First as Farce, Then as Tragedy

A few months ago, the BJP-led rightwing government in India decided to broadcast an old cult adaptation of the ancient literary epic Ramayana on national television. When this TV adaptation was first broadcast during 1987-88, it played a momentous role in catalyzing the emergence of the Hindu rightwing, represented by its political outfit, the relatively newly formed BJP. The TV adaptation was watched by around 80-100 million people across the country. In the Hindi-speaking belt of North India, the TV adaptation’s kitschy valorization of the Hindu kingdom of Rama, the divine protagonist of Ramayana, gained unprecedented popularity, to the extent that the very act of watching the show became a religious ritual, and the TV sets were transformed into shrines for collective worship of Rama. Building on the TV adaptation’s unexpected popularity, L.K. Advani, the leading rightwing ideologue, undertook a nationwide rath yatra (lit. a chariot procession) in 1990, intending to mobilize the country’s Hindu population around the demand to build a temple in Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama and the capital of his Hindu kingdom.

This yatra would have been a routine case of religious populism, except that it derived its political vitality from a widely prevalent, but historically unproved, rightwing hypothesis, namely, that Rama’s birthplace was situated exactly where a mosque—the Babri Masjid, built in 1528—presently stood, and that in order to build this mosque, the Mughal Emperor Babar destroyed the Hindu temple that originally existed on this location. In the political imaginary of the Hindu rightwing, the demand to build a Hindu temple in the place of Babri Masjid became the first step towards recovering the primordial Hindu nation, which, per the popular rightwing counterfactuals, had been defiled both by the Muslim conquests and the British colonization. Crisscrossing through vast swathes of the country, Advani’s yatra performatively traced the origins of this primordial Hindu nation to Ayodhya, while leaving in its wake a violent trail of propaganda leaflets, hate speeches, and a saffron swell of Hindu rightwingers armed with multiple primitive weapons, including tridents and swords.

During the yatra, Advani often appeared on his chariot dressed as Rama, leading a large procession of followers, many of whom were dressed in the same garish costumes and armed with the same bows and arrows as used in the TV adaptation. This propagandist appropriation of the TV show’s kitschy visuals had an electrifying effect. All of a sudden Rama had been released from the confines of the TV screen. He was now crisscrossing through the country on his chariot, marshaling an army of his devotees towards Ayodhya, urging them to re-establish his forgotten Hindu kingdom by annihilating the “Muslim outsiders.” Advani’s propagandist appropriation was complete, except for the chariot. Advani’s chariot was not really one. It was actually an airconditioned Toyota, repurposed to look like a chariot. This caricature of the divine Rama dwelling in an airconditioned Toyota forms the defining allegory for the emergence of the Hindu rightwing in postcolonial India. Despite its avowedly pre-modern rhetoric, the political imaginary of a primordial Hindu utopia was decidedly wrought in the crisis-riven crucible of postcolonial capitalism. Rama might have been born in Ayodhya, but he did not dwell in a Hindu temple. Instead, he dwelled in an airconditioned Toyota, the likes of which were soon going to take over the Indian economy, as part of an immense political-economic catastrophe still unfolding at the time.

By 1990, the year in which Advani embarked on his nationwide yatra, the postcolonial Indian state was already on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. In 1991, it ended up mortgaging its entire gold reserves in exchange for monetary aid from the IMF and the World Bank. And as part of a collateral exchange, the ruling government was forced to unleash a series of “neoliberal reforms,” which included a deregulation of domestic markets and a massive increase in foreign and private investment. This new regime of capitalism, shaped at once by the demise of the Fordist capitalism in the West and the long-run failures of Nehru’s state-sponsored socialism at home, ended up thrusting the Indian working classes into even more abject forms of poverty and political violence. By now, it was clear that the promise of a postcolonial utopia, long heralded by Nehruvian politics, had failed disastrously. Meanwhile, this failure had simultaneously birthed its own monstrous negation, namely, the dystopian specter of Hindu nationalism. In 1992, a mob of Hindu right-wingers completely demolished the Babri Masjid, sparking a series of riotous pogroms against Muslim populations across the country. This lock-and-step synchrony between the long-run failure of Nehruvian politics, the eruption of the economic crisis in 1990-91, and the rise of the Hindu rightwing is so striking that we might as well repurpose Stuart Hall’s famous dictum on race and capital, and offer the following proposition: Hindu nationalism is the modality in which the crisis of postcolonial capitalism is lived.

Three decades on, and the dystopian specter of Hindu nationalism has already materialized into full-blown fascism. And once again, the literary epic Ramayana and its TV adaptation are at the center of this political transformation. Once relegated to the fringes of electoral power, the Hindu rightwing now forms the country’s ruling government, having recently won the general elections for the second time in a row. This electoral victory was swiftly followed by three momentous juridical and legislative decisions. First, the ruling government revoked the Article 370, which had hitherto granted “relative autonomy” to the disputed region of Kashmir, and thus consummated the transformation of the Indian postcolony into a settler colonial state. Second, the Supreme Court decided to allocate the disputed land in Ayodhya for the construction of a Hindu temple dedicated to Rama. Third, the ruling government passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which openly discriminates against Muslims, and intensified the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), designed to identify “genuine” Indian citizens and purge the “illegal migrants” from the country. These changes, especially the third, sparked a series of massive protests across India. The rightwing government responded with an extraordinary show of force. Several national and state university campuses were repeatedly attacked by armed police and rightwing mobs; a week-long riotous pogrom took place against Muslim communities in the national capital; and numerous Muslim, Dalit, and leftist intellectuals, poets, and activists were arrested for dissenting against the ruling government. This unstinting flurry of brutal violence was finally capped off by the BJP’s decision to nationally broadcast the TV adaptation of Ramayana.  If, in 1987-88, the TV Ramayana served to catalyze the Hindu rightwing’s remarkable political ascent, then now, it has served to consummate its lasting political victory. This repetition of the TV Ramayana punctuates a complete cycle in the transformation of India’s recent postcolonial history.

In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Karl Marx asserts that history repeats itself twice, first as tragedy then as farce. Marx made this claim in the context of modern France, where the tragic political failures of the past were being unexpectedly caricatured by the emergence of new historical realities: the revolution of 1793 by the revolution of 1848; Robespierre by Louis Blanc; the coup of 1799 by the coup of 1851; Napoleon the uncle by Napoleon the nephew; and so on. Tragedy and farce: these, for Marx, were the twin genres of historical movement. Tragedy, then farce: this, for Marx, was the structure of historical movement. However, over time, history has come to subject Marx’s own assertions to the imperatives of historical repetition, especially in the peripheries, where colonial/postcolonial histories have repeated what Marx wrote in and of Europe, but with a difference. For instance, in the case of the historical repetition punctuated by the TV Ramayana, the very structure of historical movement gets inverted, so that history now repeats itself twice, but first as farce, then as tragedy. In 1987-88, the broadcast of the TV adaptation indexed a moment of historical farce. This was not because the TV adaptation caricatured any specific conjuncture in the history of modern India, but rather because it caricatured the very structure of history as such, while simultaneously endowing this caricature with the immutable authority of a sacred scripture, as amply evidenced by its kitschy misrepresentations of a Hindu utopia and Advani’s propagandist embrace of this kitsch during his rath yatra. Later, in 2020, this same TV adaptation came to index a moment of great historical tragedy, for, by now, its farcical dreamworld of kitschy costumes and fake weapons had swiftly devolved into a fascist nightmare, rife with riotous pogroms against Muslims, abject everyday violence against Dalits, and the total decimation of working class struggles across the country.

It must be noted that this historical inversion—first as farce, then as tragedy—is not simply a one-time historical transformation. Rather, this inversion also constitutes the basic structural logic of the workings of the Hindu rightwing. But more on this later. What concerns me here is how the unique formal character of the Indian epics, especially the Ramayana, mediates both this historical inversion and our political experience of it. That a poem should be able to inflect the movements of capitalist history might seem to be a far-fetched claim to some readers, especially in the West. But the epic’s prodigious sway over the popular Hindu culture and its unique relationship to history has made this possible. In the West, one encounters the epic as a literary genre that has long receded into the “absolute past” (Bakhtin), where the “extensive totality of life is directly given” (Lukács). But the Indian epics never subscribed to any such ideals of absolute moral fullness. Instead, they represented the ancient Indian society as a world rife with brute suffering, where sociopolitical conflicts repeatedly disintegrated into catastrophic violence but rarely reach a proper resolution. As Sheldon Pollock puts it— “Because of this always unperfected character of the epic in South Asia, the epic past was never viewed as absolutely passed, as irreversibly complete; it was never felt . . . to be situated at some immeasurable distance from the present.” As a result, over the past two millennia, the Indian epics have come to constitute a forever living, forever changing poetic tradition which has been perennially rethought and reinvented not just by poets, but also by philosophers, political leaders, folk artists, religious organizations, and even the common people in their everyday lives. Needless to say, these discursive reinventions have always been the subject of numerous political, religious, and cultural conflicts.

On the one hand, then, epics such as Ramayana were composed in ancient India, between the 7th century BCE and 3rd century CE. And yet, on the other hand, they have never receded into this ancient past. Instead, despite being immemorably old, they have remained remarkably contemporary. While assessing the Indian epic’s unique relationship to history, Pollock discerningly claims the ancient Indian epics can “serve transhistorically as a medium for processing every historical present.” Reformulating Pollock’s assertion, one could suggest that it is as if Bloch’s notion of the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” is structurally built into the very form of the Indian epic. The image of Rama dwelling in an airconditioned Toyota can serve as the defining allegory for the entire Indian epic tradition. It was precisely the epic’s unique transhistorical experience of history—“the epic present,” if I may—that served to process the unprecedented crisis in the history of postcolonial capitalism first as farce, then as tragedy. Meanwhile, the political ramifications of this “epic presentism” have offered an extraordinary challenge to conceptualizations of secular modernity in India. In recent years, several secular historians have repeatedly tried to demystify the burgeoning sway of rightwing counterfactuals and caricatures over large swathes of the country’s Hindu population, but to little or no avail. In turn, the abiding failure of this secular liberal fixation on a politics of disenchantment and its appeals to the ideals of democratic reason, has come to signal a singular impasse in the ongoing political struggles against the rapidly worsening onslaught of Hindu fascism.

I lived through the swift transformation of farce into tragedy in a colony of Hindu cement factory workers in a small factory town on the rural foothills of the Himalayas. I grew up singing and performing the different literary adaptations of Ramayana with my father and his fellow workers. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I witnessed the rising tensions between the ironclad rhythms of the working day and the promise of an otherworldly rupture with these empty homogenous rhythms, as heralded by the supposedly utopian figure of Rama. During the religious and cultural performances, I experienced how the formal qualities of the epic served to mediate the contradictions of the working-class politics. This mediation took a range of different sacred and secular forms. There were times when these forms, unexpectedly enough, illuminated the political entanglements between class, caste, and gender in the workers’ everyday lives. And on rare occasions, these forms even became the means to express dissent against the relentless exploitation of the workers. Mostly, however, these forms only served to further mystify their everyday experience of this exploitation and its especially fraught relationship to caste. In the end, the epic form played a key role in the collective conscription of these workers—who were otherwise living on the rural margins of the great political transformation going on at the time—into an emergent “imagined community” of the Hindu rightwing.

In a series of speculative essay-fragments, to be published over the next few months, this blog will interweave the multiple threads of this autoethnographic narrative with different historical sequences— the end of the Cold War and the enduring failure of decolonization in India; Hegel’s Orientalist critique of the Indian epic and the Hegelian tradition of literary criticism in the West; the political ascent of Hindu fascism and the forgotten history of the religious left in India; the fraught relationship between class and caste and the history of Dalit radicalism; the Nehruvian model of socialism and the trajectory of deindustrialization in India; the experiments of contemporary poets writing in the Indian epic tradition and the common humanity of everyday life in a postcolony teeming with strikes one day and pogroms the next. My hope is that these stray speculations will progressively cohere into a provisional constellation, one whose precipitous twinkling will irradiate, if only for a passing moment, the long and dark night of Hindu fascism.