Tuesday, July 27, 2010

It's Rush Limbaugh's India

A liberal guru can't compete with India's new televangelists.

By Jason Overdorf
July 27, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — Dressed in a long, orange kurta, orange pajamas and a bright orange turban, Swami Agnivesh looks every bit the haranguing fanatic.

But India's latest televangelist is cut from a different cloth. In a forest of Rush Limbaugh-style conservatives, Agnivesh is the sole voice of India's fast-fading social liberalism on TV. Or was. The crusader has just been canceled.

"From March 1968 till today I've been deeply involved with the struggle of the people, with the main focus on issues of social justice," Agnivesh said. "I felt that in order to consolidate an ideological perspective around these movements, struggles, agitations, which are all directed towards social change, I need a platform by which I can reach millions of viewers and engage them in discussion, debate and dialogue."

At 74 years old, Agnivesh speaks with a quiet, measured voice. As the president of the World Council of Arya Samaj — an affiliate of the Hindu reform movement that was founded in the 19th century to eradicate the caste system — his "sermons" are as much about politics as they are about religion.

Frustrated with religious leaders' opaque platitudes and increasingly commercial bent, not to mention the news channels' preference for shouting matches featuring the same old rogue gallery of party hacks, he set out to open substantive debates about the causes underlying caste discrimination, illiteracy, poverty, corruption and more. And he did it by passing the microphone to people whose voices had never been heard on Indian TV: including the Dalits who scrape human excrement from primitive toilets for a living, AIDS patients and lepers.

"We got an extensive response, not only through letters and emails," said Agnivesh. "But in my travels throughout the length and breadth of the country, people would walk up to me, shake hands and talk about the latest episode. I could see from their faces that it was impacting the minds of the people."

An ascetic who took monastic orders in 1970, Agnivesh is most famous for his decades-long fight against bonded labor. But he has also crusaded against female feticide, the liquor mafia and sati — a practice in which widows are encouraged, or forced, to immolate themselves on their deceased husbands' funeral pyres. On TV, he adopted the talk show format to send out his message for 52 episodes, playing devil's advocate instead of preaching.

"The strength of this program was that we took up issues that were not being taken up by the mainstream media and demonstrated through this talk show that there is more than one side to the truth," Agnivesh said.

There were some of the usual hijinks, too, of course. He theatrically touched the feet of a Dalit woman on one episode. But what was striking about the show was that he encouraged his underprivileged guests to talk for themselves, rather than banging on for them.

The fact that the government and the Maoists agreed to make him the go-between for peace negotiations in May — until his Maoist interlocutor was killed in controversial circumstances in June — is testament that he came off as fair, reasonable and honest. But fair, reasonable and honest doesn't sell.

Agnivesh's message of social reform cuts against the grain in modernizing India, where the upwardly mobile masses are increasingly looking to conservative leaders to explain their new world. That's why his show first migrated from the state-owned general interest channel, Doordarshan, to Lok Sabha TV — a channel primarily dedicated to the live broadcast of parliament — and was eventually canceled, while his most prominent competitors continue to amass million-dollar television empires.

"[The new conservative evangelism] marries the notion of what the audience feels to be traditional with consumption and individualism," said Santosh Desai, a prominent media analyst and CEO of Future Brands. "It sits really well with the Indian middle class, which is trying to make sense of the world around them. It assuages a lot of anxiety about change, by giving it a sort of spiritual sanctity."

Freed from state control in the 1990s, Indian cable has moved from soap operas to game shows to reality TV. Along the way, spiritual India's preoccupation with gods and gurus has inspired a bouquet of religious channels, too. They run the gamut from homegrown Sanskar TV, which broadcasts Hindu sermons and devotional music, to Power Vision, an all-God-all-the-time Christian channel that broadcasts in Hindi, Malayalam and English.

But in contrast to bygone gurus like the Hare Krishna movement's Swami Prabhupada or Beatles inspiration Mahesh Yogi, who sought to explode and transform society, India's new preachers are essentially conservative protectors of tradition. And the biggest stars of televangelism are its most controversial ideologues: Hinduism's Baba Ramdev and Islam's Zakir Naik.

Both televangelists appeal to a young, new India that's embracing commercialism and trying to make sense of a rapidly changing socio-economic landscape. Ramdev is more like self-help star Tony Robbins than Pat Robertson; he promises viewers tangible, individual benefits, like any brand, says Desai.

Similarly, Naik offers an imminently practical and useful service for Muslims. "He seems to have connected with the middle class Muslims ... [because] he tries to show that Islam is not incompatible with modern ideas," said Mujibur Rehman, a professor at New Delhi's Jamia Milia University.

"They are propagating themselves," said Agnivesh. "With each show, they are getting a little more followers, a little more power in that sense and, also, a little more money."

Their self-promotion, if that's what it's all about, can take an ugly turn. After claiming simple breathing exercises could cure cancer and AIDS, Baba Ramdev drew liberal ire — and additional fans — by opposing India's progressive move to decriminalize homosexuality. He went on to claim he could turn any erring lad butch with his yogic arts, and promptly announced he was forming his own political party.

For his part, Zakir Naik's opaque statements in support of terrorism and Osama bin Laden — though he claims they've been taken out of context — got him banned from entering the United Kingdom and Canada this June.

Arguably, this is reactionary radicalism in the guise of the rational. Whether the effect is intentional or not, Naik's propensity for inflammatory statements like "every Muslim should be a terrorist," make him a dangerous influence. And Ramdev's peddling of prejudice and superstition is perhaps more dangerous still in a country already flirting with Hindu fundamentalism.

"It's too much to say that Hindu right revivalism is directly linked to this, but certainly it softens up the audience for the revivalist agenda to some extent," said Desai. "In that respect, although it's couched in the language of modern, it has the effect of the other kind."

Indeed, with every bombshell, India's conservative gurus have grown more popular. Ramdev's programs reportedly attract an audience of more than 85 million people, and his yoga and homeopathic medicines businesses bring in $40 million a year. Meanwhile, Naik claims an audience of 50 million for his program on Peace TV, and one of India's top newspapers ranks him the country's third-most powerful guru, after Ramdev and the Art of Living's Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

At the same time, Agnivesh's most radical statements helped get his show canceled. He didn't just call out the government on the Maoist issue. He came out against Hinduism's massively important kumbh mela — a ritual bath in the Ganges that attracts millions of pilgrims — and threatened to launch a Right to Information inquiry into the huge sums that the government spends on the celebration. And he pilloried Dalit leaders, like the present Congress Party speaker of the Lok Sabha, who rise to power based on their caste affiliation and then abandon the empowerment agenda for party politics.

Sometimes, when the truth sets you free, it also leaves you unemployed.

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