By Rakesh Kumar
‘You really must meet Yugal-ji’, insisted my friend. We were at an activist meeting in Delhi . My friend indicated a middle-aged man, slimly-built with a broad, half-moon forehead, an unkempt beard and closely cropped graying hair, handing out leaflets to people filing into the lawn. He wore a thin cotton shirt and a simple, white handspun dhoti. ‘He’s a priest from Ayodhya and is in the thick of the battle against Hindutva.’
A man—a temple priest no less—taking on the Hindutva brigade at its very epicentre! I scrambled across the lawn to meet him. I simply had to hear his story. I introduced myself, and we got talking. I listened, humbled and stunned, as Yugal-ji began to tell me about himself, his life, his vision of and for the world, and, most especially, about his valiant struggle against communalism and institutionalized religion. By the time he had finished—two hours later—I had all but completely fallen in love with him.
Yugal-ji was born in 1954, in a village along the Indo-Nepalese border in Bihar ’s Sitamarhi district. His father, a poor peasant from the Yadav caste, insisted that his son must receive a decent education. He was sent to school, and then to college for Sanskrit studies, for which he shifted to Ayodhya, where he lived in an ashram and earned the coveted Shastri degree. There, sometime in the mid-seventies, he joined the RSS. ‘I was a young, energetic lad then, and loved playing games’ he reminisced. The local RSS shakha had devised a clever way of trapping young Hindu boys by organizing sports events. ‘That’s how I fell into their snare.’ He rapidly moved up the RSS hierarchy till he was appointed as a full-time pracharak in Barabanki, a town in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Impressed with his dedication to the Hindutva cause, he was appointed as the district organizer of the Hindu Jagran Manch, one of many RSS front organizations, and then, in 1983, as the Secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s unit in Faizabad district, where Ayodhya is located.
At this time, the BJP had not as yet become a virtually unchallengeable political force in Uttar Pradesh, although it was rapidly winning converts in an increasingly communally- surcharged atmosphere. But Hindutva, the ideology of Brahminical supremacism, was not represented simply by the BJP alone. Various forms of it, including some that appeared somewhat diluted, were shared by many Congress leaders and supporters. One of these was a certain self-styledShankaracharya allied to the Congress who asked Yugal-ji to work with him in an outfit which had a single point agenda: to ‘restore’ the disputed Babri mosque structure in Ayodhya to theHindus.
It was at around this time, when Hindutva forces had begun galvanizing Hindu opinion and communal hatred across the country in the name of ‘liberating’ the Babri Masjid—a project in which he was himself involved—that Yugal-ji began developing second thoughts about the outfits that he had for so long been closely associated with. ‘I discovered that these groups were all dominated by Brahmins, and that they cared nothing for the poor, for the so-called low castes. They actually stood for a vicious system of caste discrimination while slyly denying this in public for fear of alienating their oppressed caste supporters, whom they routinely employed to attack and kill Muslims,’ he said. ‘I found their understanding of religion bore little resemblance to that of my own people back in my village, where inter-communal relations had generally been peaceful. These outfits, and the hatred they were spewing in the name of religion, were actually becoming a major burden on my own little head.’ They presented themselves as saviours of all Hindus, but even the hardcore Brahmin Hindutva activists Yugal-ji knew made him eat from separate plates kept apart for ‘low’ caste people, like himself, if they invited them to their homes for a meal. ‘I came to realize that what these people were propagating in the name of religion was raw hatred, greed and caste supremacism,’ he said.
In 1986, Yugal-ji joined the Rachnatmak Samaj, a group of social activists headed by the lateNirmala Deshpande. He was put in charge of the group’s work in the Faizabad district. By this time, he had established himself in Ayodhya as the manager of a small temple-cum-monastery not far from the Babri Masjid. It was there—where he still lives—right in the middle of the Hindutva dragon’s den, that he began fearlessly protesting and mobilizing public opinion against the Hindutva forces. Obviously, this was no easy task, and the intrepid Yugal-ji had to face stiff opposition, including from priests in the literally hundreds of temples scattered across the town. Many of these, he claimed, were actually criminals, including murderers, who had donned saffron robes to pass off as ‘holy-men’. A day before the Babri Masjid was torn down, Hindu mobs besieged his office, located in his temple premises, and threatened to bomb it down.
In 2000 Yugal-ji met with noted social activist and winner of the Magsaysay Award, Sandeep Pandey, and also with the noted Arya Samaj leader, Swami Agnivesh, both of whom were in the forefront of the struggle against Hindutva and communalism. Inspired by their work, he set up a society, Ayodhya Ki Awaz (‘The Voice of Ayodhya’), to promote communal harmony and address the plight of the oppressed castes, whom he now came to regard as the principal victims, along with Muslims and Christians, of Brahminism parading in the guise of Hindutva. Today, this organization has some fifty members, mostly Muslim, Dalit and Backward Caste youth in Ayodhya and surrounding villages and towns.
Over the years, activists of Ayodhya ki Awaz have been closely engaged in struggles against communalism, particularly against Hindutva aggression. It brings out a Hindi monthly magazine, edited by Yugal-ji, and organizes regular meetings in villages, aiming particularly at Dalits and Backward Caste youth (who, Yugal-ji noted, are routinely used by Hindutva Brahminical forces as foot-soldiers to attack Muslims in what are euphemistically-termed ‘Hindu-Muslim riots’), using innovative means such as bhajans that evoke popular oppressed caste icons such as Kabir and Babasaheb Ambedkar. ‘We tell them that even if a grand Ram temple is built in Ayodhya, they won’t gain a thing from it. It will be controlled by Brahmin priests, who will make a living eating off the domations of the credulous. We tell them that they won’t find salvation in a temple of stone and mortar,’ he explained.
Over the years, Jugal-ji and his team (which now includes activists from different religious and caste backgrounds from across the country) have organized numerous sadbhavana yatras—rallies for communal harmony—the latest being last year, when they traveled all the way from Ayodhya to Ajmer, seat of the shrine of India’s most revered Sufi, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, stopping in towns all the way to address public gatherings.
I try and imagine myself in Yugal-ji’s place, fighting Hindutva (or any other form of fascism for that matter) while living in Ayodhya, right in the lion’s lair—I know this I couldn’t dare. I want to touch Yugal-ji’s feet in respect and awe, so overwhelmed am I by his sincerity and passion, but he restrains me and holds me back. He recounts the opposition that he has faced in the course of his crusade for communal harmony over the years. He tells me about his experiences as chief guest at a rally organized in Lucknow in 2006 by a group of oppressed caste activists of the Vishwa Shudra Mahasabha (the name having being deliberately chosen to counter the claims of the Brahmin Vishwa Hindu Parishad to speak for all ‘Hindus’). ‘I garlanded a picture of Ram, the Brahminical god-king, with shoes, because Ram, as the Ramayana says, lopped off the head of an innocent Shudra named Shambhukh for daring to violate the draconian law of caste,’ he goes on. For this, he was arrested and spent almost four months in prison, while enraged ‘upper’ caste men brutally assaulted the lawyers (both ‘low’ castes) who defended him.
Unfazed by the opposition he faced, Yugal-ji continued his battle against Brahminism even inside Ayodhya. Sometime in 2007, he took up the issue of a board in a public park in the town named after Tuslidas, author of the Ramayana, which was maintained out of government funds. The board had boldly declared: ‘A Brahmin, no matter how despicable his deeds, is worthy of being worshipped. A Shudra, no matter what good deeds he does, is ignoble.’ Enraged by the slogan, Yugal-ji sent a notice to the Commissioner and the Director of Parks, demanding that the board be taken down. ‘I wrote to them that 80 per cent of Indians, including myself, are so-called Shudras, and it was an insult to all of us. Tulsidas’ Ramayana, that preaches hatred for the Shudras, was an affront to our dignity. The slogan was also against the Constitution of India,’ he explains. If the board was not removed within a fortnight, he threatened that he and his supporters would tear it down themselves.
Buckling under pressure, the board was removed, but that did not settle matters. The local unit of the Sanatan Brahmin Samaj rose up in protest, organizing a demonstration and threatening to take revenge on Yugal-ji. A senior VHP leader even announced a sum of a lakh of rupees for Yugal-ji’s head.
I ask Yugal-ji to tell me his views about the Babri Masjid controversy that continues to rankle unsolved. ‘It was a mosque, no doubt,’ he insists. ‘There was no temple on the spot before. Indeed, Ram was not even worshipped in ancient times, the cult of Ram being a relatively new invention. So, there’s no question at all of the Mughal king Babar having destroyed a Ram temple and building a mosque in its place.’ Yugal-ji continues, ‘No one knows if Ram was ever born, or even if he was a historical figure at all. The Puranas claim he was born nine lakh years ago or so, but of course no recorded history exists from that period.’ But that is not all, he says. ‘As far as the Shudras, who form eighty per cent of India ’s population, are concerned, Ram is simply unworthy of worship. He worked to uphold the Brahminical social order and the degradation of the oppressed castes, though Brahmins and other so-called ‘upper’ castes, who live off the sweat and blood of the Shudras, might believe him to be divine.’
I am eager to learn what Yugal-ji believes to be the cure to the curse of communalism. ‘Ultimately’, he insists, ‘the only lasting solution is for human beings to identify themselves as just that—simply as humans. As long as we continue to regard ourselves as Hindus or Muslims or whatever, the menace of communalism can never be cured. We have to move towards a stage when identities are no longer premised or bracketed with religion. Our only identities should be that of being human. The final antidote to communalism is humanism’
Yugal-ji handles my irksome questions about his own religious faith somewhat indirectly and with tact, but I suspect that he is, like me, something of an agnostic. ‘You should be a good, compassionate person, and that is enough as far as I am concerned,’ he cryptically answers. ‘Righteous action, as the Buddha says, is what ultimately matters, not what caste you are born into, or what religious beliefs you profess or what name you call the Divine, if it does exists, by.’ He evokes Buddhist wisdom again: ‘The Buddha taught his companions not to blindly follow whatever he said. Rather, they should ponder on his words and accept them only if it appealed to their intelligence and conformed to their welfare and that of the majority, the bahujan.’
‘All institutionalized forms of religions place their scriptures above human intelligence and block human freedom and that is where the problem lies’, Yugal-ji goes on. ‘They soon become cages,’ he continues, ‘especially once they develop a system of priesthood, intermediaries or scholars who claim to have privileged access to the truth. Some might appear to be gilded cages or made of silver, but cages they remain. But it is the bird that flies in the open sky, using its own intelligence, that alone is truly happy.’
Yugal-ji can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org