New Delhi: Jai Shri Ram, the speaker bellows into a microphone. Rows and rows of saffron-clad sadhus raise both arms vigorously and respond even louder: “Jai Shri Ram.”
Despite rallying in unison at a conference here last week, the Vishwa Hindu Parshad (VHP) is far from religious harmony as the fraternity of Hindus finds itself at a bit of a crossroads, or perhaps more aptly, on the brink of a shaky bridge, the Adams Bridge in Tamil Nadu.
If it manages to cross to the other side, it could partner with other groups, environmentalists to preservationists, to try and save the walkway between India and Sri Lanka. It might discover that moderation and development-based campaigns could replace older strategies that only rely on dogma where all issues are painted in religious tones that divide Hindus and Muslims. And if successful, the VHP also has a chance to try forge a more pan-national identity for itself and help the Bhartiya Janata Party’s spread deeper into South India.
The evolution will not be easy or, according to some observers, will perhaps be impossible. But, the religious conference organized by the VHP here to devise strategies for saving the sand bar bridge—dubbed Ram Sethu and which the group steadfastly believes was built for Hindu king Ram, and now faces demolition to shorten shipping routes—made clear that there’s clearly dissent among the ranks.
More than 5,000 sadhus, including some 300 from South India, protested the destruction of what they termed “Hinduism’s oldest symbol” and vowed to protect it with their lives if needed. They talked about pictures of the bridge that Nasa satellites had taken, a bridge they claimed was a man-made relic from 1.75 million years ago.
Although the South has not really participated in VHP campaigns before, this time geography may be forging new allies—and new worship of Ram, seen historically by some, for instance, as an anti-Tamil god. Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, the founder of the Dravidian political movement, once described the Aryan prince as a “despicable character.” Last week, though, the southern sadhus said an attack on the Ram Sethu was indeed an attack on all of Hinduism.
“This is the time for all of us to stand up and force the Government of India to protect Hindu heritage. All Indians must participate. We have no time to lose,” said Vidya Bhaskar Tirth Maharaj of Karnataka, addressing sadhus in a pandal at Ramlila Maidan.
There were the old allies, too: about one-fifth of the crowd gathered to protect this bridge hailed from Ayodhya, participants in the bloody razing of the Babri Masjid to “recover” Ram’s birthplace in 1992.
The rhetoric last week similarly drew on the divisive: “The government would not have dared to destroy a Muslim heritage structure,” asserted VHP international secretary Pravin Togadia. “They are protecting the Qutub Minar, by changing the path of the Metro rail; they are building an expensive sea link in Mumbai to protect the Haji Ali shrine. But when a Hindu says don’t break this historical bridge because I worship it, no one cares.”
Doesn’t matter that Nasa, which has been mapping the earth for decades through satellite images, has written to the Sethusamudram Corp. Ltd, which is handling the project, that its pictures suggest the bridge—or sand bars or small islets connecting India and Sri Lanka, were “a variety of natural geological processes and their occurrence is not evidence of any human activity.”
But, huddled among the sadhus were people who were asking their own questions as well.
What did the bridge have anything to do with Muslims? Why protest the demolition of the bridge strictly on religious grounds? Why not bolster arguments with valid environmental, security and economic reasons? Several talked to this reporter but none of them wanted to be named, citing the sensitive nature of what they were raising.
The Sethusamudram project, inaugurated two years ago by Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is expected to “redefine shipping in South India.”
Right now, all ships between India’s east and west coasts circumvent Sri Lanka. The project involves breaking the bridge and dredging a channel to create an easier passage for ships. Still, the government’s claim that this will reduce navigation time by one day and reduce fuel costs has been disputed by some who have nothing to do with the VHP.
Harihar Balakrishnan, a Chennai-based naval expert who has examined the plans and economics of the Rs2,426-crore project, maintains “ships will save two hours at best.”
According to some other analysts, the project comes with too many price tags and risks—they say another tsunami might have a deadlier impact on the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerela because of the project; it will mean a loss of livelihood for thousands of fishermen; and, once the bridge that protects the gulf disappears, its biodiversity will vanish, too, they say.
So, some VHP dissenters last week were wondering: should the purpose not be to save the bridge—by any and all means?
Later, in an interview, Togadia said the VHP does plan to meet others interested in saving the bridge in separate forums. “This conference was only to discuss this attack on Hindu culture,” he said. But, by the end of the week, the sadhus had made plans to call for rallies around Rameswaram, the city on the Indian side of the bridge. In October, Rath Yatras led by prominent religious figures will wind their way through the country and end in December outside the Prime Minister’s house in the Capital.
Politicians such as ex-BJP member, Uma Bharti, who was a part of the Ayodhya campaign, have rejoined forces with the VHP. Bharti, suspended from the BJP in 2004, also began a week-long fast in Ayodhya to save the relic. Not all leaders from the Ayodhya campaign plan are so keen. L.K. Advani, former deputy prime minister and a key player during the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign, cautioned that the bridge was a national issue with national interests at stake.
Talking about the regret he felt after the collapse of the Babri Masjid, Advani said the current campaign around religious politics was a VHP misstep. Still, he insisted, “the objective of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign was against vote banks’ politics. Politically, it was a huge success for the BJP.”
But the BJP continues to be closely allied with the VHP initiative. BJP chief Rajnath Singh, for one, has assured the VHP “full support for whatever action it decides to take.”
“This campaign is like a dry run for the politicians,” says political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan. “The VHP had picked up the Ram Janmabhoomi issue in 1983. The BJP jumped on the bandwagon only in 1989. It is a similar situation now. The BJP and the VHP have never had a mass presence in South India and even if this movement fails, it will be a very important one for the BJP in Tamil Nadu.”