Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to lay the foundation of a grand temple dedicated to Hindu God Ram, a name that has shaped India’s contemporary politics, built and destroyed fortunes of parties since the nineties and decisively tilted the political and social discourse to the far right.
Modi will travel to Ayodhya town where the 160-feet tall grand temple will come up at a site claimed by Hindus and Muslims for over a century, a dispute that resulted in violent riots and bloodshed across the country.
The foundation will be laid on August 5, nine months after India’s top court handed over the disputed site to Hindus while Muslims were given another piece of land to build a mosque.
After retiring as the chief justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, the judge who delivered this verdict, accepted nomination to Parliament’s unelected house by Modi, a controversial move that raised questions on judicial propriety. The new temple will come up at the same site where the 16th century Babri mosque stood till 1992 when Hindu hardliners demolished it, triggering violent clashes killing over 2,000 people.
We must understand that assertion of religious and cultural nationalism has a big price — of social and political marginalisation of Muslims under Modi rule. India’s largest minority community wants to close this chapter and move on after the Lucknow court delivers a verdict in demolition case on August 31
Organisers say the ceremony will involve elaborate Vedic rituals and the temple will be a symbol of social harmony. While it is true that in the months leading to Ayodhya verdict, a big section of Muslims had given up claim on the disputed site, the community is not comfortable with the turn of events since the election of Modi government in 2014.
The community, for example, is waiting for punishment to those who destroyed the Babri mosque. Those who led a large mob of Hindu activists include Modi’s senior party colleagues, including LK Advani, regarded as the father of Ram temple movement and credited with whipping up a nationwide frenzy that led to bloody riots in the nineties.
In every election manifesto
The temple construction is the culmination of a cultural-nationalism movement launched in the nineties by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Ram temple was promised in every election manifesto of the BJP and the party’s politics revolved around this movement which has refined the idea of India from a secular republic to a majoritarian nation where Muslims have been pushed to the margins socially and politically.
A special court is hearing criminal charges against 92-year-old Advani, and dozens of other prominent leaders of Modi’s party. They are accused of hatching a criminal conspiracy and leading a mob to demolish the mosque. On July 24, Advani appeared before the court in Lucknow through video conferencing, answered 100 questions and denied all the charges.
Advani has been invited to the temple foundation ceremony. The Supreme Court has directed the special court in Lucknow to wrap up the trial and announce a verdict by August 31.
The date chosen for the foundation ceremony and Modi’s presence, therefore, becomes problematic in many ways. Several prominent Hindu religious leaders have objected to August 5, saying the date is inauspicious because of planetary positions. For Muslims, the foundation ceremony comes ahead of the expected verdict of Lucknow special court. While a grand Hindu temple is being built, they feel, the community is still waiting for punishment to those who demolished the mosque on December 6, 1992.
August 5 is also the first anniversary of Modi’s highly controversial move of taking away special constitutional powers from the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. On this day last year, Modi’s deputy Amit Shah announced abolition of Article 370, a promise given by Indian’s constitutional writers granting special powers to the state.
Will of the majority
Dropping Article 370 was also part of the BJP’s big project to turn India into a nation that functions as per the will of the majority. Similar special powers granted other states in India’s north east remain untouched. Since August 5, 2019, millions of Muslims in Kashmir have lived under a lockdown enforced by army and paramilitary soldiers. They have lived with restrictions on mobility, without internet and greatly curtailed personal liberties.
Prominent Kashmiri leaders, including Modi’s former alliance partner and chief minister Mehbooba Mufti are in custody. Some have been released after months of incarceration only after they signed bonds promising to remain silent.
On August 5, when Modi lays down the temple’s foundation stone, a 22.6 kilogramme silver brick with his name embossed in red ink, he will hopefully close one of the bloodiest chapters in India’s independent history.
By coincidence or design, the chants of elaborate Vedic rituals in Ayodhya will also drown the voices of pain and misery from Kashmir where people are living in fear, uncertainty and amid coils of concertina wire.
According to a timeline announced by the government-backed Ayodhya trust, the temple built by Larsen and Toubro is likely to be completed in three years, ahead of 2024 when Modi faces another election.
Before that, an army of volunteers will reach out to people across the country in a massive drive to collect funds from people, keeping the temple firmly in national discourse during state elections in 2021 and later.
For people of India, the construction of Ram temple is time for big celebrations and fulfilment of a decades old dream. However, we are a democratic nation guided by secular values enshrined in the constitution.
We must understand that assertion of religious and cultural nationalism has a big price — of social and political marginalisation of Muslims under Modi rule. India’s largest minority community wants to close this chapter and move on after the Lucknow court delivers a verdict in demolition case on August 31.
A not-guilty verdict in favour of the accused, however, will leave a permanent taint on the temple, a possibility that should worry all Indians.