Part 1: The Awakening and the Departure 

(This Article first appeared in the now defunct Niti Central on 18th November 2012)

Kartik ke snan parv per khoon se nahai Ayodhya, Jalianwala kaand beuna pada

Yadi Balidaan nahi hue tho kahaan gaye yeh 307 Kar Sevak?”

(A couple of sample headlines from Hindi newspapers of November 1990 from the heartland, especially, UP & Bihar)

Ayodhya, October 30 – November 2, 1990:

Those 4 days marked a major turning-point in Hindutva’s path of self-discovery in modern India. Police forces of Uttar Pradesh had opened fire on unarmed Kar Sevaks in the narrow lanes of Ayodhya, killing scores of Sadhus & ordinary Hindus. Official estimates of that time suggested only 5 deaths and later government records suggest that the casualty was about 50, in reality, the death toll was probably in 100s. Fruit-sellers and vegetable vendors of Ayodhya & Faizabad lent their pushcarts to carry the dead sadhus and Kar Sevaks, while the police continued to fire unabated due to the direct instructions from the CM’s office. This was that historic moment (pun intended) when Mulayam Singh earned the epitaph “Mullah Mulayam” (by Sadhvi Rithambhara).

As usual, India’s “secular” national media either totally ignored the events of Ayodhya or cleansed the reports of all the police brutality and presented an image of “marauding Kar Sevaks” at large. Thankfully, the regional Hindi press was more truthful in its coverage of events in Ayodhya. Four major Hindi newspapers of the heartland; Aaj, Dainik Jagaran, Swatantra Chetna & Swatantra Bharat; gave extensive coverage to the Mulayam Singh government’s violent handling of the peaceful Kar Seva in Ayodhya.

That was the pre-liberalization & pre-satellite television era of solitary state-owned terrestrial TV channel, the Doordarshan. Whatever little news that DD carried was deeply sanitized and almost devoid of either any substance or, for that matter, any truth (not that Indian news coverage has changed in 20 years). Yet, the audio-visual news of dead Sadhus and the police brutality of Ayodhya reached almost every nook and corner of India within a month. That was possible because of India’s innate ability to internalize “jugaad” business.

India of the late 80’s and early 90’s vintage had a roaring business of “video-cassette” libraries spread across cities, towns & moffusils. Though VHS tapes of Ayodhya were banned in India, almost every video-cassette library (at least the ones owned by a Hindu) had stocked a tape on that event. Some informal estimates of that era give us a rough idea on the spread of the audio-visual news of Ayodhya. For instance, the video cassettes depicting the ‘Ayodhya story” (both the NEWSTRACK version & the informal video version produced by the VHP) were rented out more often than some of the big Hindi blockbusters of that era – Saajan, Dil, Hum etc – in 5 of the 7 main video-libraries of the Andheri (west) suburb in Mumbai. (Data source, author’s own past surveys).

Of course, this audio-visual Hindu re-kindling was not limited to the banned Ayodhya tapes. The fact is that the rise of Hindutva in the India of 80’s was inadvertently due to more formal versions of Hinduism discourse on the television.

78 weeks of India’s awakening


Preceding the Ram Janambhoomi andolan launched by Shri Lal Krishna Advani and before he embarked on a nationwide Rath Yatra, there was something else that was being beamed into the living rooms of India which had changed the consciousness of a nation. It was a time when even south Indians were trying to learn the Hindi language, a time when chaste-Urdu speaking Muslims had started using antiquated formal Hindi words such as “parantu” and “pitashree”. It was a time when India came to a standstill on Sunday mornings, only to be transported to Treta Yuga.

Ramanand Sagar’s contribution to India’s Hindu awakening in the late 80’s is probably almost equal to that of Advani’s. The Sagars brought Ramayan to Indian television and transformed an entire generation into believers. While the unwashed masses would do aartis and apply the sacred Kumkum & Haldi on to the TV screens on Sunday mornings before 9:30 AM, the elite left-libbers would continuously bash the religious appeal of the Ramayan.

Anti-Hindu feminists described Sita as regressive; Kamla Bhasin & Ritu Menon warned us, “With Sita as our ideal, can Sati be far-behind?” Madhu Jain termed Ramayan as “moving calendar art pictures”. Then there was the usual secular outrage over state-owned television “promoting Hindu fundamentalism”. One of the biggest critic of Sagar’s Ramayan was Bhaskar Ghose (father of Sgaraika Ghose, for starters), who was the then director general of Doordarshan, his contempt for the TV series was so deep-rooted that everyone in Mandi house (DDs headquarters) was sure that Ramayan would not get an extension beyond 52 episodes, even if the story remained half-told. (How Ramanand Sagar got his 26 episode extension by directly going to the then I&B minister, H K L Bhagat, is another story for some other time)

All of these elite pseudo-secular-socialists and left-libbers were as disconnected with the reality of India as they are today. The problem with the elites then, was that they probably had never been to a Ramlila during Navaratri, nor could they ever fathom how or why India would fall in love with such tacky graphics as arrows meeting mid-air and disappearing in a fizz of fire or water. The critical storytelling technique of the Sagar’s Ramayan was in the quintessential Ramlila format that every villager in India had grown up to. That basic underlying story of good winning over the evil had/has been so endearing to Indians from time immemorial. It was for the first time that a non-left-sanitized state version of “history” was being retold in an age-old tradition to an average Indian, and that hit at the very foundation of the secular-socialist existence.

Thus the left-libber elites became the new “evil”, while the Ramayan watching average Indian became the new “good” in the Ramlila that was being played in the socio-political theatre of India. It was in this scenario that the Ram Janambhoomi Andolan was launched as the final defining act.

Jai Shri Ram

Invoking the name of lord Ram had become a fashion statement in India for the first time in many centuries, thanks to the Ramayan on the telly. In the late 80’s “Jai Shri Ram” had once again replaced the western “hello” and the secular “namaste” in the greeting vocabulary of India’s youth. But there was another kind of “Jai Shri Ram” that was reverberating across Uttar Pradesh as a war cry, especially among the sadhu-samaj; it was this war cry that had brought Kalyan Singh to the forefront of UP politics.

Kalyan Singh was not just a Hindutva icon but also was a symbol of BJP’s pan-Hindu outreach initiative, for he belonged to the backward caste of Lodhs. For a party that was widely decried by the secularists as a Brahmin-Baniya entity, Kalyan Singh as the leader of BJP in the politically most significant state of Uttar Pradesh represented a breath of fresh air. If VHP organized the sadhu-samaj and Advani ji awakened the Hindutva ideology, it was Kalyan Singh who became the political face of the party and Hindutva in UP and beyond.

After Mullah Mulayam’s firing on the hapless Kar Sevaks in late 1990 and the resultant Hindu anger across the state of Uttar Pradesh, it was quite clear that Kalyan Singh and BJP would emerge as the biggest political beneficiaries of the agitated Hindu vote in the state assembly polls of 1991.

Uttar Pradesh Elections 1991


Vote-Share percentage

Seats won
















[Data Source: Election Commission of India] *JD included Mulayam Singh

After winning the elections and assuming the office of the chief minister on 24th June 1991, Kalyan Singh did not sit back idly twiddling his thumbs; in fact, his short-lived governance of UP was exemplary and got universal approval from all quarters; he could have chosen to postpone the Ayodhya movement to the final years of his rule (1995). Any normal CM in India would have taken a less confrontationist approach sighting day-to-day governance issues, but Kalyan Singh was of a different mould altogether. His ideological commitment to the Ram temple in Ayodhya was not only unwavering but also took precedence over everything else, including power & pelf.

One of the first acts of Kalyan Singh, as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, was visiting Ayodhya, where he took a vow that the Ram temple would be built at the disputed site. In October 1991, the Kalyan Singh led BJP government acquired 2.77 acres of land surrounding the Babri Masjid complex in a totally peaceful manner. The entire Hindu case for the temple was built on these 2.77 acres of land acquired by UP government and the recent Allahabad high-court verdict was possible because of this one act of courage of the Kalyan Singh government.

Immediately after the disputed structure of Babri Masjid was brought down by uncontrollable Kar Sevaks on Dec 6th 1992, Kalyan Singh resigned from the office of the CM (in less than a year and a half after assuming power). What happened in the subsequent years is a tragic story of a leader who was sacrificed and sabotaged not only by opponents but also from within, not just once but many number of times.

Uttar Pradesh Elections 1993

After more than one year of president’s rule, UP once again went to polls in 1993. These elections in the post-Babri era were supposed to be a crowning glory in Kalyan Singh’s carrier as a politician. The opposition was rattled by the popularity of Mr Singh; there was a desperate clamour to find a secular challenge to BJP in the most populous state of India. The SP-BSP coalition was sewn together by the secularists of the land despite knowing fully well that it would never last the test of time, because the SP-BSP combine was the only viable alternative that had any chance in the electoral battlefield of Uttar Pradesh. Yet, almost everybody knew that it would be impossible to defeat Kalyan Singh in UP.

The impossibility of defeat became possible by internal deceit. Hindu history is a continual collection of internal sabotage from time immemorial, and Uttar Pradesh in 1993 was just another chapter in that saga. A section of the party that consisted of the Brahmin-Rajput lobby was getting increasingly weary with the rising clout of Kalyan Singh and decided to take some immediate corrective measures in the misplaced belief that losing one assembly election would not be of much consequence. Time would later prove that this one Brahminical error would cost the party dear for years, if not decades.

Despite internal sabotage and a masterly opposition coalition of Dalits, Muslims & Yadavs, Kalyan Singh fought a valiant battle almost single-handedly. Yet, BJP lost the 1993 elections by a small margin, despite increasing its vote-share from 1991. It must be said though that never has it been possible; and it probably never will be; to perform so spectacularly in the electoral arena of Uttar Pradesh, when such a strong caste-coalition is ranged against you (Dalit+Muslim+Yadav = more than 50% of UP)


Vote-Share percentage

Seats won



















[Data Source: Election Commission of India]

Kalyan Singh became the Chief Minister of UP twice briefly in later years but could never achieve either the same glory or the same control because the internal opposition towards him was way too strong. What was even more discouraging for Mr Singh was that the internal forces opposed to him now had the tacit support of the tallest leader in the party, Atal Behari Vajpayee. In any case, BJP had put the entire Ayodhya issue to a backburner and the ideological purity of the likes of Kalyan Singh stuck like a sour thumb in a more “inclusive” agenda of coalition building era of the late 90’s.

The end of an era

Possibly, never again will Hindutva be at such a pedestal as it was in those years between 1989 & 1993. An innocence has been lost to globalization and crass consumerism, for no longer are we enchanted by those arrows meeting mid-air to symbolize the fight between good & evil, neither are we charged up about collecting bricks from our neighbourhood to send them as our “sweat-equity” in a temple for Lord Ram at his birthplace. Hindutva is now merely a subset of developmental politics and governance; Hindutva has partially merged itself into Moditva. The puritanical thought process of re-negotiating Hinduism on our own terms no longer exists, for there is way too much of economics to worry about. To that extent, the left libbers and uber-socialists have won, for they have managed to deliver Hindutva from its inherent piety into the realm of the mundane.

Vanity is a by-product of ideological coming of age. And vanity it was that forced the BJP to drive away the ideological icon of UP into the hands of Mullah Mulayam. Kalyan Singh having to take the help of the Samajwadis to stay politically relevant was the nadir that ideological Hindutva achieved in 21st century. Fortunately, underlining every nadir is a fundamental truth of nature – that after having hit the bottom there is only one way that things can move, upwards. Thus, Kalyan Singh is back with the BJP once again and fortunes are looking upwards again.


[In the next part we will look at Kalyan Singh’s relevance in UP today and BJP’s prospects in India’s most populous state]