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What a TV epic did to India - The Hindu

Victoria L Farmer ()
17 November 1996

Title : What a TV epic did not to India
Author : Victoria L Farmer
Publication : The Hindu
Date : November 17, 1996

The relationship between media and communalism with the
most far-reaching political implications is the connec-
tion between television programming and communal mobili-
sation. This is because, even though no explicit cause-
effect linkage between television imagery and violence an
be clearly demonstrated, the broadcast of programming
widely perceived as having communal undertones has high-
lighted and focused criticism on the legitimacy of the
government's secular stance. The core of these accusa-
tions concerns the serialisation on State-controlled
television of two Hindu epics, the "Mahabharata" and the
"Ramayana." Though communal violence and civic unrest
were certainly not an intended goal of these programming
decisions, about Ayodhya in studies done before the
"Ramayana" broadcast, they would answer that Ayodhya is
the birthplace of Rama, but they would leave its location
vague. Maybe Ayodhya is a mythological place, maybe it
exists wherever God exists; Ayodhya could be in one's own
backyard, or at the local temple. After Doordarshan's
"Ramayana" and contemporary BJP mobilisations, however,
people responded to questions about Ayodhya by defining
it precisely as a town in Uttar Pradesh (V Narayana Rao,
personal communication). In 1991, Anuradha Kapur analysed
the "new", post-Doordarshan iconography of Rama in
popular posters, in the broadcast of the "Ramayana", in
particular, inadvertently promoted Rama-related imagery
that was easily appropriated by Hindu nationalist leaders
of the Sangh Parivar, especially by L. K. Advani.

Rama existed in India long before television was invent-
ed, and Doordarshan was not the first to attempt a hege-
monic "Ramayana" narrative. Nonetheless, many scholars
have come to the conclusion that the serialisation of the
"Ramayana" on Doordarshan was fundamental to the project
of fundamentalism, creating a shared symbolic lexicon
around which political forces could mobilise communal
praxis. Perhaps the greatest evidence of the effects of
the serialisation of the epics has come from scholars in
the humanities. One scholar, for example, noted that when
people were asked which Rama as a militant warrior,
poised to use his bow, is depicted more often other
iconographic possibilities. She wrote:

The transformation of the Ram image from that of a se-
rene, omnipresent, eternally forgiving God to that of an
angry, punishing one, armed with numerous weapons, wear-
ing armour and even shoes, is truly remarkable. Where
does this new Ram, laden with all manner of martial gear
come from?

He appears to come from television epics - Ramanand
Sagar's "Ramayana" and B. R. Chopra's "Mahabharata". The
"Mahabharata, especially, feeds upon the escalating
notions of a militaristics and virile Hinduism. (Times of
India, October 1, 1991).

Barbara Stoler Miller devoted much of her 1991 presiden-
tial address to the Association for Asian Studies to a
discussion of the serialisation of the epics, noting that
"it is the religious intensity, linked with politicised
communal feelings, that has made the Ayodhya situation so
compelling. The way militant Hindus have structured the
narrative of Ayodhya's sacred history and bent the epic
universe to their definition of Indian national identity
is a striking example of how vulnerable the past is to
the passions of the moment."

How did this state-sponsored depiction of Rama come to
be? An answer requires an examination of the history of
Doordarshan. Television in India began, as had radio,
through the urging of Western companies seeking markets
in India. It took many years from the first broadcast in
1959, however, for television to develop into a mass
market media. Stations outside India's capital city were
not set up until the early 1970's and significant expan-
sion of television did not occur until the 1980s. This
hesitancy to expand, based on the high cost of television
a compared to radio, was overcome by linking television
and national development. The 1966 Chanda Committee
report on radio and television argued that difficulties
in implementation of India's five-year plans could be
ameliorated by using electronic media to promote under-
standing of and compliance with planning. Simultaneously,
Vikram Sarabhai, in one of his initiatives to promote
India's space programme, argued that television could be
used to "leapfrog" India into sustained economic develop-
ment. This argument, combined with a commitment to rural
development, culminated in the Satellite Instructional
Television Experiment (SITE) of 1975-76. This experiment
in rural Development, however, did not prove to be the
oasis for the subsequent evolution of television. The
cross-cutting tensions of state centralisation, develop-
ment policies, and commercial sponsorship resulted in an
array of programming that conflated national development
goals and popular cultural traditions.

Increasingly through the 1980s, television was used as a
tool for cultural engineering and electoral gains through
creation of an "Indian" national character closely iden-
tified with the ruling party. Commercial interests had
no reason to counter the attempt to create an Indian
market - defined by the state and nationalised cultural
forms provided the laborious historical and political
documentaries did not supplant more popular programming
on TV. The Doordarshan epics are examples of an array of
programmes that arose from the triadic nexus of a growing
middle-class, increasing commercial advertising, and the
use of television as an election strategy.

What was depicted inside the public sphere created by
Doordarshan, therefore, included a fuzzy conflation of
state authority, Hindu legitimacy, Hindi supremacy,
cinema tunes (filmi geet), and commercial promotions.
Identifying what is absent from or marginal to this
television public sphere is more difficult, but protests
against specific Doordarshan presentations do indicate
some boundaries.

For example, "Tipu Sultan" - a story about an 18th-Cen-
tury Indian Muslim ruler who tormented British armies for
decades before being conquered - did not fit easily into
Doordarshan's nationalist paradigm, because it depicted

the Muslim, Tipu, as being modern and progressive, and it
was broadcast on Doordarshan only after lengthy arbitra-
tion. The result of the court battle was that a dis-
claimer was aired before each episode to say that the
story was fiction, not history, thus marginalising Tipu
Sultan as a historical figure and contributing to a
nationalist history in which Muslims somehow become non-

Other struggles over the electronic media have spilled
beyond institutional confines into violent confrontations
by some anti-Centre groups, in which Doordarshan and All
India Radio personnel and infrastructure have been the
target of terrorist actions. This has occurred when
anti-secessionist programming - typically dramatic pre-
sentations in Hindi, set in a timeless Punjabi or Kash-
miri village, depicting primordial communal harmony has
been unaccompanied by actual decentralisation of control
over programming policies.

Broadcasting language policies have become a focal point
for regional demands; and violent assaults on and assas-
sination of Doordarshan personnel continue today.

Serialisation of the "Ramayana" was not the only Door-
darshan attempt to create a centerpiece for national
culture that would be comforting to the Indian, mainly
Hindu, middle classes. As Romila Thapar notes, one of
the functions of nationalist depictions is to locate
cultures, usually by defining a national culture that
selects some aspects of history and symbolism, but side-
lines others.

The television serial "Chanakya", set in the Mauryan
empire and aired on Doordarshan in 1991, is a good case
in point. This empire, during the fourth to second
centuries B.C., consolidated its control over more of the
subcontinent than any other force until the British Raj.
Chandragupta Maurya, who became emperor in 321 B.C.,
first gained control of the Ganges River basin, then
moved northwest into a power vacuum created by the depar-
ture of Alexander the Great, and finally accepted the
trans-Indus territories of the Greek Seleucid dynasty
after a battle in 303 B.C.

The empire reached its greatest extent when Chandragup-
ta's grandson, Ashoka, conquered Kalinga, in present-day
Orissa, in 260 B.C. Ashoka erected numerous stone edicts
throughout the extent of his empire. The existence of
Ashokan edicts as landmarks in many Indian cities renders
Ashoka a commonly evoked name in many contemporary and
popular histories.

But Doordarshan's serialised drama about the Mauryas did
not focus on Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism, but
instead depicted his Brahman adviser Chanakya as hero of
the Mauryan empire.

Numerous additional examples could be presented of the
ways in which mass media have constructed images that
have been or could have been appropriated for communal
ends, but I do not mean to imply that these images were
consciously constructed to promote communal strife. S.S.
Gill felt it necessary to defend his decision to promote
serialisation of the epics as examples of Indian culture,
rather than Hindu religion, through an editorial in the

Indian Express. In an interview in 1990, he also ex-
pressed his view that the decision to serialise the epics
was based on their encapsulation of pan-Indian, and
indeed universal, values. With chagrin, he noted that
"these idiots gave it a religions gloss! If I'd been
there, I'd never have let them do this! "Ramayana" and
"Mahabharata" are not religious epics!"

No doubt L. K. Advani, probably the most media-savvy
figure in Indian politics, would also argue for the
universal cultural significance of the "Ramayana". It is
certainly clear that he was able to capitalise on the
availability of Rama imagery as a tool for communal
mobilisation. What is less clear is what would happen if
the BJP were to gain control of Indian television. While
Advani argued vociferously for media autonomy from gov-
ernment control during the 1989 elections, similar argu-
ments made during that campaign have gone by the way

For example, in a 1989 interview with me, he downplayed
the Sangh Parivar's emphasis on Hindi as the national
language, emphasising the need for linguistic flexibility
for effective communication.

Nonetheless, in early 1995, after winning control for the
government of Delhi in local elections, one of the BJP's
first actions was to declare Hind! to be Delhi's official
language. Similar discrepancies can be found between the
BJP's 1989 free-market sloganeering and Sangh Parivar
efforts to undermine an agreement for the Enron Corpora-
tion to invest in a power plant in Maharashtra.

It would be educative to read "No Fullstops in India",
by Shri Mark Tully, the ex-BBC correspondent in India, who
has made this country as his new home. The chapter on the
serialisation of Ramayan givens a perspective which may well
make the reader feel that Shri Tully and Ku Farmer are talking
about two very different television broadcasts.

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