Grabbing Hindutva by its horns

Written by Rakesh Kumar | Published on: August 1, 2010
Jugal Kishore Shastri, a temple priest, takes on the saffron brigade at its very epicentre

You really must meet Jugalji,” insisted my friend. We were at an activist meeting in Delhi. My friend indicated a middle-aged man, slimly built, with a broad half-moon forehead, an unkempt beard and closely cropped greying hair, handing out leaflets to people filing into the lawn. He wore a thin cotton shirt and a simple white handspun dhoti. “He’s a priest from Ayodhya and is in the thick of the battle against Hindutva.”

A man – a temple priest no less – taking on the Hindutva brigade at its very epicentre! I scrambled across the lawn to meet him. I simply had to hear his story. I introduced myself and we got talking. I listened, humbled and stunned, as Jugalji began to tell me about himself, his life, his vision of and for the world and, most especially, about his valiant struggle against communalism and institutionalised religion. By the time he had finished – two hours later – I had all but completely fallen in love with him.

Jugalji was born in 1954, in a village along the Indo-Nepalese border in Bihar’s Sitamarhi district. His father, a poor peasant from the Yadav caste, insisted that his son must receive a decent education. He was sent to school, and then to college for Sanskrit studies, for which he shifted to Ayodhya where he lived in an ashram and earned the coveted Shastri degree. There, sometime in the mid-1970s, he joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “I was a young, energetic lad then and loved playing games,” he reminisced. The local RSS shakha (cell) had devised a clever way of trapping young Hindu boys by organising sports events. “That’s how I fell into their snare.” He rapidly moved up the RSS hierarchy till he was appointed as a full-time pracharak (propagandist) in Barabanki, a town in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Impressed with his dedication to the Hindutva cause, he was appointed as the district organiser of the Hindu Jagran Manch, one of many RSS front organisations, and then, in 1983, as the secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)’s unit in Faizabad district where Ayodhya is located.

At this time the Bharatiya Janata Party had not as yet become a virtually unchallengeable political force in Uttar Pradesh although it was rapidly winning converts in an increasingly communally surcharged atmosphere. But Hindutva, the ideology of brahmanical supremacism, was not represented simply by the BJP alone. Various forms of it, including some that appeared somewhat diluted, were shared by many Congress leaders and supporters. One of these was a certain self-styled shankaracharya allied to the Congress who asked Jugalji to work with him in an outfit which had a single point agenda: to ‘restore’ the disputed Babri mosque structure in Ayodhya to the Hindus.

It was around this time – when Hindutva forces had begun galvanising Hindu opinion and communal hatred across the country in the name of ‘liberating’ the Babri Masjid – a project in which he was himself involved – that Jugalji began developing second thoughts about the outfits that he had for so long been closely associated with.

“I discovered that these groups were all dominated by Brahmins and that they cared nothing for the poor, for the so-called low castes. They actually stood for a vicious system of caste discrimination while slyly denying this in public for fear of alienating their oppressed-caste supporters whom they routinely employed to attack and kill Muslims,” he said. “I found their understanding of religion bore little resemblance to that of my own people back in my village where inter-communal relations had generally been peaceful. These outfits, and the hatred they were spewing in the name of religion, were actually becoming a major burden on my own little head.” They presented themselves as saviours of all Hindus but even the hardcore Brahmin Hindutva activists Jugalji knew made him eat from separate plates kept apart for ‘low’-caste people like himself if they invited them to their homes for a meal. “I came to realise that what these people were propagating in the name of religion was raw hatred, greed and caste supremacism,” he said.

In 1986 Jugalji joined the Rachnatmak Samaj, a group of social activists headed by the late Nirmala Deshpande. He was put in charge of the group’s work in the Faizabad district. By this time he had established himself in Ayodhya as the manager of a small temple-cum-monastery not far from the Babri Masjid. It was there – where he still lives – right in the middle of the Hindutva dragon’s den, that he began fearlessly protesting and mobilising public opinion against the Hindutva forces. Obviously, this was no easy task and the intrepid Jugalji had to face stiff opposition, including from priests in the literally hundreds of temples scattered across the town. Many of these, he claimed, were actually criminals, including murderers, who had donned saffron robes to pass off as ‘holy men’. A day before the Babri Masjid was torn down Hindu mobs besieged his office, located in his temple premises, and threatened to bomb it.

In 2000 Jugalji met with noted social activist and winner of the Magsaysay Award, Sandeep Pandey, and also with the noted Arya Samaj leader, Swami Agnivesh, both of whom were in the forefront of the struggle against Hindutva and communalism. Inspired by their work, he set up a society, Ayodhya Ki Awaz (‘The Voice of Ayodhya’), to promote communal harmony and address the plight of the oppressed castes, whom he now came to regard as the principal victims, along with Muslims and Christians, of Brahmanism parading in the guise of Hindutva. Today this organisation has some 50 members, mostly Muslim, Dalit and backward-caste youth in Ayodhya and surrounding villages and towns.

Over the years activists of Ayodhya Ki Awaz have been closely engaged in struggles against communalism, particularly against Hindutva aggression. It brings out a Hindi monthly magazine edited by Jugalji and organises regular meetings in villages, aiming particularly at Dalits and backward-caste youth (who, Jugalji noted, are routinely used by Hindutva brahmanical forces as foot soldiers to attack Muslims in what are euphemistically termed ‘Hindu-Muslim riots’), using innovative means such as bhajans that evoke popular oppressed-caste icons such as Kabir and Babasaheb Ambedkar. “We tell them that even if a grand Ram temple is built in Ayodhya, they won’t gain a thing from it. It will be controlled by Brahmin priests who will make a living eating off the donations of the credulous. We tell them that they won’t find salvation in a temple of stone and mortar,” he explained.

Over the years Jugalji and his team (which now includes activists from different religious and caste backgrounds from across the country) have organised numerous sadbhavna yatras – rallies for communal harmony – the latest being last year when they travelled all the way from Ayodhya to Ajmer, seat of the shrine of India’s most revered Sufi, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, stopping in towns all the way to address public gatherings.

I try and imagine myself in Jugalji’s place, fighting Hindutva (or any other form of fascism for that matter) while living in Ayodhya, right in the lion’s lair – I know this I couldn’t dare. I want to touch Jugalji’s feet in respect and awe, so overwhelmed am I by his sincerity and passion, but he restrains me and holds me back. He recounts the opposition that he has faced in the course of his crusade for communal harmony over the years. He tells me about his experiences as chief guest at a rally organised in Lucknow in 2006 by a group of oppressed-caste activists of the Vishwa Shudra Mahasabha (the name having been deliberately chosen to counter the claims of the Brahmin Vishwa Hindu Parishad to speak for all ‘Hindus’). “I garlanded a picture of Ram, the brahmanical god-king, with shoes, because Ram, as the Ramayana says, lopped off the head of an innocent Shudra named Shambhuk for daring to violate the draconian law of caste,” he goes on. For this he was arrested and spent almost four months in prison while enraged ‘upper’-caste men brutally assaulted the lawyers (both ‘low’ castes) who defended him.

Unfazed by the opposition he faced, Jugalji continued his battle against Brahmanism even inside Ayodhya. Sometime in 2007 he took up the issue of a board in a public park in the town, named after Tulsidas, author of the Ramayana, which was maintained out of government funds. The board had boldly declared: ‘A Brahmin, no matter how despicable his deeds, is worthy of being worshipped. A Shudra, no matter what good deeds he does, is ignoble.’ Enraged by the slogan, Jugalji sent a notice to the commissioner and the director of parks, demanding that the board be taken down. “I wrote to them that 80 per cent of Indians, including myself, are so-called Shudras and it was an insult to all of us. Tulsidas’s Ramayana, that preaches hatred for the Shudras, was an affront to our dignity. The slogan was also against the Constitution of India,” he explains. If the board was not removed within a fortnight, he threatened that he and his supporters would tear it down themselves.

Buckling under pressure, the board was removed but that did not settle matters. The local unit of the Sanatan Brahmin Samaj rose up in protest, organising a demonstration and threatening to take revenge on Jugalji. A senior VHP leader even announced a sum of a lakh of rupees on Jugalji’s head.

I ask Jugalji to tell me his views about the Babri Masjid controversy that continues to rankle unsolved. “It was a mosque, no doubt,” he insists. “There was no temple on the spot before. Indeed Ram was not even worshipped in ancient times, the cult of Ram being a relatively new invention. So there’s no question at all of the Mughal king Babar having destroyed a Ram temple and building a mosque in its place.” Jugalji continues, “No one knows if Ram was ever born, or even if he was a historical figure at all. The Puranas claim he was born nine lakh years ago or so but, of course, no recorded history exists from that period.” But that is not all, he says. “As far as the Shudras, who form 80 per cent of India’s population, are concerned, Ram is simply unworthy of worship. He worked to uphold the brahmanical social order and the degradation of the oppressed castes though Brahmins and other so-called ‘upper’ castes, who live off the sweat and blood of the Shudras, might believe him to be divine.”

I am eager to learn what Jugalji believes to be the cure for the curse of communalism. “Ultimately,” he insists, “the only lasting solution is for human beings to identify themselves as just that – simply as humans. As long as we continue to regard ourselves as Hindus or Muslims or whatever, the menace of communalism can never be cured. We have to move towards a stage when identities are no longer premised or bracketed with religion. Our only identities should be that of being human. The final antidote to communalism is humanism.”

Jugalji handles my irksome questions about his own religious faith somewhat indirectly and with tact but I suspect that he is, like me, something of an agnostic. “You should be a good, compassionate person and that is enough as far as I am concerned,” he answers cryptically. “Righteous action, as the Buddha says, is what ultimately matters, not what caste you are born into or what religious beliefs you profess or what name you call the divine, if it does exist, by.” He evokes Buddhist wisdom again: “The Buddha taught his companions not to blindly follow whatever he said. Rather, they should ponder on his words and accept them only if it appealed to their intelligence and conformed to their welfare and that of the majority, the bahujan.”

“All institutionalised forms of religion place their scriptures above human intelligence and block human freedom and that is where the problem lies,” Jugalji goes on. “They soon become cages,” he continues, “especially once they develop a system of priesthood, intermediaries or scholars who claim to have privileged access to the truth. Some might appear to be gilded cages, or made of silver, but cages they remain. But it is the bird that flies in the open sky, using its own intelligence, that alone is truly happy.” n

(Jugal Kishore Shastri can be contacted at [email protected]. This article was posted on the alternative news site Countercurrents.org on June 30, 2010.)

Courtesy: www.countercurrents.org

Archived from Communalism Combat,July-August 2010, Anniversary Issue (17th)  Year 17  No.153, Hindutva