The long-awaited Ram Temple has finally begun construction with overwhelming support from the Prime Minister of India, who attended the bhoomi poojan (a prayer ritual) in Ayodhya on August 5 with many other members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) present at the event.
The temple is to be constructed on the ground where the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century religious structure that was demolished in 1992 by a notorious Hindu mob, once stood. The demolition is infamously recalled for sparking violent sectarian riots that led to the killing of over 2,000 people. Ever since there have been conflicts between Hindus and Muslims over the site until legal intervention finally decided the fate of the contentious piece of land. On 19th November, in a landmark judgement, the Supreme Court of India granted the entire 2.77 acres of disputed land in Ayodhya to the Hindu litigants. To neutralise the possible backlash by the Muslim community, the court ordered the Central and Uttar Pradesh governments to allot an alternative five acres of land to the Muslim litigants to construct a mosque.
While the BJP is building the temple in accordance with the court order, it’s a little strange for the Ram Temple inauguration ceremony to occur amidst the coronavirus pandemic, especially when the Home Minister Amit Shah tested positive for the virus. Shekhar Gupta, founder of the Print, in a podcast, attributes this rushed decision as BJP’s way to appeal to people’s religious sentiments and increasing their vote bank by showing that they are in solidarity with the building of the Ram temple on the sacred land in Ayodhya.
Similarly, the BJP could be attempting to get another boost in ratings by showing citizens that they kept their word and achieved the two goals (the abrogation of article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya) as promised in their election manifesto. The Abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir was also announced on August 5 and was praised by most Indians which led to a significant rise in BJP’s popularity.
Along with pleasing the conservative Hindu masses, there seems to be an undeniable link of the BJP’s nationalism to Hindutva ideology. To clear any misconception, when referring to Hindutva ideology, we’re not talking about Hinduism, the religion and practice of faith but the politicisation of the religion in recent years. For instance, when the BJP banned the consumption of beef to appeal to Hindu citizens which consequently led to “cow protection” lynchings where gangs of Hindu men killed Muslim men whom they suspected of consuming beef in Uttar Pradesh and other northern states.
There have been many instances where BJP party members made comments that brought forth their Hindutva agenda. In 2019, a BJP MP Ravi Kishan said, “The population of Hindus is 100 crores. So obviously India is a Hindu Rashtra. There are so many Muslim and Christian countries. It is amazing that we have a country called Bharat,” as reported by the Times of India.
Another BJP member and RSS leader Rajeshwar Singh has, in an example of intimidation and hate speech said that “Muslims and Christians will be wiped out of India by December 31, 2021.” as reported by the Wire.
During the Citizenship Amendment Act protests, Yogi Adityanath made an inflammatory statement saying Muslim women were forced by their husbands and brothers because Muslim men are scared to protest themselves. BJP leaders have also incited violence to shut down opposing voices with Anurag Thakur leading a crowd of BJP supporters into chants of ‘Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maro salon ko’ using the slogan in the aftermath of the resistance to the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Their veiled but recurring disdain for Islamic religions and opposing viewpoints makes one wonder if we are really upholding the constitutional value of secularism.
Due to this reason, we need to have a look at what the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya means for India’s secularism and our political landscape.
Significance of the Ram Temple on Secularism
The Ram Temple wasn’t merely a win for the Hindu litigants and Hindu-practicing citizens, it was a win for the BJP as well. With the Prime Minister making an official appearance to the inauguration, it sends a message to party supporters and opposition that the idea of India is not just culturally intertwined but synonymous with Hindutva. As Saaket Jain writes in the Wire, “The prime minister, who is primus inter pares in India’s system, in a way represents the collective conscience of the country,” and discusses the impact of Modi’s official visit, “Attending the bhoomi poojan in his official capacity will not set a healthy precedent and will undermine the cherished principle of secularism, which is part of the basic structure of India’s constitution.”
This isn’t surprising as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to national prominence on the back of the temple movement launched in the 1980s. It started in 1984 when LK Advani, who led the Babri Masjid demolition movement, was appointed president of the BJP and decided to take up the issue of the Ram mandir movement as part of their political campaign. The campaign alleged that the Babri masjid was constructed where a temple once stood and this ‘injustice’ must be reversed by building a new Ram temple on the holy ground in Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama; this also became apart of their election manifesto.
The movement gained huge public support as lakhs expressed their solidarity with the campaign as reported by the Financial Express. It was an important movement for the BJP as it helped them establish themselves in the political landscape and won them 85 Lok Sabha seats in 1989 elections.
The opposition refrained from commenting on the history of the Ram temple
Despite the violent history of the temple, its construction has been welcomed by most citizens and the opposition has been eerily quiet about the controversial Temple construction. Usually, the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party ardently criticise the ruling party on almost every contentious issue. For instance, after the Delhi riots 2019, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) demanded action against BJP leaders Kapil Mishra and Abhay Verma for allegedly instigating people during communal clashes in Delhi that claimed 32 lives.
Even Rahul Gandhi, BJP’s biggest critic who recently blamed them of "institutionalising lies" over Covid-19 deaths, GDP figures and the Chinese aggression at the border, was awfully quiet about the Ram mandir event. Rather, the Congress showed support for the event with Priyanka Gandhi extending her support to the Ram Temple by calling it “a celebration of national unity, social fraternity and cultural unity.”
The Aam Aadmi Party leader, Arvind Kejriwal also supported the Ram mandir inaugural event in a tweet, “May the blessings of Lord Rama be with us. With his blessings, our country will get rid of hunger, illiteracy and poverty and make India the most powerful nation in the world. May India give direction to the world in times to come.”
The only leader that spoke against the temple was Asaduddin Owasi, the President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, saying that Babri Masjid incident will not be erased from Ayodhya’s legacy. Prominent journalist, Rana Ayub also objected to the festive event in one of several tweets, “Aug. 5 will become another infamous date for Muslims in India — a day of increased repression in Kashmir, with the added insult of a grand function in the city of Ayodhya, where the Babri mosque’s destruction led to a nationwide attack on Muslims in 1992.”
Both of them have received heated backlash from the temple supporters equating their criticism to an attack on Hinduism, however, that would be a gross generalisation as none of them castigated the religion directly. Rather, they’ve expressed their views on the alleged disintegration of secular values in India. But why is the idea of secularism so important?
Secularism and co-existence of all religions
The majority of Indian people are Hindu, however, leaders have always maintained that minorities deserve as many rights in India as the majority. The ideals of secularism have encouraged the co-existence of all religions. Secularism keeps a check on the State so that it remains in compliance with constitutional values and maintains the state-religion dichotomy. It’s been reiterated in many court cases as well, in S.R. Bommai vs Union of India, secularism was recognised as part of the basic structure of the constitution and Justice Jeevan Reddy held that the constitution does not recognise or permit mixing religion and state power, and the two must be kept apart.
Why Assaduddin’s request to PM Modi to attend the function at an individual capacity rather than an official one is noteworthy is because it sets an example. Even though, this event marks the fulfilment of BJP’s election promise, attending this event in an official capacity seems almost like a betrayal to the Indian Muslims.
The Prime Minister is duty-bound to maintain the trust of all communities as he took an oath to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India and sovereignty of India. Keeping this in mind, leaning towards one religion sets an image of favouritism. However, it seems people are tired of fighting the battle for a secular India, especially with pandemic taking a toll on everyone. Even the Muslims in Ayodhya have refused to be a part of this long-drawn religious conflict.
Hindus are happy, while Muslims are indifferent to the temple construction
In a report by Al Jazeera, it seems that a majority of the Hindu population in Ayodhya is happy with the construction of the Ram temple. Shravan Das, a 76-year-old ascetic, tells Al Jazeera, "Now there would be a flood of development and prosperity. Millions of Hindus will come to worship here and that will be good for everyone here."
Setu Lal Agrahari, who sells tikki-chaat (potato snack) in Rikabganj, sees the temple construction as a fulfilment of the BJP and Mr Modi’s poll promise and also praises the efforts of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which spearheaded the Ram Janmabhoomi movement as reported by the Hindu.
Even though the Hindus in Ayodhya welcomed the construction of the new temple, they are afraid of the possible displacement they might face due to new infrastructural developments around the temple area.
KK Nigam, who owns a shoe shop along the main road of the town, tells Al Jazeera that he fears his future because as part of the massive infrastructure development plans, both his house and shop are at the risk of demolition for a four-lane expressway. "I welcome the temple but the government should not destroy our lives for the sake of development. At least 2,000 people will be displaced and their livelihoods ruined if the government goes ahead with its plans," he says in a wavering voice.
At Makhapur, one of the many villages that surround Ayodhya, many workers and vendors are indifferent to the festive preparations going on. Bhagelu Maurya, a vegetable vendor tells the Al Jazeera, "Even if the temple is built I don't think it will affect my life. Let it get built first, we have seen promises earlier also about development but nothing happened."
As reported by the Hindu, Muslims in Ayodhya displayed a palpable sense of indifference on the event, some claiming they’ve made peace with it after the SC verdict. Others are more concerned with their livelihood as opposed to political differences. Mohammad Anees, who sells flowers for use in temples, Muslim shrines and marriage functions tells the Hindu, “I am more concerned about my livelihood. I have to raise a family and three kids. Once the temple is built, my business will grow.”
Ghufran Siddiqui, a well-known social activist, tells the Hindu that Muslims in Faizabad-Ayodhya stopped associating themselves with the issue after the SC gave the land to the temple. “Till the day of the verdict, people still had some hope for justice. But now they have no strong opinion on Ram Temple even though many are disappointed,” he said.
One doesn’t need to be a political scientist to see that this event can shift the already unequal power dynamics between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority. There is a convenient erasure of the bloodshed during the 1992 riots as the BJP has failed to address the issue or empathize with the lost Muslim lives and there seems to be no voice of dissent to challenge this.
Granted, the pandemic has put most political issues such as CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and NRC (National Register of Citizens) on hold but a refusal to engage in debates by the opposition or citizens, indicate growing holes in our democracy. However, nothing can be assumed in the present and we are yet to discover the effects of this historic event in the future. It also remains to be seen how the Ram temple will impact tourism and economic growth in Ayodhya.