to Ayodhya, Sahmat, a Delhi-based organisation of artists, writers and activists battling communalism, organised an exhibition titled “Hum Sab Ayodhya”, which explored the many Ramayanas.

The exhibition, launched on August 9 to symbolically coincide with the Quit India Movement , travelled to 17 cities. Twelve days later, one of the Ram Katha panels was confiscated from Teen Murti in Delhi on the grounds that it hurt Hindu sentiments. The panel depicted a story from the Dashratha Jataka, a Buddhist narrative of the Ramayana.

In this version, Dashratha is the king of Kashi. His jealous queen wants Ram, Sita and Lakshman banished. When the three return from their exile, Ram and Sita rule gloriously for the next 64,000 years. So far a familiar trajectory, except in this Ramayana, Rama, Sita and Laskham are siblings.

“We were accused of blasphemy,” said photographer Ram Rahman, one of the curators of the exhibition, “but we hadn’t invented it, we were quoting an existing text of the Ramayana, one of many in the country.” The blasphemy charges came on the back of violence – attacks on the exhibition in both Faizabad and later in Pune. Parliament spent two days debating the exhibition and the Ramayana.

The Sahmat show is attacked in Pune. Credit: Ram Rahman

Rahman remembers Shivraj Patil, the speaker at the time, condemning “Hum Sab Ayodhya” without seeing it. Sahmat then invited the parliamentarians to see the exhibition, keeping it open all night. Rahman says the strongest defense for their work came from Ram Vilas Pawan who condemned the attack on the exhibition and reiterated the importance of the Jatakas in the Buddhist tradition.

More than a decade later, in 2008, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student wing, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, objected to the inclusion of AK Ramanujan’s stunning essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas, Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” in the history syllabus of Delhi University. Violence followed, the Academic Council capitulated and the essay was withdrawn in 2012.

None of this was unexpected from the Sangh’s viewpoint. Multiple strands are inconvenient for fundamentalist forces and their triumph lies in framing a single unchallenged narrative. It has worked overtime to exclude, diminish and erode the different Ramayanas. In the Hindi heartland, the work was made easier by the fact that the chaupais of Tulsi’s Ramcharitramanas has long been the dominant narrative.

Across the ocean

But there is enough evidence to suggest that the breadth of diversity of the tradition was not mere academic fancy. More than decade ago, in the Reunion Island, 250 km from Mauritius, we filmed one of its island’s most famous poets, Jean-Claude Carpanin Morimotou, of Indian origin. He recited “Le Lament du Ravana”, one of his best-known compositions in which a deeply passionate Ravana ask Sita if she had rejected him simply as he was dark “his cheveaux crepus” (tightly coiled curls associated with African hair). “Why did you leave me, to return to a cruel man who humiliated you?” Ravana asks.

The question has an answer in the island’s ballad tradition in Creole, which sings of a Sita who in the face of the humiliation she suffers at Rama’s hands looks back in regret at her rejection of Ravana. “In the Reunion, we are called Malabars, descendants of the labourers who were brought from India to work on the sugar-cane plantations,” Carpanin said. “Here we identify with Ravana more, he is dark like us and our hair is crepus too.”

Carpanin’s ancestors made an arduous journey to the Reunion islands as indentured labourers more than 150 years ago. Most sailed from the Malabar coast. While they speak French or Creole, they have held onto many religious practices – like walking on fire for Le Nouvel An Tamoul (Tamil New Year) and their deities, like Mariamman are from the Dravidian tradition.

A dance performance of the Ramayana on the Indonesian island of Bali. Credit: By Gunawan Kartapranata - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Creole ballad traditions from an island in the Pacific pose no threat to the RSS. But it is indicative of the fact that in India the challenge still persists in the Dravidian heartland of Tamil Nadu. Periyar’s book, The Ramayana: A True Reading, published in 1959 has repeatedly drawn the ire of Hindutva supporters.

As late as 2007, nearly 50 years after its publication, the BJP in Uttar Pradesh was still calling for the ban of its Hindi translation, Sacchi Ramayana. The text’s ideology still has a strong hold, and drives strength from the cadres of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Even in the Hindi heartland, till very recently, other versions had thrived side by side by the dominant narrative. Communities such as the Gonds of Madhya Pradesh see Laxman as the main protagonist and Rama as inconsequential. In 1994, in Madhubani, in the heart of the Mithila region of Bihar, I had recorded Maithli bidai compositions sung when the bride leaves her parental home. This is the region associated with the birthplace of Sita, and the refrain went “May your husband not be like Lord Rama.”

Nabneeta Deb Sen’s widely cited essay “Lady Sings the Blue: When Women Retell the Ramayana” illustrates how in the songs of women in Bengal, Ram comes across as a “harsh, uncaring and weak-willed husband”. She writes that “…this is possible as women’s songs are outside the canon.”

Hindutva’s successful war has been waged precisely against what lies outside the canon.

By Lebrecht History / Bridgeman Images. Public Domain

In the past 15 years, I have returned to Madhubani on several occasions but in the same villages, it’s virtually impossible to find an echo of the songs I had once recorded. Mahanama Devi, an exceptionally talented Madhubani artist told me both her mother and mother-in-law sang the song but added that things have changed dramatically, “I have heard that now one person has even named their daughter Siya.”

In the Hindi heartland these different Ramayanas, often of the marginalised, were always going to find it difficult to face the onslaught from the right. Violence and coercion combined with Ramanand Sagar, whose TV serial also sought to construct “the canon” of a homogenous Ramayana.

But while the change was unfolding on the ground, it was not being tracked as an essential feature of our politics. These were almost always seen as the soft stories, peripheral to the cut and thrust of alliances and government formation in Delhi. I have lost count of the number of times such concerns were dismissed as “feature stories” by newsrooms.

But the RSS knew better, in the end, the terrain of the “soft stories” swallowed us all. The disappearance of the bidai songs in Madhubani turned out to be of greater political relevance to our reality than all the “hard analysis” and reporting in the full decade of the run up to Modi’s victory in 2014.

Ram going into exile. Credit: Unknown author / Public domain

In this context, it would be a mistake to see the temple as the culmination of a process, the RSS’ use of the Ramayana as a political tool continues. It is even attempting to purge the now canonical versions of episodes that seem inconvenient, such as Sita’s agnipariksha or Rama’s killing of Shambukha.

In 2017, Kuldeep Kumar, reported on a meet by the “Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (ABISY), an organisation set up by the RSS to rewrite Indian history from a ‘Bharatiya perspective’ ... where ‘nationalist historians’ will discuss how to purge Ramayana of some unsavoury incidents related to Rama’s life”.

The RSS’ engagement with the Ram Janambhoomi movement was only one part of a wider attempt to use the Ramayana to pull different communities into the Hindutva fold. And what for the RSS serves to unify the Hindu community, also serves to bring BJP electoral victories.

Prime Minister Modi’s reference to the kevats, to Shabari and the vanvasi bandhuon, at Ayodhya was an acknowledgment of this process. The kevat of the Ramayana was a reference to Guha Raj Nishad, a boatman who ferried Rama and Sita across the river. The Sangh Parivar has used this story adeptly in Eastern Uttar Pradesh to mobilise the Nishads – a consolidation of several sub-castes like the Bind, Kevat, Malla and Manjhi, all communities who traditionally have lived and earned from the river. More than 12% of the population of the region, the Nishads form a sizeable part of the non-Yadav OBCs which the BJP has successfully targeted for its electoral success.

In 1996, I reported on how there had been a spurt of new bhajans with lyrics that sang of Nishad Raj and Rama’s friendship. The references had moved very distinctly from using the word kevat to the term Nishad, which embraced a far broader coalition of castes. This was politics in the making but the newsroom saw it as a “song and dance” feature story.

Rama and the Vanara chiefs. Credit: Unknown author / Public domain

Lotan Ram Nishad was the head of the BJP’s Fishermen Cell in Uttar Pradesh till two years ago when he joined the Samajwadi Party, where he heads the state’s Backward Classes Cell. “You people woke up to the Nishad vote much later but the Sanghis realised how valuable it was a long time ago,” he said. “You must remember it was 16 karsevaks from the Nishad community who died in the firing after the Babri demolition.”

Observing how the Sangh Parivar has worked on their pride as Hindus using the icongraphy of the Nishad Raj, Lotan Ram points to the BJP’s plan to construct a hundred-foot statue depicting the milap (the meeting) of Nishad Raj and Ram at Shringerpur, a town on the banks of the Ganga, near Prayagraj.

The Sangh’s use of the Shabari story among the Adivasis, especially in the Dangs region of Gujarat has been far better documented in the aftermath of the 2002 anti-Muslim violence. The Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram along with other Sangh affiliates used the Shabari story to great effect – with the aim of Hinduising the Adivasis and countering Christian missionary activity in the region.

Aseemanand, who moved to the Dangs in the mid-nineties played a critical role in constructing a massive Shabari temple in Subir village, said to be Shabari’s birthplace. The temple completed in 2004, has Rama as the central deity with Shabari sitting at his feet. This was followed by the widely reported Shabari Kumbh in 2006. Not surprisingly, a year later, the BJP, for the first time, was able to get its candidate elected from Dangs.

This process is still underway, the Sangh is constantly searching for the equivalents of Nishad Raja and Shabari in its quest to reach out to other communities, to further widen and consolidate its fold. If, after four decades of the RSS championing Ram as symbol of Hindutva masculinity and turning “Jai Sri Ram” into its war cry, Modi spoke of “Jai Siya Ram” it was not only because he could afford to do so, it may also well have been because Sita may soon turn out to be of some political use in the RSS’ unending quest.

Radhika Bordia is a journalist who lives in Delhi.