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Historical processes are inevitably judged in the light of the events and institutions they produce. The lack of political gain for militant Hindu nationalism is often taken as proof of a gap between the Hindu nationalist discourse and broader popular practices and cultural idioms. However, the contingent articulations of the competing nationalist discourses in an intensely contested arena of emerging mass politics were strategies employed by their proponents for mobilization and organization so their political fortunes were by no means prefigured (Hansen 1999). Organized and militant Hindu nationalism which appeared in the 1920s with the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS[1] have involved sustained efforts to construct and consolidate a Hindu community with a ‘great tradition’.  With their domesticated conceptual grammar of cultural nationalism they were able to dislocate older hierarchies and social orders which enabled new classes, new institutions, and new public arenas to emerge. In efforts to construct the ‘Hindu nation’ and mobilize masses various myths were popularized through media and public display. This aspect will be broadly discussed in this paper.

While movements organized around charismatic leaders often constructs a narrative around the life and ordeal of the leader, more ideological movements often organize such events around symbolically significant events. Tales of conflict and heroism under adverse circumstances like accounts of selfless heroism emerging from the history of successive bans on the RSS by the Indian state, make it possible to restage and re-narrate its founding myth and tale of representation of the inconspicuous ‘Hindu society’ against a hostile or arrogant state (Hansen 1999). A founding myth provides a movement with a concentration of its basic objectives, ethical standards, and the major grievances that gave birth to the movement. RSS’s larger ideological endeavour to represent itself as the sole and true inheritor of Indian nationalism and the only legitimate guardian of Hindu society has manifested itself time and again (Hansen 1999). The site of the Babri Masjid had been legally claimed by both Hindu and Muslim organizations since the nineteenth century and had been sealed off for decades by the colonial authorities. The dispute was about a small platform situated inside the mosque which was allegedly constructed on the site of Ram’s birth and worshipped by Hindus. In 1949, militant Hindus installed sacred Ramlila idols inside the mosque. Shortly afterward the masjid was again sealed off for worship and a title suit was filed by local Muslims demanding the removal of the idols and reopening of the masjid for worship.  Widespread protests and agitations took place within the country and religious (and often patriotic) sentiments of the non-residential Indians were invoked by the parties to gain their support. The character of Ram who was portrayed as the defender of the weak and the epitome of masculinity was preached to be under threat due to ‘foreign’ encroachment. Thus, a distorted symbol of Ram became equivalent to Hindu spirit and became the signifier of the unified Hindu community.

Faced by the challenged of chaos and plebian assertiveness after the democratic revolution in the 1980s, the majoritarian and populist interpretation of state and society promoted by the Hindu nationalists began to appear as a more effective guarantee of stability and continued privilege among the dominant strata of Indian society.  The RSS now began to devote most of its energy toward relaunching the project of Hindu nationalism, Hindu sangathan, and the organization of Hindu society (Hansen 1999). To realize this goal the Ayodhya dispute provided the most fertile ground as it catered to the cultural and religious ‘encroachment’ claims made by the RSS. In order to ensure popular support themes such as the larger economic danger from immigrants, cultural contamination, and religious encroachment were used in the Sangh Parivar’s[2] programme supporting the cause of a Ram Mandir. Their belief in the ‘great tradition’ of Hinduism itself implied their belief in the homogeneity of all Hindus. Hence to bring the various sects into one single fold, the mythical construction of Ram was placed at the center of the dispute.

In the 1980s the ingenuity and scale of the employment of the idiom of Hindu communalism was differentiated and disseminated through an array of technologies of mass mobilization. The communal rhetoric was built up in a continuous stream of press releases, resolutions, and statements from the BJP[3] which mass produced slogans and concepts about the ‘weakness and effeminization’ of the Congress in the face of determined Muslims like “pseudo secularism”, “pampering of minorities”, “appeasement of Muslims”, “foreign infiltration”, etc. (Hansen 1999). The Congress-led administration also attempted to openly buy into the momentum of Hindu communalism by allowing the VHP to undertake the Ram Shila Puja and declaring the plot adjacent to the Babri Masjid as “undisputed land” but six days later the government tried to accommodate Muslim protests by ordering the VHP[4] to stop construction work (Hansen 1999). The Ram Shila Puja enabled the Sangh Parivar to disseminate its discourse of Ram as a national hero and Ayodhya as the symbolic center of the Hindu nation to a very large rural audience.  In September 1990, Advani launched the Rath yatra from the rebuilt Somnath temple in Gujrat to Ayodhya passing through western and northern India. The ‘rath’ was a modern Toyota van decorated like the chariot used by the warrior Arjuna in the popular televised serial Mahabharata and contained the RRS symbol of the bhagwa dwaj and a saffron flag as well as the BJP’s lotus symbol. The extensive use of mythico-historical symbols and narratives in politics and public culture is often as an index of the existence of the subjectivities and memories that they seek to shape. Moreover, the employment of symbols and imagery that comments upon political events or recommends particular values of a community as the basis of political decisions or the use of religious symbols in a political rally suggests that a thin line separating secular and communal politics may be crossed (Hansen 1999). Sustained imposition of authorized symbolic alignment of language and images assures the reproduction of the myth. The rath thus became an incomplete image which was fertile for signification and incorporation into the theatrics of the myth. On the van, loudspeakers played music from the televised Ramayana and Mahabharata serials and militant slogans for the building of a Ram mandir and for the cause of Hindutva were repeated. Popular response, prodded by the local Sangh Parivar activists, was a mixture of traditional pious worship, political militancy, and muscular Kshatriya traditions symbolized by bows, arrows, swords, and trishuls. Wide media coverage of this event ensured further dissemination of ‘Hindu patriotism’ (Hansen 1999). Thus, myths were deployed to produce a chain of narratives within the ideological parameters of Hindutva.

An abstract concept that is embodied in language may have multiple contingencies. Thus language offers to myth an open-ended meaning. However, with the construction of a visual myth, the elements become close-ended and earn a spatial proximity. The signifier (in this case the symbol of Ram) which is empty and arbitrary offers no resistance to its distortion and ends up as an alienated existence which remains deprived of memory (Mythologies 1972). The televization of the epics itself created a transformation from the image of a just ruler in a benevolent frame to a visual representation of a vengeful figure unleashing weapons. This transformation from verbal narratives to the production of a visual rhetoric ensured the mysterious interplay of the myth of the human and the human God which provided the religious, cultural, and political idioms for the wider dissemination of ‘Hindu patriotism’ (Chakravarty 2008). The appropriation of the fundamental character of the mythical character as it passes from meaning to form led to its transformation from an open, abstract, and purified essence to that of a confused, yielding, and shapeless association (Mythologies 1972). Therefore the arena of political, cultural, and religious arenas coincided to make the mythical figure of Ram as a political icon over and above a religious one. In the court case itself, one of the parties in the dispute was the ‘Ram lalla’ i.e. the child Ram who was being represented by the Hindu Mahasabha (Dr. M. Ismail Faruqui, et. al vs Union of India 1994). Thus, the figure of a helpless child God being attacked on by the ‘encroachers’, who has to be protected by the ‘patriotic’ Hindus is invoked.

The Ram shila puja was performed not only on Indian territory but also in the USA where 31 cities sanctified bricks through rituals and sending them to Ayodhya for the proposed temple. The recreation of the context of grand myths to reproduce the myth itself was undertaken by reproducing the past and popular myths within a foreign cultural setting (Chakravarty 2008). Thus the programme of the HSS[5] in the USA was similar to that of the Sangh Parivar narrative in India where moral lessons emphasized the heroism of Hindu rulers and the nature of Hindu dharma as well as glorified the great Hindu past. The charisma and personalities of Prithviraj Chauhan, Rani Laxmi Bai, Tanaji, etc. were evoked to valorize Hindu culture at the cost of intolerance for other religions as these characters contained qualities that were considered ‘Hinduistic’ by the HSS (Chakravarty 2008). Tracing the roots of some of these qualities generally led to the mythical figureheads of Ram and Krishna who become the infrastructural tool necessary to ‘liberate’ the Hindus.

The cycle of producing and reproducing myths and disseminating them through mass medium serves not only as a process of mass mobilization but also as a tool for exercising hegemony over the masses. These myths not only draw from the cultural repertoire but also add to them (Storey 2009). Such myths must be read on two levels: first on the immediate recognition and reaction level which taps the audience’s stories and emotions and second on the broader stage where these myths emerge from a huge congregation of images and connections which connect and popularize them. The disparity among the various sects of Hinduism have to be eliminated by invoking certain relatable causes in order to provide the mass support needed to further Hindu fundamentalist cause. The mythical figure of Ram and the epics thus become the symbol whose tailored forms are disseminated through rallies, television, and other media platforms.  This figure was thus constructed in a manner favourable to the Hindu ‘nationalist’ wing of the dispute.


Chakravarty, Subhasree. Learning Authenticity: Pedagogies of Hindu Nationalism in North America. Colorado: Utah State University Press, 2008.

Dr. M. Ismail Faruqui, et. al vs Union of India. (Allahabad High court, October 24, 1994).

Hansen, Thomas Blom. The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Mythologies. Roland Barthes. New York : Noonday Press, 1972.

Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. London: Pearson Longman, 2009.

Image Credit: http://avante.biz


[1] Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

[2] The Sangh Parivar consists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

[3] Bharatiya Janata Party.

[4] Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

[5] Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh proposes to transmit messages to awaken Hindus across the world to a realization of their current social and cultural predicament. Its mission statement proclaims Hindu jage vishwa jage i.e. in the awakening of the Hindus, the world will awaken.

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Written By Suvasree Dutta

M.A. in Political Science (Pursuing)

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