The War of Words: A Reading of Bibhuti Narayan Rays Ranbhumi mem bhasa

Term Paper, 2004

10 Pages

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1. Introduction

One’s interest is aroused when someone of Bibhuti Narayan Ray’s (Bibh¦ti N¢r¢ya½ R¢y) liter- ary fame (as he is introduced in the part appended before the text) and, probably more impor- tantly, his social location (he is a member of the Indian Police Service) takes up his pen to write about the modus operandi of Hindu communalism[1] which has posed, according to many, the big- gest threat to Indian democracy since its official birth in 1947.

From the very short introduction that comes before the original text written by Ray, we come to know that his novels Ghar (“The Home”), ¹ahar me¾ karphu (“Curfew in the City”) and Ta- b¢dŸl¢ (“The Transfer”) have caused much stir and also projected him as a staunch adherent of anti-communalism. In these books, he has also severely criticised the role of the police in commu- nal violence, which is, it must be acknowledged, not that fashionable among the top officials in the Indian Police Service (IPS). Ashoke Singhal (A¡ok Si¾hal), a top-ranking leader of the Bhara- tiya Janata Party (Bh¢rŸt¤ya JanŸt¢ P¢r¿¤) (BJP) had in fact demanded that the novel ¹ahar me¾ karphu be banned.

At the time of the publication of this article (RAY 2001), Ray was serving as a senior official of the IPS posted in Lakhnau, the capital of Uttar Pradesh (UP). In the following, I will first out- line Ray’s argumentation and then try to analyse some of its vital points in a somewhat larger theoretical framework.

2. A Short Synopsis of Ray’s Argumentation

In the essay under consideration , written in a somewhat academic and theoretical vein, Ray en- deavours to understand the working methods of the organisation Vishva Hindu Parishad (Vi¡va Hindu Pari¼ad) (VHP) and its political offspring BJP,[2] by analysing manoeuvres in the discur- sive employment of words, and subsequent changes in their programme of direct activities. In this, his specific focus is the central issue around which the massive discursive and practical mobilisation of Hindu groups took place and revolved all through the last decade of the previous century, namely the demolition of the Babri Masjid (B¢bŸr¤ MasŸjid) in Ayodhya (Ayodhy¢) by a mob of k¢rŸsevak activists and others.

To cut a long story very short, it was reportedly one Mahant Raghubar Das who filed a peti- tion in 1885 for building a temple next to the mosque but was denied permission. The next re- corded incident happened in 1949 (from where Ray picks up the thread) when idols of Lord R¢ma “miraculously” appeared inside the mosque. The miracle theory was successfully contested by the local police authorities as their investigation showed that it had been human individuals of flesh and blood who had installed the idols. But after that incident the Indian Government pro- claimed the premises a “disputed area” and locked the gate. The VHP and its political wing BJP pursued the issue, but owing to their almost nonexistent political leverage could only in 1984 do something “big” and launch a massive campaign to “liberate” the “birth-place” of R¢ma. Political- ly they gained immensely from this, as the BJP rose almost from nowhere to become the stron- gest single party in the very next decade. In 1991, they formed a government in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and in the next year, in one of the most stunning events of recent history, the Babri Mas- jid was demolished, prompting countrywide violence in which according to the international me- dia more than 2000 people died.

In his essay Ray tries to show that the choice of words, or more specifically the “act of nam- ing”, has always played a major role in the agenda of the VHP, and thus in order to understand their working procedure (which, according to Ray, is imperative if one hopes to combat these forces, which he labels communal), one must try to follow the logic working behind this play of words. He actually calls it both “game” (khilŸv¢‰) and “war” (he defines the space of contes- tation as ra½Ÿbh¦mi, “battlefield”). Then he comes to the central points of his essay:

The choice of words or the act of naming on the part of the VHP concerning their projects connected to Ayodhya, he argues, is not random but has always been well thought out and con- sciously follows a certain logic. That logic and the working interest behind this “play” of words is actually twofold. One is to inject new blood into the movement, to keep it going[3] by giving it a new name.

Secondly, it intends to create a separate space beyond the reach of the state or any law- enforcing machinery by appropriating certain traditional signs much revered by the common folk and thus creating a “short-circuit” between things like “tradition”, “Indianness” and the organisa- tions themselves. He explains how these have appropriated culturally loaded signs like R¢ma, changed some. like the common salutation jay Siy¢r¢m into jay ¹r¤r¢m (giving it a markedly mis- ogynist twist), and even invented new ones like the ritual of ¡il¢d¢n which, according to Ray, is hard to find in any book of Dharma (RAY 2001: 171).

To support his argument, Ray gives several instances in a very simple ‘matter of fact’ style, citing real happenings wherever needed. This formal structure of argument can be divided rough- ly into three different stages:

First, he tries to give a general introduction of sorts, tracking the issue from 1949 down to the present day and giving an overview of this “game of words”. In this first and longest stage of his argumentation, Ray attempts to chalk out the general rules of the “game”, how and why it has been and is being played, by giving several examples, and thus outlines the main focus of his essay.

In the second stage he recounts the incident of Ayodhya in short, putting his understandings into practice by trying to interpret them with the tool just explained. Noticeably, in his criticism, he does not spare the Indian Government (then a coalition headed by the Congress with P.V. Na- rasimha Rao as Prime Minister) and the police authorities (RAY 2001: 172-173) .

The third stage concerns his own experiments in confronting the VHP both in discursive and practical fields, drawing from his interpretation and understanding of the “enemy” (du¡Ÿman), as he calls them, which he has already discussed in the two former stages. This practical exper- iment took place in the year 2003, when the VHP decided to go ahead with a new programme which they named sa¾kalp divas (“Day of Resolution/Determination”). Ray took his place in the discursive battlefield by designating the self-professed r¢mŸbhakt s (“devotees of R¢ma) first as “VHP workers” and then simply as “enemies” (RAY 2001: 173-174). The night before that sa¾- kalp divas, Ray, with other officials, briefed the police force, a gist of which he appends here together with the reactions of his audience, which was not actually overwhelmingly in his favour but at least enough to convince Ray that he had hit the nail on its head. According to him, all he wanted to do was to make the “enemy” and his “weaknesses” known and to demystify certain words which, according to him, worked, and the next day his “pupils” fared markedly well in handling the delicate situation that was there with authority and caution (RAY 2001: 174-175).

This being the main frame of Ray’’s argument, we now proceed to observe some parts of it which, according to us, are also the main sustainers of his argument.

3. Past or Present: Historicising the Myth

In the second chapter of his essay Ray traces the controversy to its actual root in the year 1949, and by doing this also takes the first step toward historicising the whole issue. This subtle move provides him with a forceful starting point, as decontextualising an issue is the very thing which gives the whole paradigm of “communalism” its transcendental status, its almost hallowed nature and its tremendous power in getting massive mass support in a very short span of time. What Ray does is nothing but dropping in a four-digit number, a specific year (note that he does not go into a detailed and complex discussion of the issue or history of the concerned “site” of con- tention), which gives the whole thing a “modern” dimension. It becomes just another politically motivated issue “constructed” by human beings of flesh and blood at a specific point in modern time which can be historically fixed, and not, as those interested in communalising the issue have tried to project it, an eternal site of battle between two diametrically opposed groups, a site of dharmŸyuddh.

This “fixing” of the issue on the scale of real time was absolutely necessary for Ray’s project as it justifies the text’s “right to critique”, especially when it comes to a matter whose primary moving force lies in making itself immune from any possible rationalist critique by claiming an “otherworldly” position beyond the reach of human logic. This is also effective in breaking the mystic nature of some words which escape the material and ever-changing net of semiotic sys- tems to take their position in the realm of “mythical” fixity. This politics of words is in fact the main subject of Ray’s essay, and we will be discussing this in detail.

We are using the term “myth” here in Roland Barthes’s sense, as a sign of a “secondary semiotic system”, which takes a whole sign (made out of primary signifier and primary signified of the primary system (general language) as signified, which in turn signifies something else.


[1] See RAO 2003 for a short but compact overview of theories of “communalism” in the context of India.

[2] See “Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)”, Encyclopædia Britannica Online < 9389149 > (retrieved on September 12, 2005 from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service).

[3] Which, one must admit, is rather hard in a semiotic space like India, where events happening every day are not few, and thus sustaining interest in one issue for very long seems virtually impossible.

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Words, Reading, Bibhuti, Narayan, Rays, Ranbhumi
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Sourav Kargupta (Author), 2004, The War of Words: A Reading of Bibhuti Narayan Rays Ranbhumi mem bhasa, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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