Vote magnets: For BJP, Hanuman is in South what Ram is in North
BJP, which rode to power using the name of Lord Rama, has brought to the fore his devotee Hanuma in Karnataka; among the steps are a ₹120 crore project to develop Anjandari Hill, and massive Hanuma Jayanti celebrations
BJP president JP Nadda recently attended a ceremony in Koppala to unveil party offices in 10 districts of Karnataka. Koppala, in North Karnataka, is long seen as the backwaters of the state.
But Nadda decided to hold a high profile event there, summoning top state leaders for two reasons. One, Koppala is in the Kalyana Karnataka region, where the Congress did better in 2018 and BJP would like to catch up with that. Two, and more importantly, many believe that the Anjanadri hill near Koppala is the birthplace of Lord Hanuma (which is how Lord Hanuman is known in Karnataka). The site is fast emerging as the key to BJP’s favourite strategy of taking the religious route to political power in Karnataka.
Covering the party’s unveiling event, a prominent Kannada newspaper wrote an interesting headline — Uttaradalli Rama, Dakshinadalli Hanuma (Rama in the North, Hanuma in the South) — encapsulating the BJP’s mantra of using the name of Lord Rama to woo northern Hindu voters and Lord Hanuman to draw their southern counterparts.
Birth of a pilgrimage site
A local resident, N Badiger, says two decades ago there was nothing to distinguish Anjanadri from other hills despite a local legend that Hanuma was born there. Many sites in at least five other states – Telangana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand and Haryana – have made similar claims.
Last year, the Tirupati temple trust started a campaign to assert that Hanuma was born on the Tirumala Hill.
But Koppala seems to be edging out other contestants, thanks to Sangh Parivar organisations like the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal, which are promoting the narrative aggressively.
The site that attracted curious visitors in the past, now draws thousands of devotees. In a newly-invented ritual, which is getting popular by the day, every December, large crowds of Hanuma ‘mala’-wearing devotees flock to the Anjanadri hill after taking a vow to lead an ascetic life for a few days.
The Karnataka government has announced a ₹120 crore-plan to develop the site on the lines of Ayodhya and the Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai is personally supervising the project.
Why Rama is not a household name in South
The BJP, which rode to power in the name of Lord Rama, has quietly brought to the fore his devotee Hanuma in Karnataka. It is held that Rama has limited appeal in South India and various theories seek to explain why.
Scholars like Sheldon Pollack say Rama worship became popular only after the 12th century in response to the Muslim invasions. The Hindu elites sought inspiration from Rama’s fight against the ‘demons,’ who were now identified with the culturally distinct invaders.
Pollock’s thesis is controversial, but many agree that Tulasidas’ Ramayana in the Awadhi language was a 16th century milestone in making the epic popular with the masses who were not versed in Sanskrit.
Ramayana’s integration with Dussehra, where an effigy of Ravana is burnt, more recently Ramananda Sagar’s television depiction of the epic, and, of course BJP’s own massive mobilisation, are often listed as factors that led to the prominence of Rama among the North Indian psyche.
But as South India remained peripheral to all these events, Rama may not have dug deep roots there.
Shaivism, which was popular in South India, was further reinforced in many regions by Basava’s Lingayat movement from the 12th century onwards, further limiting the appeal of Rama to large sections of the society.
The Sangh Parivar may vehemently disagree that Rama is less popular in Karnataka, but it has nevertheless opted to focus on Hanuma. While Hanuma Jayanti is going from strength to strength in the state, Rama Navami remains a tame traditional affair.
Popularity of Hanuma
Professor K Phaniraj, a social activist, says it is difficult to mobilise people using the name of Lord Rama as he is mostly worshipped by Brahmins, especially those hailing from the Vaishnava sect. Though Hanuma is nominally a Vaishnava, he has a large following among all communities, particularly the Dalits and OBCs.
In many parts of Karnataka, each village erects a Hanuma temple just outside its perimeter as he is considered to be a guardian deity. He is worshipped by all communities and the temple usually serves as a popular gathering place.
Many of these temples have been organising Hanuma Jayantis for a long time. These events are lively occasions of devotion and gaiety, which typically draw a few hundred local devotees. Many of these traditional celebrations still continue, though they are now being overshadowed by the new humongous showstoppers promoted by the Sangh Parivar.
Hanuma Jayanti 2.0
Over the past 10 years, Hanuma Jayanti in Karnataka has transformed into a lavish and frenzied affair, drawing tens of thousands of followers. In towns and cities across Karnataka, huge crowds are taking out vociferous processions carrying idols, dancing to DJs and painting the town saffron with flags and robes.
For instance, Hunsur in South Karnataka has been witnessing massive events in recent years. This month, 20,000 people took part in the Hanuma Jayanti procession. The nearby Srirangapatna, which is fast emerging as a communal hotspot, also saw a procession of thousands.
Though many Hindutva outfits are involved, a source in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) said his organisation is the moving force in transforming Hanuma festivals in Karnataka.
“We started Hanuman Jagarana Samithi in 2007 to build support for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. We reached 4,500 villages and started mobilising the youth to worship Hanuman,” he added.
Sangh Parivar-sponsored Hanuma Jayantis, an offshoot of this effort, escalated and proliferated with the rise of the BJP in central and state politics. “The intention is to promote Hanuma devotion and harmony in society. We raise funds from people and spend it on the festivals,” said the VHP source.
Politics of processions
“This is a clear-cut mobilisation of Dalits and OBCs to turn them into foot soldiers of the Sangh Parivar. These processions are frenzied, slogans are a war cry and, overall, it is Hindutva machismo on display,” said Prof Phaniraj.
He added that the BJP has been able to increase its vote share in places where events like Hanuma Jayanti are promoted.
Hanuma Jayanti has a good following in north Karnataka. It is now spreading to other places, especially where BJP is struggling to fetch votes like the Vokkaliga-dominated Old Mysore region, which is crucial for the party to secure a majority in the Assembly.
The VHP source said preparations are afoot to hold Hanuma Jayanti in Hassan next month. In Arsikere, an event was planned on December 13, but has been postponed. Both Hassan and Arsikere are Vokkaliga-dominated areas where BJP would like to improve its performance.
Hindutva activists are reportedly doing house-to-house campaigns to mobilise support in Hassan. “Every Saturday we are holding Hanuma satsang in the homes of our followers and inviting residents in the neighbourhood,” the VHP source said, requesting anonymity.
Hanuma Jayanti and Rama Navami celebrations have become communal flashpoints across the country. In April this year, clashes linked to these events were reported in several states, such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
In Delhi, several people were injured and multiple vehicles were torched after violence ensued during a Hanuman Jayanti procession in Jahangirpuri.
This month, in Hunsur and Srirangapatna, over 1,000 police personnel were deployed to keep the processions peaceful. Schools and colleges were closed and liquor was banned.
Though the events passed off without major incidents, police foiled an attempt by a few Hindutva followers to enter Jama Masjid in Srirangapatna by force. A young Hindu devotee climbed a Muslim house and replaced a green flag, which was fluttering on the roof, with a saffron flag.
Police took into custody a Hanuma devotee, who had allegedly ‘thrown a banana stalk on a house’ during the procession. After he was released on bail, he said that police had threatened him. Hundreds of members of Hindu organisations staged a protest in front of the police station and forced the Superintendent of Police to order a probe and file an FIR against seven policemen.
A senior police officer in North Karnataka said it is easier to manage the procession when the BJP is in power. When other parties are in power, Hanuma devotees may get more aggressive, he added.
In 2017, police took nearly 100 persons into custody including the Mysuru Lok Sabha MP Pratap Simha ahead of the Hanuma Jayanti celebrations in Hunsur. Simha, who was seen trying to ram a police barricade with his car, had allegedly violated the prohibitory orders, along with his supporters, in the communally sensitive town.
“Every December the blood pressure of the police goes up,” said the officer.