India needs no Rasputins
By Sujata Anandan
The interference of men of religion in the political affairs of various states is neither new nor unique to India or the present government in the country.The earliest known example is of the Borgias from Spain who tried to take over Renaissance-era Italy. Two of them, uncle and nephew, even ended up as popes in the 15th and 16th centuries. Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, particularly, was recognised as a skilled politician and diplomat and got up to many unsavoury tricks that were considered as cardinal sins and not very papal.
Among these was his holding of a notorious, debauched ball, ‘Banquet of Chestnuts’ in the Vatican that scandalised 15th century Italy and Europe. Pope Alexander VI, much hated by many cardinals and royalty, nevertheless survived their assaults and died of disease in the early 16th century.The Borgias were royalty and, as pope, Alexander VI ended up with strict control over both state and church. Grigori Rasputin, however, was a peasant-turned-mystic with healing qualities in 19th and 20th century Romanov Russia. He got into the good books of Czar Nicholas and Czarina Alexandra after he exhibited skills in controlling the bleeding of their only son, Alexei, who was a haemophiliac, a fact that they had kept hidden from the Russian empire.
His mystical remedies succeeded in him exerting a powerful influence on the Russian royal family, despite his drunkenness and debauchery, which earned him the hatred of other Russian nobles, the orthodox church and the peasantry alike. The czar’s own relatives conspired to poison him and when he miraculously survived, they shot him, then threw him into a freezing river nearby. With no line drawn between state and church, the Russian empire was engulfed by revolution shortly thereafter.
In the modern Indian context, they remind me of the various godmen who have exercised undue influence over otherwise rational prime ministers.
The earliest one was Dhirendra Brahmachari, Indira Gandhi’s yoga instructor, who perhaps was the first television yoga guru, preceding Ramdev Baba, at a time when India only had Doordarshan for both news and entertainment. Many unsubstantiated rumours prevailed about his influence on government affairs. But neither Mrs Gandhi nor the nation came to any grief over his shenanigans.
Chandraswami, however, was far more interfering and influential. P V Narasimha Rao’s resident tantrik, he was used by the then prime minister to build bridges with several opposition politicians. One such politician was Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. When he came calling at Thackeray’s residence, pesky reporters asking inconvenient questions had a taste of his malevolence as he turned his eyes on them and almost shrivelled the questioner into silence.
Thankfully, Chandraswami’s interference was limited to people in high places. But under the current regime there are two godmen, mercifully not patronised personally by Narendra Modi, who are ending up as self-appointed purveyors of nationalism and culture in the country, instead of restricting themselves to their domain of yoga, ayurveda and art of living. It was bad enough that a couple of years ago, Ramdev threatened to cut off the heads of people who refused to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ without authorities castigating him for inciting violence. But now Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has gone a step further by seeming to threaten a communal conflagration in the country in case the Supreme Court judgment on the Ramjanmabhoomi issue was unfavourable.
One does not know who authorised Sri Sri to mediate in the issue, particularly since the Supreme Court is already hearing the matter. It is obvious, however, that the current dispensation is not averse to the mediation, since they have neither stopped his attempts at negotiation nor pulled him up for his incendiary statements.
It is disquieting that there is almost a threat and a sniff of coercion hidden in his exhortation to Muslims to give up the disputed land to “Hindus”. But the question is: does he represent all Hindus?
Hundreds of innocents, both Hindu and Muslim, died across India in the aftermath of the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Bal Thackeray took ample advantage of that conflagration and stormed to power in Maharashtra. He later suggested that a secular monument, like a school or a hospital, be built on the site. Many years later, Muslims are coming round to that view. “They are agreeable to give up the land for a hospital. So why not give it up for a temple?” Sri Sri queried.
There is a major difference. A hospital would be a secular symbol of unity and harmony, open to all. A temple or a mosque would be a constant eyesore and reminder to enough number of fundamentalists on either side about perceived or real injustices. The sore could fester for years and cause more bad blood between the two communities.
Such matters are best left to courts or time. Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri cannot be the modern day Borgias or Rasputins. India is a modern democracy that chooses its own rulers who cannot abdicate their responsibility to sundry godmen and self-appointed arbitrators who crave attention and seek self-glorification. The church (or godmen of all religions in the Indian context) and state are best left strictly apart. Mixing the two is a recipe for disaster, as in Russia. And, yes, could well turn India into a modern-day Syria, as Sri Sri himself fears.