Letter from India: A tale about monkeys, a Hindu god and truths in India

Posted in India | 21-Nov-08 | Author: Amelia Gentleman| Source: International Herald Tribune

NEW DELHI: The question of whether an army of monkeys really did build an ancient bridge between India and Sri Lanka is likely to reverberate through politics here for several months to come.

An uproar has erupted over a government affidavit, filed in the Supreme Court this month, declaring that events in the Ramayana, the much-loved epic devoted to the life of the Hindu god Ram, which features the story of the bridge, should not be read as historical truths.

"Blasphemy," retorted the hard-line Hindu opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, prompting a hurried, undignified reversal by the government. But the retreat was not swift enough to quell a nationwide flurry of protests in which at least two people have been killed.

With the government facing stubborn resistance from its Communist coalition allies over its commitment to a nuclear agreement with the United States, a stalemate has settled on Parliament, and political analysts are predicting early elections. For the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, the dispute over Ram's existence has been gleefully seized on as a timely and potent electoral rallying cry. For the governing Congress Party, it is a most unwelcome complication when the political landscape is already fraught with problems.

At the root of the dispute is an underwater ridge of land linking India to Sri Lanka, stretching 48 kilometers, or 30 miles, and blocking ships from taking a shortcut between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

According to the Ramayana, these sandy shoals are the remains of a bridge built by Ram's monkeys so that he could cross to Sri Lanka and rescue his wife who had been kidnapped by an evil demon, King Ravana of Lanka.

Whether this account is factually accurate might have remained a matter of debate among academics had the Indian government not decided to pursue a major infrastructure project that required slicing through the area to open up a shipping corridor, linking India's western coast to its east. The project, which is expected to cost the equivalent of $400 million and is known as the Suez of the East, would no longer require ships to loop around Sri Lanka, saving at least 24 hours on their journey.

Frustrated by the simmering opposition to the project from Hindu hard-liners, the construction company this past summer cited research from the U.S. space agency that said the shoals were natural sedimentation with no signs of having been made by man or, by extension, monkeys.

The government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court hoping to put an end to the matter, declaring that the accounts in the Ramayana "cannot be said to be historical records to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters or the events depicted therein."

The BJP responded that the affair had exposed the "anti-Hindu mind-set" of the Congress Party. The project was itself a "deliberate design to destroy the most ancient relic of Hindu history," the BJP said.

"The claim in the Supreme Court that Lord Ram did not exist and that the Ramayana has no historical basis makes it clear that the Congress's pseudo-secularism has degenerated into sadist-secularism," the opposition leader L.K. Advani said, adding that the government had "poured contempt on the religious sentiment" of millions of Hindus.

Needling the Congress Party's leader, Sonia Gandhi, who was born in Italy, another prominent BJP leader, Narendra Modi, asked, "What does an Italian know about Ram?"

Alarmed by the speed with which the opposition pounced on the issue, the government withdrew the statement within just 48 hours. The law minister, H.R. Bharadwaj, declared that Ram "is an integral part of our ethos and cannot be alienated from our hearts." Dredging of the sensitive area of Ram Sethu, or Ram's Bridge, was delayed for three months.

M. Karunanidhi, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, the southern Indian coastal state where the ridge begins, and an ally of the Congress Party, asked: "Ram? What Ram? Who is this Rama? From which engineering college did he graduate? Is there any proof for this?"

Ram Vilas Vedanti, a senior leader of the head of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, or the World Hindu Council, promptly offered to pay his weight in gold to anyone who beheaded Karunanidhi - although later he said his promise was not meant to be taken literally.

With its rush to squeeze maximum potential from the saga, the BJP hopes to detract attention from its own leadership crisis and its enduring political weakness, three years since its surprise defeat in the 2004 general elections. There is also an undertone of yearning for the political dynamism that India's last Ram dispute brought to the party, when the BJP revitalized itself through the movement to restore Ram's birthplace, the site of a mosque in Ayodhya.

Priya Sahgal, a senior journalist with the newsmagazine India Today, wrote, "When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) begins chanting the name of Lord Ram with a desperate fervor, one conclusion can be safely drawn: elections are round the corner."

But some political commentators have responded with incredulity that this should be chosen to be the issue of choice for the BJP.

The Indian Express asked in an editorial on Monday, "Do the wise men and women of the BJP have nothing to say about anything else?" The editorial suggested that the opposition would do better to focus on the government's record on governance, stalled economic reform and national security.

Environmentalists and a number of economists view the continuing storm with bemusement.

The economists question whether the infrastructure project, which was a manifesto promise by the Congress Party to its allies in southern India, really makes financial sense because only relatively small freighters will be able to pass through the shallow channel once it is finished.

The environmentalists argue that the controversy over Ram's army of monkeys has detracted attention from their concerns over the environmental impact of the project.