Rushing into a Hindu Rashtra

Modi Ayodhya

Modi has proven to the country that he means business. He promised the country the Ram Temple in the very location where the Babri Masjid once proudly stood. He fulfilled that promise.  A mob of right wingers, RSS cadres, and lumpen elements brought it down unabashedly. Bringing down the mosque in 1992 was an act that split the country and created bloodshed. It followed a Movement led by BJP stalwarts such as L K Advani, and Murli Manohar Joshi, both of whom Modi dropped from the list of invitees to the opening of the new Temple.

Advani’s Rath Yatra concluded on December 6, 1992, when a mob scaled the mosque and smashed its domes with axes and hammers, leveling the entire structure. The episode triggered sectarian riots in several parts of India, killing about 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. It had already irate anti-minority sentiments. Today, the foundations of Hindutva stand firmly rooted in the country’s political landscape while the roots of secularism are somewhat insecure.  

The B.J.P. and the R.S.S. unequivocally envisage India as a Hindu nation. This disregards the glaring reality that the country has a population of more than 200 million Muslims, and some 5% of other faiths. In the political calculus within which the BJP/RSS currently operate, the other minorities count for nothing. A prominent right-wing BJP politician referring to the minorities after the inauguration of the Ram Temple spoke as follows: ‘They are all jealous. They never thought this (Ram Temple construction) will happen. It (Ram Temple) is being built; there is euphoria all over the country. They are in a difficult spot. I don’t care because 82 per cent of India is Hindu and the remaining minorities – Christians have not protested at all, Parsis, Jews – they are all supportive.’

The Ayodhya chronicle dyed by Modi’s interpretations will be the focus of the Prime Minister’s campaign in the ensuing general elections in April. He is convinced that he will gain a massive majority riding on the back of the Ram Temple Pran Pratishtha ceremony.

Ram ke Naam (In the Name of God) is a 1992 documentary by Indian filmmaker Anand Patwardhan which explored the campaign waged by the right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation Vishva Hindu Parishad to build a temple to the Hindu deity Ram at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The film earned Patwardhan wide recognition, and several national and international awards. It told the harsh truth of Advani’s Rath Yatra and anyone who dared to screen it risked being ransacked and intimidated.  

Richard M. Eaton, professor of history at the University of Arizona observed:Future generations might view the destruction of the Babri Masjid as the beginning of a fateful chapter in India’s history because it opened the door to challenging the identity of Muslim structures throughout India – even the Taj Mahal. As we know, the 1991 Places of Worship Act affirmed that the religious identity of any place of worship (apart from the Babri Masjid itself) could not be altered from what it had been on Independence Day, 1947. Although that act was intended to settle once and for all the status of India’s religious monuments, it actually had the opposite effect, partly because it raised people’s awareness of the religious character of physical monuments more generally, in the same way that nearly a century of British census operations – by requiring people to place themselves in government-defined ethnic categories in an atmosphere of gathering political competition – had raised people’s awareness of their own religious identities.” Prominent places of worship and religious heritage are being disputed as having been built over temples during the Portuguese rule.

Has India now joined ranks of existing theocracies?  Is secularism mutely being evacuated from the political milieu? Will majoritarianism now be the new cornerstone of India’s political constructs?  The BJP has embarked on a script of a new national history via Ayodhya with its steep descent from secularism to Hindu nationalism. The Ram Temple was consecrated as a re-invented fact in 1992 when Babur’s Mosque was reduced to rubble. The riots that followed took 2000 lives and left in its wake a virtually censored Muslim minority.

The first recorded instance of conflict over the site between the Hindus and Muslims was in 1853, during an era of sociopolitical transition throughout India. During the British raj, separate areas of the site were set up for Muslims and for Hindus. In 1949, after India was partitioned and became independent, images of Rama were brought into the mosque. In the resultant storm, the site was closed off to both communities, although the images were not removed.

A campaign was instigated in 1984 to vandalize the mosque and build a Hindu temple in its place. The movement gained momentum in the following years, leading to riots in 1990 and the collapse of India’s ruling coalition. This momentum swept the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in several states, and on December 6, 1992, security forces that stood by as activists destroyed the mosque. A sequence of court battles played out in the subsequent decades. The land was divided between Hindus and Muslims in 2010 by the decision of a high court. That decision was challenged by both Hindu and Muslim litigants, and in 2019 the Supreme Court entrusted the site exclusively to Hindus. As it turned out, the Supreme Court bench ruled that the entire 2.77 acres of disputed land in Ayodhya be handed over to a trust to be constituted for the construction of the Ram temple at the site, and five acres allotted at a ‘prominent site’ in Ayodhya to build a mosque. Rather bizarrely, the culmination came when an idol was placed in the sanctum sanctorum of the imposing pink sandstone construction, 75 years after a similar idol appeared in Babur’s Mosque. For those who subscribed to the actuality that the temple was built over the destroyed mosque, there is undying conviction that the birthplace of Ram lies underneath the Mosque.

It may be pointless now to enter into a discourse on the ruling by the SC on the validity of the claims that the Temple was built on the precise spot where Lord Ram was born. Yet, to ignore historical facts, and believe in myths is to ignore history and possibly allow history to repeat itself. From the perspective of archaeology and faith itself, the claim is based on apocryphal grounds. There is nil evidence that Lord Ram was born on the precise site of Babri Masjid. The judgment deliberated extensively on whether Hindus believed that the Babri Masjid site was the birthplace of Ram and worshipped him at this site. A 116-page addendum, authored by one of the judges, is titled, ‘Whether disputed structure is the holy birth place of Lord Ram as per the faith, belief and trust of the Hindus. Within the scope of normal judicial practice, the claimants ought to have produced tangible evidence and not what is assumed’. 

The inauguration of the Temple has heightened the pitch of a new battle cry to invoke patriotic/ religious sentiment. “Ayodhya to sirf jhanki hai, Kashi, Mathura baqi hai!” (Ayodhya was just a preview; Kashi and Mathura will follow). This new mantra, if taken seriously, can provide political capital with massive assets. Another prominent leaders avowed: “These three temples must be taken back. There is another 40,000 other temples but we can afford to ignore the remaining 39000+.

Other claims are moving at a frenzied pace. As for the Shahi Idgah, Hindutva groups are now asserting that there was a Krishna Janmabhoomi temple which was destroyed by Aurangzeb at this site and that Lord Krishna was born there.  They want the mosque to be demolished and the land ‘returned’ to the temple authorities. Legal processes are already on in a Mathura Court with a plea to appoint a senior advocate commissioner to authenticate the presence of signs of a Hindu temple at the mosque site.  

Why the desperate hurry to inaugurate the Ram temple that is a sheer work-in-progress. Some onlookers found solace in seeing Modi don mascara on the idol’s eyes. Political analysts linked the tedious hurry to the upcoming elections. If, in 2019, it was Pulwama and Balakot, in 2024, the BJP will seek to rake in the political turnover of the Ram Temple.

Regardless of the controversies that surround it, the divisive new Ram temple saw half a million visitors on its first day open to the public. Half a million people entered the new Ram Mandir the following day. Many more millions more watched it on social media and swarms of Sangh Parivar members roamed the streets of towns and cities raising the slogan ‘Jai Shree Ram, hanging up red flags bearing the images of Lord Ram and the Ayodhya Temple atop buildings symbolizing the Hindu symbol of victory since the time of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Mobs provocatively even placed flags and buntings over churches. It was a show of militant celebration and religiosity. Some reports have it that babies were prematurely induced so that they would be born on the day of the inauguration.  

Ayodhya is not an important religious or tourist destination on its own. A new airport and railway station were star attractions designed for the occasion. The solitary lure will be its newness. Spiritual destinations in India are a dime a dozen and have the weight of historical spirituality and spirituality is punctuated by the lengths of its longevity. Take Valankani, Tirupathi, Sabarimala, Bodh Gaya, visited every single year by tens of thousands of devotees. Does Modi assume that all these devotees will abandon history and shift to Ayodhya?

The most fundamental question progressives ask is: Have the shutters on secularism been eliminated? If the new virulent Hindutva is going to ride roughshod over minorities, liberals, and secularists, we could as well write the epitaph of the multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic country that made India the unique country it has been through the centuries. Are we on the brink of writing the epitaph of an epoch?

This is certainly a time when we must examine our nation with razor-sharp questions and scrutinize our history in depth. It would be historically inappropriate to lay all the blame for the post 2014 happenings in terms of religious fundamentalism on the current regime. We must also interrogate the Nehruvian era and its multiple riots in which the largest number of victims were Muslims. Few recognize how, for instance, calls to introduce a ban on cow alienated Muslims and low-caste Dalits, who see no reason to uphold the upper-caste Hindu injunction against consuming beef. Today’s  secularists are loath to admit that the Congress was just as nasty to minorities when it was in power as the BJP is today. The BJP did not come out of nowhere. Both parties share a commitment to caste and class hierarchy, coupled with an allergy to redistribution, and sustained electoral appeals to the Hindu tradition.

The modern history of Ayodhya illustrates this point rather well. When the idol of Ram magically appeared overnight at Babur’s Mosque in 1949, the Congress took a rather indulgent view of the whole affair. The mosque was boarded up and the idol left inside, giving oxygen to Hindu zealots. In 1985, their demands that the locks be opened were answered by the Congress which was pursued amid raucous calls for Hindu renewal. But it was the BJP that proved more adept at that game, demolishing the mosque completely in 1992. Riots ensued across the country, and the BJP rode to power four years later off the back of religious polarization.

By 2010, the Allahabad High Court pronounced Muslims “junior partners” in national life, dividing Babur’s Mosque into three tracts and pledging two to Hindus. Then, 10 years later, with the BJP in power, the Supreme Court handed the entire plot to Hindus, to construct a temple on the ruins of the 16th-century mosque. Now, with the consecration of the Ram Temple, and by extension the effective inauguration of a new theocratic regime, we may have heard the last about that self-congratulatory declaration that India is a secular, socialist democracy.

As the BJP attempts a rewrite of history to establish its majoritarian, monolithic agenda, secularism stands threatened. Frank Huzur states: “Upholding the democratic spirit of diversity and justice on which this nation was founded is imperative to counter such regressive, divisive and unconstitutional moves”.

Modi described Ayodhya as a symbol of peace, patience, mutual harmony and coordination of Indian society, or the notion of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (The world is one family)? These values of inclusion, equality and justice are essential to any human civilization. Yet facts and stated aspirations are two different things in contemporary India. The state of the nation is marked by violence against the minorities – religious, economic, caste and ethnic.

But just before and after the 22nd January, churches were torn down, and Muslims experienced fear and anxiety. “Jai Shri Ram” once a benign greeting is now a war cry; its invocation of “Jai Shri Ram,” culturally an bland salutation, has undergone a transformation into a belligerent rallying cry with menacing connotations. Such instrumental use of Lord Ram by those in the Ram Navmi processions, and now the launch of the Ram Temple organised by Hindu nationalists has not come from nowhere. The Hindu nationalist ideology, as propagated by the Sangh Parivar misrepresents and distorts history wherein the Muslim rulers are presented as oppressors of Hindus who were out to destroy the Hindu culture, demolish their temples, forcibly convert the Hindus and sexually assault Hindu women. That is why the Prime Minister once asserted that Hindus were enslaved and colonized for over a thousand years.

With communal politics in the ascendancy, it now remains to be seen if secularism can be revived on the grounds of the Indian constitution – a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic. These are peeling off by the wayside. Hinduism in its most authentic impulse affirms that Hindu belief is totally non-exclusive and accepts all other faiths and religious paths. An ancient Vedic text says that God or Truth is one and the wise call it by many names. This is by contrast to certain other faiths which are prone to proselytizing. 

But until a dialogical process among religious leaders – clergy and laity- begins in right earnest, the risks of physical, symbolic or attitudinal violence and structural violence will eat into Indian polity and endanger among religious followers. It would then swell into caste and ethnic wrangles.

A wise, unknown source speaks with profundity:
“The leader installed the deity, the nation cheered, the people burst crackers, the children rejoiced in a school holiday, flags were forced onto other places of worship, chants filled the air, and the followers believed a New Age had dawned.

The next day: The poor remained poor, the rich became richer, the leader fooled the millions, the starving continued to starve, the minorities felt more alienated, the nation lost its secular character, religion died a bit more,,, and the god represented by the deity smiled at the foolishness of human beings”

Ranjan Solomon is a human rights activist who subscribes to the ideal of a secular, socialist, democratic society. 

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