In the presence of the RSS supremo, and those accused of the demolition of the Babri mosque, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has laid the first brick of the temple at the very spot where the Babri mosque stood until 6 December 1992. He has done so at a time when the pandemic is not abating, the country’s rich social fabric is in shreds, its borders threatened and its economy in the ICU. The riots that followed the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya brought the Ram temple movement to a destructive crescendo.
Lying in abeyance since then, movement towards the construction of the temple revived in Modi’s first term and acquired a certain inevitability when he romped to power again in 2019. Symbolism has been a powerful tool for the saffron party and its parent organisation, the RSS. The date of 5 August, which coincided with the removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status last year, was chosen to send a clear message of ideological purity and purpose. The Opposition withered in the face of this Hindutva nationalist zeal.
Much is being made of the Prime Minister’s selection of “Jai Siya Ram” instead of the staple and menacing “Jai Shri Ram” slogan in his speech at Ayodhya. Does it mean that Modi wants his followers to drop their aggression? Perhaps. It is more likely that with global attention on the occasion, and Modi, firmly ensconced in India’s throne, he has only temporarily distanced himself from an irascible slogan that spells terror for non-Hindus, particularly Muslims; though most peace-loving Hindus too find it disturbing.
However, neither the slogan nor the evermore aggressive Hindutva onslaught on “enemies of the nation” is likely to go away because the Prime Minister did not utter it in Ayodhya. Barely hours after his speech ended, Hindutva activists gathered at the Ram ki Paidi locality and demanded a national law banning the killing of cows, while others warned that this is just the beginning, alluding to other “disputed sites” at Varanasi and Mathura, also in Uttar Pradesh.
Over the last decade the rhetoric of the Ram temple movement has seen subtle shifts. From cries of vengeance and victimhood at the hands of Babar the pro-temple strategists have pushed softer arguments such as how Ram is revered and respected by all Indians. An often cited proof is a famous couplet by Allama Iqbal in which he called Ram, “Imam-e-Hind” or India’s spiritual leader.
The Prime Minister’s speech was lucid when it came to the plurality of the Ramayan tradition and describing the endearing qualities of Ram. But the omission of the Dashrath Jataka, or the various Jain recensions that critique the Valmiki Ramayan reflect a selective understanding of the Ramayan tradition. Furthermore, the absence of a reference to Iqbal’s “Imam-e-Hind” affirms that Modi himself will not appear to be an appeaser à la Congress at any cost.
While the Prime Minister eagerly plugged his government’s motto of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas he failed to acknowledge the contribution of Muslim rulers to making Ayodhya a Hindu pilgrim centre in the 18th and 19th centuries. Like most temples in Ayodhya, the Hanumagarhi temple itself is built on land donated by the Awadh Nawabs. Speaking from the ground zero of modern India’s most devastating tryst with communalism, specific mentions would have assured India’s minorities. This generality is surprising for someone whose penchant for trite acronyms is recognised globally. Perhaps the Prime Minister does not appreciate the fact that this dissimulation feeds the fear of a destructive Hindutva majoritarianism among democratic and progressive sections of India.
The exclusive gathering including Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath applauded one chaupai or verse cited by the Prime Minister from the Ramayan the most; “bhayabinu hoi napratiti”. It translates to “without fear there is no love”. Now, the particular verse occurs in a context where, after three days of unsuccessful pleading with the sea god, Ram is forced to take up arms, so that his army could cross over to Lanka. Modi, with characteristic flourish, buttressed the point that Ram’s policy of “fear is required for love” is needed to make the nation stronger and thus peaceful. Again, without putting too fine a point on it, which nation is being referred to here, a Hindu nation or a secular India? If this was a reference to India’s neighbours, it was too obtuse and insipid. It is more probable that it was directed at Indians who have increasingly witnessed the state’s heavy hand whether during the pandemic-related lockdowns, the anti-CAA protests or crackdown on dissenters and opponents including the ongoing bid to topple the Rajasthan government.
What lies in store for Ayodhya’s shared history?
The roots of the Ram temple movement were firmly planted in dismissal of Ayodhya’s and India’s syncretism. Through the decades most Hindi dailies have only amplified the fake history of Ayodhya that was propagated by groups like the VHP. In this moment of jubilation for the temple, most Indian media outlets have gone all out claiming that a 500-year old wrong is being rectified. The demolition of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya was a moment of national shame, today, the Indian media is pulling out all stops to turn it into one of glory. Instead of remorse there is vindication, instead of regret there is triumphalism, and instead of seeing this new chapter as an opportunity to bring closure, there are renewed attempts to erase Muslims from India’s past.
As the Prime Minister of a diverse country like India, it is incumbent upon Narendra Modi to start a chapter of true reconciliation at Ayodhya, and that would require an apology for the violence wreaked in the name of the Ram temple as well as the promise that Ayodhya’s histories, both Hindu and Muslim, will be given equal attention in future planning. Anything less would only embolden the extremists within his followers to continue their communal rampage against minorities.
Valay Singh is a journalist and author of Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord. The views are personal.