Posted by: John Elliott | August 5, 2020

Modi dominates foundation ceremony of Ayodhya Hindu temple

Historic event symbolising the rise of Hindu nationalism

Temple on site of Muslim mosque razed by Hindu mobs in 1992

Narendra Modi staged a widely televised political coup this morning when he laid a silver brick as a symbolic foundation stone for the construction of India’s controversial Ram temple at Ayodhya on the site of a mosque demolished in 1992.

Modi head IMG_0046He was the central figure of the ceremony, establishing Hinduism’s historical role and its dominance at the expense of other religions, notably Islam.

He was not just demonstrating his government’s drive for Hindu nationalism, but also recognising the pivotal role that the temple has played in the rise of his Bharatiya Janata Party from political insignificance over the past 40 years.

“India is emotional, decades of wait has ended,” Modi said after the ceremonies. “Lord Ram lived under a tent for years, now he will reside in a grand temple”

It may seem perverse for Modi to stage the ceremony during the Covid pandemic – he and others at the ceremony wore masks and repeatedly washed their hands.

Modi ceremony IMG_0049

the foundation stone laying ceremony

Today’s celebrations in the Uttar Pradesh temple town will however give hope to hundreds of millions of Hindus among the 1.3bn population that is being ravaged by coronavirus. It will also strengthen Modi’s and the BJP’s image during a crucial state assembly election that is due (unless it is postponed) in neighbouring Bihar in October.

Construction of the temple is significantly scheduled for completion before the next general election ion 2024.

Ayodhya is the most sacred town for Hindus, who believe it was the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of their most revered deities. In December 1992, marauding Hindu mobs motivated by BJP leaders demolished a little used Muslim mosque, known as the Babri Masjid, that had been built on the site of a Hindu temple – a not unusual occurrence down the centuries.


A model of the temple that will now be built

The site has been disputed since the 18th century and the demolition turned Hindu and Muslim leaders’ rival claims into a major controversy with three decades of political infighting, riots, attempts at conciliation, and litigation. Last November, the supreme court ruled that nearly three acres of the land should be used to build a temple, and that five acres should be allocated elsewhere for a mosque. This is what has been implemented today on a 57-acre site that will become a Hindu complex.

Modi has been criticised for playing such a central role in a specific religion’s ceremony when he is prime minister of what is constitutionally a secular state respecting all religions. But that is academic given Modi’s nationalist approach, and it seems as if the construction of the temple is being broadly accepted across India. Leading Muslim figures attended the ceremony.

“We must rebuild our temples and viharas as one people. With mutual respect, love and inclusion. We must recreate them as not just places of worship, but also as centres of knowledge and social cohesion, as they were in ancient times,” says Amish Tripathi, the head of India’s cultural centre in London and an author of books on Ram. “It is a statement to the world that we will not die. We are sanatan [everlasting]. We are eternal. And most importantly, we are united. All 1.3 billion of us”.

The Ayodhya movement has been important in developing in new “national assertiveness” and “cultural pride” with Modi as “its icon,” says Swapan Dasgupta, a leading commentator and BJP MP.  “The monument to lord Ram, built on the site of an ancient temple, could yet become a powerful symbol of resurgent nationhood”.

Modi prostate IMG_0075

Modi prostrates himself at a temple on arriving in Ayodhya

The Congress Party has seemed unsure how to react, though it has been trying to appease growing Hindu consciousness ever since the the late 1980s when the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, allowed locks on the mosque to be opened.

Yesterday his daughter, Priyanka Gandhi who is a general secretary of the party, supported construction of the temple, saying she hoped it would become “a marker of national unity, brotherhood and cultural harmony in accordance with the message of Lord Ram and with his blessings”. That was echoed today by Rahul Gandhi, her brother, and the reluctant former Congress president.

Kashmir anniversary

Significantly, today is the first anniversary of another act of Hindu nationalism – the constitutional coup that the government staged on August 5 last year when it controversially reduced the standing of India’s northern state of Jammu & Kashmir. Accompanied by a lengthy security clampdown, this cancelled J&K’s status as a full state and ended special constitutional rights and privileges, opening the way for what is seen locally as an erosion of the Kashmir identity.

Most other aspects of Hindu nationalism have been muted since the pandemic struck in March, diverting attention both from growing opposition to citizenship legislation that discriminated against Muslims and from a sharp decline in the country economy that the government was failing to arrest.

A new education policy has however just been launched, which strengthens the teaching of the Hindu language in schools.

Amit Shah, the hardline home minister and Modi ally who was driving the nationalism agenda, has been less active in recent months and was hospitalised earlier this week, having tested positive for coronavirus. He therefore missed today’s ceremonies where Modi was accompanied by Yogi Adityanath, UP’s chief minister, along with the state’s governor and the leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the hard line umbrella organisation that embraces the BJP.

Covid numbers

India’s Covid numbers seem horrific, though less so when compared with other countries relative to the size of the population. Official figures show approaching 2m confirmed cases and nearly 40,000 deaths. Both figures are widely regarded as seriously understated, especially the deaths figure which is only 2% of the total confirmed cases compared for example with some 15% in the UK.

The government has taken a tough line in combating the virus, though Modi has been criticised for a sudden shutdown in March that triggered a mass movement of migrant workers from major cities.

Today that is being left aside as Modi did what he has often done before, making himself the televised star in an important national event – an event that will be widely seen as the reassertion of Hindu India.

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