Jai Siya Ram or Jai Shri Ram; India stands on a crossroads

Mohammed Wajihuddin
Mohammed Wajihuddin

Hai Ram Ke Wujood Pe Hindostan Ko Naaz/Ahl-e-Nazar Samajhte Hain Uss Ko Imam-e-Hind

–Allama Iqbal

(India is proud of the existence of Lord Ram/People with vision consider him spiritual leader of India)

I must have been in primary school when a lesson in a textbook first told me the story of Ram. To me Ram was a righteous, just, disciplined king who would do no wrong.

I would see Ram, his shoulder-length hair tied into a ponytail, armed with bow and arrow, accompanied by his wife Sita, on calendars at the grocery shop of Dhrup Mahta whom we children called Dhurup Chacha in our village in Bihar. Every morning Dhrup Chacha would take a small brass plate with puja materials to the miniature Sita-Ram statue at his shop and say brief prayers. We never knew what he asked for as his chants and prayers were barely audible to us except the chants of Sita Ram, Sita Ram.

Another early exposure to Ram was again through Dhrup Chacha who would organise a three-day, non-stop annual kirtan at his house where devotees circled a statue of the deities, chanting Sita Ram, Sita Ram to the accompaniment of dhol and cymbals. A loudspeaker amplified the kirtan-bhajan. However, the loudspeaker was switched off voluntarily as the muezzin at the village mosque called out the azaan even if the devotees continued with their chants of Sita Ram, Sita Ram.

The image of this benevolent, harmless Hindu god in my mind received a massive jolt when in the 1990s some trishul-wielding men joined the movement to “liberate” Ram’s birthplace at Ayodhya. The soothing chant of Sita Ram or Siya Ram was replaced by the aggressive slogan of Jai Shri Ram. From invocation to a benevolent king-deity who is also called maryadapurshottam (highly respected man) with the gentle Sita Ram or Siya Ram, the switch over to the invocation Jai Shri Ram carried a stridency, a sense of supremacy. While Siya Ram prefixes Lord Ram with his devoted wife Sita and humanises the Lord, Jai Shri Ram sounds like a war cry.

In recent times the slogan Jai Shri Ram has also been used by vigilantes masquerading as gaurakshaks or cow protectors to perpetrate barbarism on hapless victims. And don’t go very far to find examples. Just the other day a group of boys stopped meat merchant Mohammed Luqman at Gurgaon, battered him with hammers and rods even as they forced him to chant Jai Shri Ram. Luqman kept pleading with his tormentors that it was buffalo meat. “Kill me if it is proved that it is beef,” he kept pleading. But they would not listen. Mercifully, a seriously injured Luqman is alive and recovering.

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Ram was never a polarizing figure. Even if I follow monotheistic Islam, I watched Ramanand Sagar’s mega serial Ramayana at a neighbour’s house in Patna. I tried to understand the message behind the lines he spoke, the hurdles he crossed, the love and compassion he showed.

There are many facets to him. He is an obedient son, a doting husband, an accomplished army commander and a just king. Mythologically, he didn’t hurt a living soul on his return to Ayodhya with Sita and brother Laxman after spending 14 years in exile. On his return the city of Ayodhya celebrated Diwali.

Ah, Diwali of my childhood! Tiny clay diyas flickering in the evening wind, we mingling with each other playing with kerosene-soaked cotton balls tied to a long steel wire. Igniting the ball, we would wave it in an open ground or freshly ploughed fields. The game played on the evening of Diwali in rustic Maithili was called Hooka Paati. I don’t know if boys in my village still celebrate Diwali with this game.

Much water has flown down the Ganga and the Saryu since the days I witnessed Dhrup Chacha praying to Sita Ram or the group of devotees chanting Sita Ram, Sita Ram at the kirtans or I played Hooka Paati on Diwali evening. Now we have progressed so much that a section even objected to the proposal of clothing Ram Lalla in green because, to their narrow mind, green belongs to Islam. It was a senior member of the trust tasked to build the Ram Temple who asserted: “Which religion all the green trees belong to?”

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Now the highest court in the country has enabled Ram Bhakts to build a magnificent temple to him. PM Narendra Modi, while speaking after the bhoomipujan-stone laying ceremony in Ayodhya on August 5, reiterated Ram’s inclusive image by saying: Sabke Ram, Sab mein Ram (Ram belongs to all, Ram resides within all). India stands on a crossroads. The big question is: Will the Ram bhakts observe restraint and sobriety and practice the principles Ram lived for? Or will they, inebriated with a feeling of triumphalism, trample under feet the Constitutional values, democratic principles and rights of equality of every citizen? Will they adhere to invocation of Siya Ram as PM Modi repeatedly did during his speech at Ayodhya or will they use the more aggressive “Jai Shri Ram” and force others to chant this slogan? Coming years will decide which direction India takes to. World will watch us carefully whether India practices Mahatma Gandhi’s Ram Rajya where Ram and Rahim co-exist and live in harmony and work together for progress and prosperity or it turns into a repressive theocratic state where minorities and weaker sections are peripherilised and forced to face exclusion.

I have no problem if someone worships idols or goes to a Church or Gurudwara or is an atheist. For the Quran says, La ikra ha fiddeen (there is no compulsion in religion) and Lakum deenakum waleyadeen (Your religion is for you, mine is for me).

As construction of a massive Ram Mandir gets underway, I remember Allama Iqbal who in his famous poem Naya Shivala (New Temple) declares on behalf of every patriotic Indian Muslim:

Patthar ki moorton mein samjha hai tu khuda hai/Khake watan ka mujhko har zarra devta hai

(Statues of stone are gods to you/To me every piece of the country’s dust is a deity).

Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog.

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