By Dushyant Shekhawat Sep. 10, 2019
From being used to heckle Opposition MPs in Parliament to providing the soundtrack to a mounting number of public lynchings, sayings like Jai Shri Ram that once provided us comfort and united us, now create fear and sow division.
The Republic Day and Independence Day functions at my school were a lot like the ones conducted in schools across the country. The students would fill up the field on the appointed day, there would be a few skits and performances, a speech about national duty and being good citizens from the principal, followed by the flag-hoisting ceremony. While the flag-hoisting would be accompanied to the strains of the national anthem, the earlier performances would often include a rendition of Vande Mataram. Unfortunately, we didn’t have camera phones back then or I would have recorded myself singing it so that in 2019, I would have proof that I do deserve to live in this country.
Singing a patriotic song is an absurd yardstick by which to measure who is most eligible to reside in a country, but I can’t claim credit for the idea. That belongs to Odisha MP Pratap Chandra Sarangi, who used his debut speech in Parliament to ask if those who do not accept Vande Mataram “have a right” to live in the country. Going by Sarangi’s logic, there shouldn’t even be a National Citizens Registry in Assam, just an audition stage where people prove that they’re Indian by singing heart-stirring versions of Vande Mataram, while being judged by A R Rahman and Sarangi himself. But the truth is no laughing matter. In today’s climate, you have to be ready to chant the right slogan or risk alienation, or even worse.
For Sarangi, Vande Mataram is the chant that verifies one’s Indian-ness. For others, it is Jai Shri Ram, as seen in the way Opposition MPs were heckled with the slogan while taking their oath during the Lok Sabha’s first session. Outside the House, there are others who are decidedly less parliamentary than Sarangi when it comes to dealing with those who fail to pass their nationalism test.
In June, news broke of a young man in Jharkhand who died in police custody after being assaulted by a mob, demanding he chant “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman”. The video of Tabrez Ansari’s gruesome lynching made its way online, and the image of the bloodied youth complying with his tormentors’ demands while tied to pole became the latest snapshot of mounting mob violence in the land of ahimsa, and Jai Shri Ram became its soundtrack. In report filed in July, police chose to not charge Ansari’s attackers with murder, instead filing charges of culpable homicide, since the post-mortem report declared Ansari died due to cardiac arrest, and not directly due to the assault.
Only a few days after the Jharkhand lynching became national news, reports emerged of similar incidents from Kanpur and Mumbai, where mobs allegedly attacked Muslim men and demanded that they chant the name of a Hindu deity. In the same week that Ansari died, a Madrasa teacher was allegedly thrown off a train for refusing to chant the words, proving that these incidents are not isolated.
If words and phrases can go from being considered benign to taboo, then the opposite can also take place.
Be it Jai Shri Ram, Jai Hanuman, or any other such slogan, what used to be an invocation of faith has become a call to arms. It wasn’t always this way. When I was growing up, “Jai Shri Krishna” was a common greeting among members of my mother’s Kutchi community, most of whom were traders who lived around Mumbai’s Fort Market. Another trading community, of Bohri Muslims, also has its presence in the neighbourhood of Fort Market, and the streets ring out with the babble of voices speaking Gujarati, Hindi, and Marathi. “Jai Shri Krishna” is the most regularly heard salutation, proffered without regard for the receiver’s religious identity or the expectation of a similar reply. There was a time when Jai Shri Ram was an equally inoffensive phrase, but that time has passed.
It is the same with nationalist slogans, like Bharat Mata Ki Jai or Vande Mataram. My Catholic gym trainer used to end phone calls with the words “Jai Hind, Jai Maharashtra” and no one would bat an eyelid. Patriotism and pride in the motherland was implicit in us all, and giving expression to it was a normal occurrence. But of late, these slogans are used to harass and intimidate regular citizens, who are given the right to refrain from chanting any slogan they do not wish to by the Constitution.
Today, “Jai Shri Ram”, “Vande Mataram”, and other chants that have been co-opted by extremists are no longer expressions of cultural pride, but tools of hate. As times change, so do the meanings and context of certain words. Something that might have been considered part of the everyday vocabulary in the past is considered a slur today. Derogatory terms for lower castes, racial epithets for North Eastern Indians, or even the word “servant” in English-speaking middle class households were once spoken freely, but as awareness and sensitivity increased, they fell out of use as their darker connotations were revealed. In Mumbai, “Alibaug se aaya kya?” was a euphemism for suggesting that a person was incredibly stupid, naïve, or both. In March this year, a PIL was filed in the Bombay High Court seeking a ban on it for being offensive to residents of the coastal hamlet.
If words and phrases can go from being considered benign to taboo, then the opposite can also take place. This is what we’re witnessing with these religious and nationalistic slogans today. Sayings that once provided us comfort and united us, now create fear and sow division. The extremist mobs and enthusiastic politicians who insist on using them to establish their supremacy, are in fact diluting the meaning and impact of those words themselves. And as those words change into something they never were, another thread in India’s diverse fabric frays. We can only hope that the original sentiment can endure this period of misappropriation.
Let’s hear it for a more tolerant future – Jai Shri Ram! And I mean that in the nicest way possible.