Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Jayalalitha Shows the Way

Smt Sandhya Jain in The Pioneer
October 2, 2007

Tulsidas marvelled "it is impossible to keep count of the Ramkathas in the world" (Ramkatha kai miti jaga nahi). Valmiki's account of the evolution of Indian society's moral and cultural codes, notions of kingship and the limits of political power, and above all, integration of land and people into a civilisational matrix that enduringly transcended the multiplicity of political authority, is enmeshed in the psyche of every Indian. There is literally no one, not even adherents of other faiths, unfamiliar with the narrative.

Having massively influenced the entire Asian landmass, there are probably as many versions and interpretations of Ramayan as there are Ram-bhakts. All variants are legitimate, like myriad paths in quest of the Ultimate Truth. From Sangam poetics to the bhakti of the Alwar saints, the classical rendition of Kamban, the grand philosophy of Ramanuja, the soulful depths of Thiagaraja, and the sheer energy of Therukuttu (street theatre), 'what was built forever is forever being built.'

So deeply has the epic and its hero-god impacted the Damir (Tamil) mind that major episodes, such as the tethering of Lord Ram's aswamedh horse by his unknown sons and the location of Valmiki's ashram, have been identified with this land. The state is home to some of the grandest Ram temples. The great Chola dynasty (Chola is the Tamil form of Sanskrit 'Surya') claimed kinship with the Suryavanshi kings of Ayodhya. Rajaraja I's inscriptions (10th to early-11th century) trace the family tree from Vijayalaya whose son Aditya was famous as Kodanda Rama. Their early ancestors were Surya, Manu, Ikshvaku, Kakutsth, Mandhata, Sagar, Bhagirath, Dilip and Ram.

This devout land suffered grievously under colonial rule, when a little understood divide-and-rule policy pitted various groups against each other with the objective of making Madras Presidency the first Hindu region to break away from Bharat. Notwithstanding the social ugliness that saw the flight of Brahmins from the State, a deep reservoir of culture and common sense prevented the final brinkmanship. The British did manage to hive off the Muslim-majority wings into East and West Pakistan.

Tamil Nadu's steady return to the political mainstream received a rude shock with the triumphal abuse of Lord Ram by Mr M Karunanidhi. Upset at the prospect of vanishing gains from an ill-conceived shipping channel, the Chief Minister dealt a savage blow to the identity, pride, and self-respect of Tamil Hindus. Coming in the wake of a backlash against an offensive Central affidavit challenging the existence of Lord Ram, it froze the ruling UPA into petrified silence. Media reports suggest Mr Karunanidhi was sharply rebuked and asked to clam up; Shipping Minister TR Baalu claimed a supportive telephone call from Ms Sonia Gandhi; but the Prime Minister and UPA chairperson decided discretion was the better part of valour.

Former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa showed great political acumen in accusing the Chief Minister of dereliction of constitutional responsibility for hurting the sentiments of millions of Hindus with his derogatory references to Lord Ram. This is a modern enunciation of the ancient Hindu concept of the ruler accepting the dharma of the people as his rajdharma (upheld powerfully by Lord Ram); a subtle snipe at the reigning orthodoxy of secularism as anti-Hindu populism.

Ms Jayalalithaa capped this by demanding the dismissal of the Karunanidhi regime and the DMK Ministers at the Centre. Despite considerable media blackout of the ADMK's State-wide protest on September 26, 2007, the massive popular response would have sent powerful signals across the political spectrum. The BJP has energetically supported its former ally, and received vocal support on the issue of violent attacks by DMK cadre on party workers in Chennai and other districts.

In what may be a brilliant overture to the Maran brothers, estranged from Mr Karunanidhi, Ms Jayalalithaa used the attack on Sangh Parivar offices in the State to recall the attack on their newspaper, Dinakaran, in Madurai some months ago. Mr Karunanidhi's son, Mr MK Azhagiri, was widely perceived as instigating the assault, in which three persons died. Ms Jayalalithaa has thus mixed a powerful political cocktail to attack the regime: Respect for Lord Ram and Hindu sentiments, maintenance of law and order and upholding constitutional propriety.

Change is in the air, and the fragile UNPA has decided to give respect and space to popular sentiment. Yet, a realignment of political forces around the ADMK seems inevitable. Popular actors Vijayakant (DMDK) and Saratkumar (AISK) have condemned Mr Karunanidhi's remarks on Lord Ram; MDMK leader Vaiko visited the BJP office after it was ransacked and expressed support. Even the PMK, being a predominantly Vanniar-dominated party, may abandon the DMK ship; the Vanniar Sangam has already protested. The Congress's bold maverick MS Bitta pitched in with a visit to Rameshwaram where he dramatically took an oath to sacrifice his life to protect Ram Setu.

Ms Jayalalithaa had the prescience to grasp the importance of Ram Setu and Lord Ram for all sections of society, indeed for the entire nation. The ADMK has also filed a spate of cases against the Chief Minister for his abusive remarks against Lord Ram, and it will be interesting to see how the local courts handle these petitions. The party also succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to void the DMK's proposed October 1 bandh, leaving the Chief Minister with the lonely device of a hunger strike to ram through the virtually defunct Sethusamudran Shipping Channel Project.

Unsurprisingly, scholars hostile to the Hindu faith have rushed to the rescue, scouring the Ramayan corpus to proclaim that there is no definitive version of the story; that Valmiki rested an older oral tradition; and, that in less-famous versions, the Lanka king was not a bad sort. No such exercise has ever been undertaken in Sri Lanka, which is anxious to save Ram Setu for protection against a future tsunami. Actually, Ramayan spans at least a whole yug; characters like Rishi Durvasa lived into the Mahabharat age. Valmiki himself credited the kernel of the tale to Rishi Narad, who answered his question about the ideal man (purushottom) of that age.

Ms Jayalalithaa is seeking resurrection in public life, but the path of a righteous ruler must be consecrated by a living sage. The road to Chennai would be doubly triumphant via the Kanchi matham.

hits since Chaitra 7, 2064 Vikram (March 26, 2007)