Re-reading Mathura

The Mathura episode is being seen in isolation.

In my childhood, one of the most cherished films was by top Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. His Rashomon was something we all saw — it was a mark of our literacy and our cosmopolitanism. It dealt with an incident told through three different eyes, three different perspectives. As each of the narrators took over, one saw a different world and one realised how storytelling varies with the eye of the storyteller. One also understood it was not as if one narrative was false and the other true, all had equal claims to veracity. It was a childhood recognition of the complexity of storytelling: “Rashomon” became a code word for a deeper, more variegated understanding of the world. Rashomon is now almost a forgotten classic, yet its relevance is clear every day. There are stories that need a compulsive retelling from another perspective.

A major event this past week was the violence in Mathura that killed at least 24 people, with the newspapers saying it was a clash between the police and a group calling itself Swadheen Bharat Subhash Sena, Reports said the police was trying to evict them from public land, and that two police officers lost their lives in the violence. What was a simple narrative at the headline level, however, opens up a Pandora’s box of possibilities.
The media had two basic approaches. One, a secular perspective, dominant among most journalists, seeing it as a series of seedy events, efforts by a group of people to grab public land. Ram Vriksh Yadav is remembered as a key disciple of Baba Jai Guru Dev, a revered person with a huge amount of ashram property. A struggle for succession turns into a struggle for property, and the political economy of real estate leads to the “land grab”. Violence follows, and as the police tries to evict Ram Vriksh Yadav, he and his followers die. The narrative is simple, the details fascinating. What is emphasised is how a 280-acre plot belonging to the state horticultural department is usurped as a personal jagir. The usual insinuations follow: deep connections to those in power. Between the political economy of land and a strict secular interpretation of religious or pseudo-religious movements, the narrative treats events as acts of violence and corruption. In this, the Mathura violence is a simple law and order problem.

But there is a second view, presented mostly by police officers and security analysts. The emphasis here is on intelligence and internal security, and the threat religious movements using national icons and religious symbols pose to law and order and security. Police officers note how Uttar Pradesh is a volatile state, and ask why local intelligence officials were unaware of the extent of arms and ammunition, including hand grenades, that the movement had. UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has said the police went unprepared for violence. The police and security officials also see this as an intelligence failure but add that it lends a touch of irony to Mr Yadav’s efforts to modernise the state’s police. They see it more as a failure of governance, claiming mere technology and publicity cannot substitute for the failure in intelligence-gathering. They also warn of the dangers of communal conflagrations, and hint political links with such groups might have a dangerous fallout.

In reviewing both these perspectives, one is reminded of the Rashomon effect. Is a third narrative possible, which blends this data in a different way? One is tempted to ask if after the secular journalist and the intelligence analyst, a marginal anthropologist can offer an alternative scenario?

Anthropology, while open to the materiality of economics, also deals with symbols, with ideas as constructs. It takes people seriously. Political economy is important, but the symbolic world possesses its own grammar and power. It also defines and determines behaviour in the real world. Let us now re-read the narratives in this context.

The journalists cite fascinating details. They remind us Ram Vriksh Yadav was a follower of Baba Gurudev, who visualised himself as Subhash Chandra Bose. The spectre of Subhash haunts the movement, yet in a bid to sanitise Bose, the journalists forget he still has political uses, and not just in West Bengal. Bose represents that eternal non-Gandhian, non-Nehruvian alternative for India. Ram Vriksh Yadav, like Jai Gurudev, uses Bose as a symbol. Many of his demands seem silly, yet they are wishlists, dreams of marginal groups who find it hard to relate to mainstream middle-class politics. One can’t just dismiss these demands. There is a context and logic: such dreams as political movements are what anthropologists call millennial movements. They mark early Christianity and tribal movements battling colonialism and modernity. They often sound like underground irrational eruptions from the shadowy side of religion. The works of Francis Yates and Peter Worsley have captured them beautifully.

It’s time we took such millennial groups more seriously in India. I remember a defence expert telling me the Chinese Communist Party is more threatened by movements like Falun Gong than its political opponents. The Mathura episode is being seen in isolation. But just map the area. A year ago we had reports of trouble from an ashram in Hisar, where an imagination engineer, Rampal, had set up a movement. The ashram was so powerfully equipped that it took armed police several days to occupy it. Rampal was portrayed as a great bhakt of Hanuman and Kabir. Close to the ashram is Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan’s Dera Sacha Sauda. Think of Asaram Bapu in Jodhpur and Baba Ram Dev in Hardwar. In each, we have powerful political movements, all within a 300-mile radius of New Delhi. Each speaks a millennial lingo, not using standard symbols. Each is lower-middle class, each is a sub-state to the RSS’ broad votebank. While the RSS is committed to the state, these movements can cut away.

They speak the language of community tied by archaic symbols seeking greater access to opportunity. They seek utopia, and their symbolic world creates a different style of politics. The news, seen in isolation, reveals some patterns. The presence of so many groups should raise curiosity about the Indian’s symbolic world, and how symbols are being used more in marginal politics. Are we narrowing the imagination? Perhaps the media needs to hire a few anthropologists.

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