India’s PM boosts Hindutva agenda with Ram temple ceremony amid coronavirus
- The Ayodhya temple event is on the first anniversary of the revocation of Article 370 that took away special rights for Muslim-majority Kashmir
- Narendra Modi’s presence at the event comes days after he attended a cabinet meeting with Covid-19 positive interior minister Amit Shah
Modi’s presence at the event will come days after he attended a cabinet meeting with home minister Amit Shah, who tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday, and has raised concerns about others falling ill as India battles a steep rise in coronavirus infections.
Critics have accused Modi’s administration – he has been India’s premier since 2014 and was re-elected last year with a larger mandate – of fomenting communal mistrust with its Hindu-nationalist (or Hindutva) policies, including passing the Citizenship Amendment Act which fast-tracks the process to gain Indian citizenship for non-Muslim refugees.
Dr Subir Sinha, a senior lecturer in institutions and development at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), said holding the ceremony on the anniversary of the Kashmir decision was symbolic of the government’s “finger in the wound” style of politics.
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“The choice of the date is precisely to remind Muslims of that date last year when Kashmir’s status changed and its people have been living a version of mass incarceration, restriction and collective punishment,” he said.
The Ram temple has a contentious legacy – it is being built 28 years after a violent mob of Hindu right-wing activists, cheered on by politicians from the now-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), demolished a 16th-century mosque that stood at the site, believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god.
The demolition sparked deadly communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims across the country, which saw more than 1,000 people killed and thousands more injured. It remains a painful memory and a low point for communal relations in the Hindu-majority country of 1.3 billion, where about 200 million are Muslims, with other religious minorities including Christians and Buddhists.
Last year, after following through on one of its big election promises by revoking Jammu & Kashmir’s autonomy and splitting it in two, the Modi administration imposed an unprecedented communications blockade on the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, put dozens of state political leaders under house arrest and throttled protests by stationing large numbers of paramilitary forces on the streets.
Rights groups say the government’s security clampdown resulted in numerous human rights violations, while journalists in the region have also been targeted.
Pakistan, which administers part of Kashmir but claims the whole region, protested against the constitutional change, as did Beijing, which said the move to hive off the Buddhist-dominated enclave of Ladakh violated its territorial sovereignty as it was in a dispute with New Delhi over ownership of the region.
Yet nearly 1,500km away in Ayodhya, Hindu activists have collected soil and water from sites considered holy by devotees across the country, 3,000 loudspeakers are being installed across Ayodhya for the live broadcast of the ceremony and the entire city has been illuminated to commemorate the occasion.
Modi is expected to lay a 22kg silver brick to mark the start of the temple’s construction. During the ceremony, he will be flanked by state leaders and Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Hindu nationalist group, which is seen as the ideological parent of Modi’s BJP.
Some of the prime minister’s overseas supporters have reportedly arranged for images of Ram and the planned temple to be emblazoned on billboards at Times Square in New York City, while celebrations are being planned across India.
In a gesture of reconciliation, the attendees will include two prominent Muslims who lived through the riots after the Babri temple was razed – Iqbal Ansari and Mohammad Sharif, who was honoured with one of India’s highest civilian awards for performing last rites for unclaimed bodies after the clashes.
“Whatever happened are things of the past,” Iqbal said. “I’ve been invited and I think it’s the wish of Lord Ram and I am going to attend it.”
Nevertheless, Sudha Pai, a political scientist and former professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the developments only showed the continuing assertiveness of right-wing Hindu nationalists in Indian politics and policies.
“The demolition of the mosque was the starting point for the militant Hindu nationalist project and sent out a strong message to the country’s religious minorities. Under Modi, this project has been sped up,” he said.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Delhi-based author who has written a book about the demolition and recently authored a biography of Modi, said the prime minister’s role in the events that led to the demolition of the Babri mosque was minimal, so this inauguration ceremony was a way to ensure the Ram temple would be seen as part of his legacy.
The 1992 demolition was sparked by years of lobbying by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an integral part of the Sangh Parivar, an ideological family of Hindu nationalist organisations that includes the BJP.
Several senior BJP leaders, including former Indian deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, played a crucial role in mobilising popular support for the cause. The agitation propelled the BJP’s rise from a marginal player to the country’s main opposition party in the 1990s, and to what is now the world’s largest political party.
“This is a legacy issue for Modi,” Mukhopadhyay said. “He wants political immortality in this country and this is a part of his plan towards creating that legacy.”
Sinha from SOAS said unrest over the Ram Temple was also instrumental in Modi’s own rise as a political leader. In February 2002, Hindu pilgrims and activists returning from Ayodhya on a train got into a dispute with Muslims at the Godhra railway station in the state of Gujarat. Four coaches of the train were set on fire, killing 59 Hindus and sparking deadly riots across the state, where Modi was then chief minister.
Government officials, police and Modi himself were accused of being complicit in the violence, though he was cleared of wrongdoing in 2012 by a team appointed by India’s Supreme Court.
“Modi’s own rise owes much to the Godhra incident,” Sinha said. “So [the Ram temple inauguration is both a milestone in Hindutva’s rule via Modi in India as well as a culmination of an event intricately linked to Modi’s rise to power.”
Political scientist Pai added that the decision to hold a grand inauguration event was also a bid to divert public attention away from the Covid-19 situation. In Uttar Pradesh state, where Ayodhya is located, state minister for technical education Kamal Rani Varun died on Sunday from the disease.
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Hours later, another state minister, Mahendra Singh, and state BJP chief Swatantra Dev Singh also tested positive. The temple’s chief priest, Acharya Satyendra Das, was quarantined on Monday after his assistant tested positive.
“The Modi government’s handling of the pandemic, from the migrant crisis to the financial implications, has been disastrous. Events such as the inauguration will help the BJP prop up brand Modi and take people’s attention away,” Pai said.
Mukhopadhyay, the author, said the state-sponsored celebrations were in poor taste. “The prime minister’s attendance [further] blurs even the muddled line between religion and state.”
With four years ahead of him in his second term, Sinha said these developments signalled Modi’s move towards even more assertive Hindu-nationalist policies in the future.
“Modi has always been very strident about his desire to implement Hindutva’s core agenda, and he has already taken many steps to do so,” he said. “But coming back with a larger majority – and not needing alliances to remain in power – freed his hands, and we see the items on the list of Hindutva’s core agenda being ticked off the list one after another.”
Additional reporting by Reuters