As the grand bhoomi pujan for Ram Mandir in Ayodhya gets underway, the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of Ram Rajya and Hindu Rashtra is laid bare for the whole world to see. But the concept of Ram Rajya itself is not without contestation. From M.K. Gandhi to B.R. Ambedkar to Modi, Ram Rajya offers a varied understanding of Indian civilisation — and the modern political prism we bring to it in our quest for Indian utopia.
The supreme leader of India’s freedom movement, M.K. Gandhi had a cherished goal of bringing a Ram Rajya in India. His idea of Rama Rajya was quite utopian even as he kept changing the definition. In 1929, Gandhi wrote, “The ancient ideal of the Ramayana is undoubtedly one of true democracy in which the meanest citizen could be sure of swift justice without an elaborate and costly procedure… a true Ram Rajya would ensure equal rights to both prince and pauper.”
Later on, he said that his idea of Rama Rajya is different from Hindu Rashtra. He visited Ayodhya twice, where he said in one of his speeches: “Praying to god for our own protection is a sin as long as we do not protect the weak… We need to learn to love the way Ram loved Sita.”
We cannot know for sure how Gandhi would have reacted to the spectacle that the BJP has created for the bhoomi pujan in Ayodhya and the politics behind it leading up to this moment. But because Gandhi was not a votary of separation of religion from State, he would have definitely welcomed the event and possibly asked everyone to do it too. He would have been happy at Muslims’ participation in the ceremony and likened it as a true symbol of Ram Rajya. In that sense, Gandhi was the confluence of liberal and hardcore Hindutva.
At the other end of the ideological spectrum was a person who held a critical gaze to Gandhi’s idea of Ram Rajya as well as to Ram himself — B.R. Ambedkar. There are documented works of Ambedkar that tell us how he was not at all impressed by the idea and ideals of Ram Rajya. His critique of Ram’s three defining actions offer great insight into the Ram Rajya that the RSS-BJP — and its larger support base of Hindu society — use as a pivot to push for their idea of a Hindu Rashtra.
Ram Rajya was based on Chaturvarnya
An important reading of Ram’s character by Ambedkar was that the King of Ayodhya was a protector of varna (caste) system. In his seminal work Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar argues that not only it is “impossible to accurately classify people into four definite classes” but that the “system of Chaturvarnya must perpetually face the problem of the transgressor”. “Unless there is a penalty attached to the act of transgression, men will not keep to their respective classes. The whole system will break down…”
In Ramayana, according to Ambedkar, Ram ensured that transgression did not happen in his kingdom and cites the example of the killing of Shambuka, a Shudra. The ascetic was blamed for doing tapasya (austerity) — which, according to the Varna system, was a crime for Shudra — and causing the death of a Brahmin boy. According to the Dharma, the duty of the Shudras consisted only in the service of the twice-born.
Ambedkar wrote, “Some people seem to blame Rama because he… without reason killed Shambuka. But to blame Rama for killing Shambuka is to misunderstand the whole situation. Ram Raj was… based on Chaturvarnya. As a king, Rama was bound to maintain Chaturvarnya. It was his duty therefore to kill Shambuka, the Shudra, who had transgressed his class and wanted to be a Brahmin. This is the reason why Rama killed Shambuka. But this also shows that penal sanction is necessary for the maintenance of Chaturvarnya. Not only penal sanction is necessary, but penalty of death is necessary. That is why Rama did not inflict on Shambuka a lesser punishment.”
Justice is elusive in Ram Rajya
Ambedkar was appalled by the manner in which Ram killed Vali. In his book Riddles in Hinduism, Ambedkar lamented, “This murder of Vali is the greatest blot on the character of Rama. It was a crime which was thoroughly unprovoked, for Vali had no quarrel with Rama. It was a most cowardly act, for Vali was unarmed. It was a planned and premeditated murder.”
Like a good lawyer, Ambedkar argued against Sugriva, calling his act of proclaiming himself king “a clear case of usurpation”. “Sugriva should have ascertained, should not merely have assumed that Vali was dead. Secondly, Vali had a son by name Angad whom Sugriva should have made the king as the legitimate heir of Vali.”
And yet, in Ram Rajya, it was Sugriva who wins Ram’s support while Vali is killed in a deceptive manner.
Ram Rajya, too, was a patriarchal state
Ambedkar is most critical of the manner in which Ram treated his wife Sita. He narrates this aspect of Ram’s life in great detail in Riddles in Hinduism. He cites from Valmiki’s Ramayana about Ram’s utterances to Sita when the latter comes to see her after his victory over Ravana: “I have got you as a prize in a war after conquering my enemy, your captor I have recovered my honour and punished my enemy… I did not take this trouble for your sake….I suspect your conduct. You must have been spoiled by Ravana… I allow you to go anywhere you like. I have nothing to do with you.”
Ambedkar laments that it would be difficult to believe any man with ordinary human kindness could address his wife in such dire distress as Rama did to Sita.
In the Ram Rajya, Sita is twice asked to prove her purity and chastity, and is abandoned, based on gossip, “in a somewhat advanced state of pregnancy in a jungle, without friends, without provision, without even notice – in a most treacherous manner”.
“The life of Sita simply did not count. What counted was his own personal name and fame. He of course does not take the manly course of stopping this gossip, which as a king he could do and which as a husband who was convinced of his wife’s innocence he was supposed to do. He yielded to the public gossip and there are not wanting Hindus who use this as ground to prove that Rama was a democratic king when others could equally well say that he was a weak and cowardly monarch,” Ambedkar wrote.
In the final act, according to Ambedkar, “Sita preferred to die rather than return to Rama who had behaved no better than a brute. Such is the tragedy of Sita and the crime of Rama the God.”
RSS-BJP’s Ram Rajya
In post-Independence India, the political promise of bringing a Ram Rajya has traversed various parties and organisations, from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to the Congress. In the late 1980s, the concept had become then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s primary vision, before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ended up completely owning it — and taking it to new levels under Prime Minister Modi in post-2014 India.
Today, as a befuddled Congress dabbles in part-secularism, part-Hindutva, the RSS-BJP has come a long way in its unfettered aim to bring about its ‘Hindu Rashtra’. The ‘Ram Rajya’ of Modi’s India, with a grand Ram Mandir in Ayodhya to complement it, will pass the Gandhi test, but it will also most certainly fail the Ambedkar test.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.