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Friday, June 10, 2011

Revolt of the Outlander

Anna Hazare and Ramdev appeal to two distinct social classes

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last Saturday evening, an English language TV news channel sent one of its coquettish anchors, who otherwise specialised in going gush-gush over Bollywood stars, to report on Baba Ramdev's 'yoga camp' in Delhi's Ramlila Maidan. The lady had apparently never seen life on the other side of the tracks—or, at least, successfully pretended she hadn't—and was wide-eyed in astonishment at both the numbers and the motivation of people who had travelled long distances to be with the man dubbed the "rock star of yoga". She was also bowled over by the huge media presence. "There are channels here", she said in breathless astonishment, "that I've never heard of."

For that India whose TV viewing doesn't go beyond the news and entertainment channels available on Tata Sky, the ignorance is understandable. There is an India People-Like-Us know and claim to understand, even if it is from a position of detachment. This includes the mysterious, mystical India personified by the flowing white robes and the 'wellness' philosophy of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The PLUs also habitually invoke the romanticism of rural life, even if they are understandably horrified by the Taliban-like decisions of khap panchayats.

That there are multiple Indias is a truism. It is also a truism that the only time the kaleidoscope of India finds some reflection in either the 'national' or the mainstream regional media is during an election. That's the time the limousine liberals are sponsored by indulgent bankers to travel in comfort to the wilderness and even do an election-related chat show from a dusty truckers' dhaba in West Midnapore or the roof of a garish hotel in Gaya.

Unfortunately, the season for political tourism is all-too-brief. It is always possible to gauge voting intentions during an emotionally charged campaign and even report the quantum of economic change brought about by India's soaring Gross Domestic Product in the small, market towns and neighbouring villages. It is never a media priority to understand the corresponding shifts in aesthetic and social impulses.

The multiplying consequences of passionate Islamic discourses by tele-evangelists have, for example, led to a sharp rise in social conservatism among India's Muslims. Some of this is even sartorially self-evident. Less understood, however, is the impact of the discourses broadcast by TV channels such as Astha on the mofussil Hindu imagination. Have the unending emphasis on true dharma and the constant invocations of righteousness had an unforeseen political consequence?

For the past three years at least, I have been told of the subterranean buzz around Ramdev's robust festivals of health and patriotism all over India. The extent to which the surge in religiosity brought about by rising TV viewership is difficult to quantify. All that can be said is that Ramdev's decision to expand his mission statement to demanding political action against organised venality was not born out of thin air. It stemmed from his reading of the responses he got from the non-metropolitan audiences he spends most of the year addressing.

There is a sharp class divide between the 'civil society' movements launched by Anna Hazare and Ramdev. The old Gandhian and his core support team are public spirited individuals who in a more settled age would perhaps have been a part of the institutional apparatus of governance. Blessed with modern education and global exposure—note the surfeit of Magasaysay Award winners in Anna's Star Chamber—they are people who talk the modern idiom of development and politics, a language the mainstream media finds comprehensible, comforting and respectable. The Anna movement has drawn sustenance from three quarters: from a core network of professional activists with a disdain for organised politics; from senior citizens, usually active in Resident's Welfare Associations, horrified by the moral decline of a world they can't keep pace with; and a section of idealistic but impressionable youth that believes social media networking is a force for the good.

The Anna movement was a made-in-media campaign. The crowds that flocked to his rally in Delhi's Jantar Mantar two months ago did so without any incentive and organisation. However, its spontaneity was also governed by a spectacular degree of TV hype that unnerved the government and forced it into setting up a joint committee to draft a new Lokpal Bill. No doubt the process was helped by the endearing personality of Anna—a man who exudes both simplicity and sincerity. However, it is worth considering whether or not the multiplier effects of the movements would have as marked had the location of the fast not been the heart of Lutyens' Delhi.

Compared to the 5,000 or so people who thronged Jantar Mantar at the peak of Anna's fast, Ramdev began his show with a dedicated audience of something around 40,000 people. While most of Anna's supporters were from the National Capital Region—plus shows of solidarity in the state capitals—the yoga guru mobilised people from all over the country, including a large contingent from West Bengal. Yet, the government risked a potential riot by taking forcibly evicting the crowd and shutting down the show in the early hours of last Sunday. What explains the visible double-standards?

The answer is obvious. The 'civil society' that Anna represented was the influential metropolitan middle class, many of whom were PLUs. Ramdev's support base was drawn from primarily from B, C and D category towns and lacked either clout or glamour. The English-language media was openly contemptuous of his mission, portraying it as a variant of another RSS-sponsored gau rakshan show. There was not a single Bollywood star to keep company of the relatively unknown religious figures that graced Ramdev's dais. Even Anna was in two minds over being present on the stage. Each of the sadhus may have had a following of lakhs but they weren't from the power elite Delhi knew. To the 'opinion makers', it was an assembly of obscurantists.

The scepticism of the PLUs contrasted starkly with the earnestness with which the Hindi channels dealt with the Ramdev phenomenon. To their viewership, Ramdev was a venerated figure and not someone whose raw understanding of economics was worthy of mockery.

The sharp class divide was unmistakable. The last occasion I witnessed this was the Ayodhya movement. Till L.K. Advani's rath yatra in 1990, cosmopolitan India treated the fuss over Ram's birthplace with sneering contempt. It was blind to the raw emotions unleashed in the hinterland, a phenomenon that was dismissed as "false consciousness".

There is nothing as yet to indicate that Ramdev is likely to trigger a similar explosion of sentiment. Yet, the yogic entrepreneur has succeeded in extending the reach of the anti-corruption movement into the deep interior of the Hindi heartland. He has complemented a modernist unease with corrupt governance with populist anger against a venal, elitist order—note how his demand to secure the return of black money stashed in foreign shores was cleverly twinned with the demand to replace English with the vernacular. Ramdev has triggered the revolt of the outlander.

The Hindu faith has traditionally been caste-based and localised. Yet, there has been a congregational undercurrent that has subsumed these divisions. Over the past two decades and thanks in no small measure growing TV viewership, a new congregational faith has injected a new energy into the Hindu universe. Particularly noteworthy is the growing marginalisation of the Brahmanical order. Ramdev, a Yadav by caste, personifies this phenomenon. The Congress may have miscalculated by declaring total war on him.

The Telegraph, June 10, 2011


No Mist said...

Dear Swapan Da,

Let me bring to your notice another effect of Baba Ramdev on India.

First, my personal acquaintance with this phenomenon. I am a peripatetic person roaming all around with occasional home coming to my home in the hindi heartland. About 6-7 years back I noticed a sudden veneration of this person called Baba Ramdev. I would see random well-meaning people (almost all of them retired) come to me while I was jogging in the park every morning and offer me Yoga/Pranayam advices. The passion with which they talked about it was so impressive that I would stop jogging just to chat with them. It was obvious that they had gained some benefit out of Baba Ramdev. Being elderly, they of course could not be sprightly, but were much much more (and that is an understatement, believe me) cheerful and positive minded than you imagine such people to be. They had derived much more psychological benefits from the Baba than actual health benefits, which is a big achievement for senior citizens.

The second group of Baba devotees were younger people like me (mostly male), some of them as peripatetic, but more tuned to their folks than me. This group also was as health conscious as the retirees, but had derived significant benefits from doing Yoga ... psychological, spiritual as well as health.

The third group was that of women ... both elderly and young. For this group, health benefits was secondary. Though they firmly believed in Baba's yogic teachings, they couldn't bother less about actually doing Yoga. For them, Baba was a religious and spiritual figure. They listened intently to the Baba on Astha TV and nodded dutifully to every word he said. Baba had a total devoted attention from these women. I would go as far as saying that, Baba Ramdev is a woman centric phenomenon ... not unlike Mahatma Gandhi. It puts into perspective, whom Congress would be really fighting with, if it strikes the Baba.

All three group had one thing in comman - extreme respect for Baba and belief in his every word. So if the Baba said that Kapalbharti would relieve obesity in 20 days (duly endorsed by a 60 year old retiree on the TV) they would believe it uncritically. If the Baba said moral corruption is also a form of corruption, it was also accepted. If the Baba said Bharat Mata is in danger or corrupt officials are destroying India, that is also taken at face value.

I am unable to decide what is more surprising -

1) the fact that unless Baba said corruption was bad, these people would not think so


2) their uncritical belief that Yoga (which is actually a proxy for ancient "indian wisdom") can cure cancer/heart-ailment/AIDS and what not.

The most ridiculous is the assertion that 20 minute Pranayam can get rid of 20 kg fat from their body in 20 days. If only they did some back of the envelope calculation, they would realise that so much fat burning in such a short time would raise the body temperature to fatal levels. But then, pesky things like mathematics/physics does not bother these people.

contd ...

No Mist said...

Now let me come to the real issue I want to talk about.

Beyond all the outlandish claims, beyond all the blind devotion, beyond all the wishy washy spiritual benefits ... there is one supreme achievement of Baba Ramdev ... and for that I cannot be less grateful to him. He has made the sweet/ghee/spices loving hindi heartland health-conscious like never before. What he has done is spectacular beyond all comparison. No, and I mean absolutely none of the ersthile hindu gurus had tackled this issue. Not Dayanand, not Vivekananda, not Shankaracharya, not Sai Baba, not blah blah ... bloddy no one !! It is all the more surprising when I think of it ... how could all the reformers of this great Indian religion miss the most abvious thing humanity is concerned with. It is astonishing that we had to wait untill 21st century for a guru to talk about health ... and not just superficially, but compell these people to do physical exercises. Baba told them to avoid sweets/ghee/carbonated-drinks/super-spicy-foods and he was listened to intently. He told them, a sitting job is bad for the back and people nodded. He told them, not exerting oneself is causing heart problems ... that having a healthy body is also imprtant and equal in importance to having a healthy mind and people paid attention ... all the obviously true things that no one had hitherto bothered to teach these people.

And all the while, he also made them aware of the larger rot corroding India. We all know about it ... this is what we are seeing now. I would credit Ramdev in no small measure for the current anti-corruption mood. Without Ramdev raising this issue relentlessly for about 7 years, Anna would just be an also-ran ... like VP Singh of 1988.

Is that a mean achievement ? I dont think so. I would be willing to trade my right arm to be able to do what he has done.

Anonymous said...

Candle bearers of Anna and these outlanders! UPA II could not have asked for worse.
Treatment meted out to both Anna and Ramdev,indicates both, the arrogance and incompetence of our ruling elites.
You have got it right.Numbers and votes are now in the tier II cities, towns, kasbas and villages.Baba Ram Dev, Sri Sri... and host of other saints rule their minds and hearts.Pramukh Swami of Swaminarayan sect in Gujarat collects lakhs of devotees, wherever he goes.
Our ruling elites have failed the people.They are flocking to the nearest Ashram, temple or Babas for solace and relief.Agenda for governing India will increasingly be set by Annas and Babas.Rulers have missed the bus to do so.They have chosen to be led by the noose.

No Mist said...

>{and for that I cannot be less grateful to him.}

oops a slip of the tongue .. plz read the above as -

and for that I cannot be more grateful to him.

Anonymous said...

Swapan Da
I wish you had started the column with Nidhi Rajdan's tweet suggesting she can understand Baba Ramdev only after third drink or Joji Thomas of economic times tweeting Baba to eat Beef to increase his stamina. That would have laid bare the contempt perfumed bottom ones have for India.

bookz said...

The classist nature of the Anna brigade has been obvious from day 1. I do not subscribe to their claim of being "The" civil society. I resent Anna the tyrant's claims of representing me. I did not vote for his gang of self-important clowns.

Anonymous said...

dear sd
let us keep obvious things simple.we are supporting issues in our own interest and not persons.ISSUES ARE not religeous but are:1)bloody why our money lying abroad when they are most needed in india?2)why public servants paid by public must not be accountable to employer i.e public?3)M.PS have taken votes after promising above but after elected, they cheated voters by breaching promises causing enormous wrongful losses,so voters are giving them notices.
sc ,courts are solely responsible for the situation as though having powers,duty,are silent,uneffective after taking their huge salaries from fact they are witnessing poverty/hunger in india by allowing illegal slashed funds abroad .then they must not mind frustated public movements,rather they have invited.
why fast for cheaters?assemble lacs of voters with food provisions outside parlament ,crucial places in country for days till they actually do it.let the world know true colours of mms,sg,rg &co.these are top priorities of india,so get fast as time of sixty years, manpower of lacs of public servants more than enough.mms is only in power now to influence evidences to save himself in 2g etc.same for sg &co.
media having wasted interest shamelessly trying to fool sc not aware that mms gave bribe of 2g to buy his chair?can sc allow cbi under mms?

Anonymous said...


The main difference is that unlike Anna Hazare, Baba Ramdev wears saffron robes, and we all know how Indian media hates anything saffron. What we are seeing is an increased conflict between the pacifist version of Hinduism espoused by the so-called secular media and the version of Mahabharata and Ramayana. While Hinduism has always been tolerant of various strands of thought, the fact is there is no room for dissension in the pacifist version espoused by the so called secularists.


Anonymous said...

Dear Swapanda,

you have to tell the dumb broads at BJP that Ramdev no doubt is important but these bimbos have to account for Swami Nigmanands also. This frigging Matlabipan of supporting only the politically convenient guru has to go. What the Hindu Right of the country wants is a Vivekpoorn support of all Sant Samaj not one or two choosen gurus. In fact by so picking & choosing gurus based on so called pragmatism they are doing a great disservice to the Hindu Right. The choice has to be excercised between various alternatives and supplements based on some bloody truth and not on whims.

Congressis have looted the country and just as the Hindu Right was gearing up to do some real work the incompetence of Nishank comes through like this.

Uttarakhand is my state and these BJP wallas have to understand they will destroy this Devbhoomi and along with it the country for some bloody Mining mafia and some sob like RAjnath or Modi.

If Sanghis cannot handle the corruption issue then they should get out of the fight, accept defeat. But if they think they can get away by playing one guru against the other....well then lets just wait.


Anonymous said...

Swapanda, my problem with Baba's circus is the same as that my friends in the company I work (IT) were having. This guy is worth a self-declared 1200 crores (at least equal amount in black money, we are not fools), moves around in a private jet and owns an island off Scotland! What the hell is he talking about black money and corruption?

Anna at least has the moral right to stand up for something. He lives a simple life.


Anonymous said...

Dear Swapan,

Though i would not agree with all you say i never miss an oppurtunity to hear you speak on any subject.

Pls write about digvijay singh.I really dont know how the congress is putting up with him.Or do they agree with all that he has to say ?


Anonymous said...

Dear anonymous, why is it a crime to own a private jet or have a business empire, all that is in the name of Patanjali Trust and not BRD ? Would you apply the same logic to the Pope who lives a far more lavish life than the Baba, such as living in various palaces owned by the Vatican and flying in his own private jet, fleets of vehicles sch as Pope mobile and an army of guards and militia. BTW I am no follower of Baba Ramdev or any other Baba. BRD's yoga empire is builtover the years through the efforts of BRD and his followers, not through kick backs and bribes which is how many in the ruling clique have built up THEIR empires.

Anonymous said...

sir would love to read an article by you on the hallowed NAC which i think has already become a super organ above all....