From Jai Shri Ram to Hanuman Chalisa: The evolving Hindutva tool-kit

After converting Jai Shri Ram into a communally divisive war cry following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, it is now the turn of the Ayodhya king’s most loyal disciple to drive fear into the minds of the minority

It is no accident that the Hindutva forces have chosen Hanuman to further their cause.

The recitation of Hanuman Chalisa in a bid to silence azan from the mosques is the latest trend in the country’s political landscape. Given the increasingly acrimonious communal discourse in Indian politics, this comes as no surprise.

The politically-motivated recital of the hymn started by Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and enthusiastically taken forward by members and allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has become the new dog whistle of Hindutva groups.

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AAP jumps into the fray

The latest to join is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), though it proclaims to have a different reason. It organised Twitter Spaces’ first Hanuman Chalisa recital on Sunday, saying the party was pained by the attempts of the BJP and its proxies to misuse the mantra to foment disturbances in Mumbai. The AAP, of course, had begun to use Hanuman as its mascot against the BJP’s Lord Ram back in 2020 when it was fiercely defending its political turf of Delhi in the assembly polls.  The party’s MLA and spokesperson Saurabh Bhardwaj had coined the idea that the party retort with ‘Jai Hanuman’ each time its saffron rivals chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’.

How far the AAP is sincere in its proclamation remains to be seen. What is amply clear though is its bid to hitch on to the burgeoning popularity of the Hanuman Chalisa to achieve its own end; creating a space in the minds of the people by positioning itself as a party that has the best of Hindu sentiments in its heart – be the better Hindu, as yet another ’secular’ party, the Congress, has claimed in the recent past.

One thing should not be forgotten – Hanuman Chalisa recitation has over the last month successfully been linked with targeting Muslims. The right-wing organisations, including the BJP, are not the least apologetic about what they want to achieve with this move. AAP, it seems, just wants to occupy a space in this trend that, in today’s social media parlance, is going viral.

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Why Hanuman Chalisa?

It is no accident that the Hindutva forces have chosen Hanuman to further their cause. After converting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ into a communally divisive war cry following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, it had to be the turn of the Ayodhya king’s most loyal disciple to drive fear into the minds of the minority.

Just as the harmless daily greetings of ‘Ram, Ram’ and ‘Jai Siya Ram’ in North India gave way to ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and then on to the threatening ‘Is desh main rehana hai to Jai Shri Ram kehna hoga’ (“If you want to stay in this country, you have to say Jai Shri Ram”), the conversion of Hanuman from one who symbolises strength, courage, wisdom, celibacy, calm and devotion to Lord Rama (all virtues extolled in the 40 verses of Hanuman Chalisa) to an angry god has been an effort in process.

Adopting the ‘Angry’ Hanuman

The first move in this direction was the adoption of ‘Angry Hanuman’ posters and stickers that became extremely popular around 2017. Right from Bengaluru to North Indian towns and cities, angry Hanuman – a masculine, ominous looking god in shades of black and saffron – could be seen all over car windscreens, back of buses and auto-rickshaws, t-shirts and watches.

A Kerala artist – 25-year-old graphic designer Karan Acharya – had designed the ‘angry’ Hanuman in 2015 for his friends’ group and just to be different “gave Hanuman an attitude.” In the process, the generally celebrated demeanour of Hanuman as the gentle disciple bowing in front of Lord Ram or one meditating with infectious poise and calm was turned on its head.

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This portrayal of the angry Hanuman fitted well with the hypermasculine Hindutva that was gaining strength all over the country and hence it was adopted with alacrity. Hanuman, in any case, was – and is – one of the most popular demi-gods in the Hindu pantheon. Tulsidas’ Hanuman Chalisa, though written in Awadhi, is one of the most popular hymns among the Hindus.

Also adding to this perception of a muscular Hanuman is the fact that in common folklore, one is advised to recite Hanuman Chalisa to overcome one’s fears. Over time, it has become the go-to mantra when one is caught in a difficult situation or one has to fight one’s enemies.

Mainstream movies added to this perception in a major way. There have been innumerable scenes, mainly in horror films, where the protagonist recites Hanuman Chalisa – or it is recited as the background score – while confronting hidden enemies. A recent example would be the hit Hindi film starring Salman Khan, Bajrangi Bhaijan, where the protagonist fights back against child traffickers and rescues a little girl to the chanting of Hanuman Chalisa in the background score.

The belligerent Bajrang Dal

It is no coincidence that one of the most belligerent Hindutva organisations is called Bajrang Dal – Bajrangi is another name of Hanuman. Formed in 1984 as the youth wing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an important frontal of the Sangh Parivar, it started getting popular during the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation in the early 1990s. Some of the main goals of the Bajrang Dal are to build the Ram temple at the site of Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya and the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple in Mathura. And, it opposes, mostly violently, what it calls Muslim population growth, Christian conversion and cow slaughter.

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As the most recent activity to this end of making Hanuman a warrior god, the Hindutva groups have started organising marches on the occasion of Hanuman Jayanti. A few marches were held earlier too, but the number has multiplied enormously over the last few years.

During elections in Bengal last year, the BJP brought out many such marches during Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti, where participants donning saffron were seen walking angrily on the streets while brandishing swords and home-made pistols. What happened in Jahangirpuri and earlier in Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone has just been a continuation of this tool-kit formed over the past few years.

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