On August 5, like a victor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi strode to the Ramjanambhoomi complex, recently rescued from its disputed status by a flawed and highly controversial judgment of the Supreme Court that gave the control of the land to the Hindus, and laid the foundation stone of a Ram Temple.

Through this well publicized act, beamed live from Ayodhya by all Indian TV channels, Narendra Modi made it known to all the contempt he had of the country’s secular constitution and many Supreme Court judgments that upheld the separation of Church and State. It seemed BJP and Modi used democracy as a ploy to capture power and all the institutions of the State to turn the country into a ‘Hindu State’. A pliant and obsequious judiciary has facilitated this task.

The brazen manner in which the foundation stone laying ceremony and the construction of Ram temple was equated by Modi with the struggle for country’s independence left a large mass of people cold. It is not what was playing out was unexpected, but its implications when everything was uncertain due to a ravaging pandemic deepened fears and anxieties amongst those who felt protected by a secular Constitution –the minorities and the marginalized. Modi’s reinterpretation of our history had the making of undermining plural influences that shaped our Constitution and how the State perceives its citizens. Hence the construction of Ram Temple was meant to correct a historical wrong and sanctified a divisive perception that Muslims were the enemy of this, alleged Hindu State that had prevented the construction of Ram temple. It’s a different matter that the Supreme Court despite its flawed judgment, did not find any archaeological evidence that a mosque had been built on a demolished temple in Ayodhya. But in a post-fact world does such evidence really matter for a party that insisted that Ram temple was a matter of faith and not historicity. Hence facts were ignored lest they hurt the dominant narrative built assiduously by the BJP leadership since it’s former president L K Advani declared the construction of Ram Temple its party’s programme at Palampur in 1989.

The BJP Ram janambhoomi campaign in the 90’s and the consequent demolition of the Babari Masjid on December 6,1992, with muscular support of RSS and its front organizations destabilized a nation that was slowly emerging from an economic slowdown and the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv.

The Ram janambhoomi movement led by LK Advani in 1990 left a trail of violence and killings that tore the social fabric of a society where Hindus and Muslims comfortably lived cheek-by- jowl with the business of religion tying them inextricably with each other. In Hindu holy cities like Varanasi, Muslims provided the craft and skills needed to give meaning to their rituals. The violence embedded in the temple movement was disruptive- culturally, economically and tried to redefine India as a nation state.  

According to historian KM Panicker, during 3 month long rath yatra led by L K Advani  in 1990, some 166 riots took place that led to the death of 564 people. Many more died after the mosque was demolished on December 6, 1992. The horrific memories of Mumbai riots followed up by the blowing up of Mumbai Stock Exchange have not really gone away from those who lived through this trauma. Simply stated, the Ram temple project was to jettison the gains of a secular freedom movement led by Gandhi and Nehru and to push aggressively a flawed view of a Hindu India, which electorally disenfranchises Muslims and secular citizens.

If one revisits the BJP wins in different states after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, one would discover that polarization of the Hindus made it difficult for the Muslims to win a single seat. Quite apparently, BJP’s short-term objective to socially engineer Hinduism by creating a bigger enemy, Islam, succeeded after VP Singh announced the Mandal Commission award for other backward castes (OBCs), which the Hindu nationalists believed could fragment the society. To reiterate the short-term objective may have been to socially engineer the society, but the grand project remained the political and economic disenfranchisement of the Muslims.

The much-vaunted Gujarat model, which brought Modi and BJP to power involved making Muslims politically irrelevant. In the last 30 years not a single Muslim MP has won from this western Indian state. It’s 9.65 percent population should have ideally won them 17 seats in the state assembly, but it manages barely 2-3 seats in each assembly elections. Same story plays out in all the states where the BJP managed to win power. This progressive marginalization of the minorities in a democracy is premised on a simple electoral fact that if the vote of Muslims and Christians has no impact on electoral outcomes, then they will also not have any role in policy-making. That ways the secular Constitution can stay for global consumption, but would lose any meaning in the country.

The win in 2019 was significant as it broke the back of the Congress and other secular opposition parties. It is at this juncture the RSS realized that there was no real opposition to them as they had pretty much managed to control all the institutions — judiciary, election commission and the media. All of them parroted the line of the party in power. The judiciary that is supposed to protect our constitutional republic succumbed to the pressure of a government of a government that was obsessed about changing Nehruvian secularism. Using the threat of sending the hounds of enforcement agencies to dig up cases of corruption, they found the senior members of the judiciary mewing to every command. Many of them feared the fate of Justice Loya who died in mysterious circumstances. Loya was looking after some sensitive cases of Home Minister Amit Shah.  Besides in many cases where the Supreme Court came up short, the biggest harm to our constitution based order was done in the manner in which the highest court in the country, while acknowledging the fact that the site was criminally vandalized, decided to handover it over to a Hindu trust. This was done at a time, when the trial of the criminal conspiracy behind the destruction of the temple was still going on.

Why was the government in a hurry to lay the foundation stone at a place, which the court considered as a scene of criminal vandalism, by successive court judgments? What’s apparent is that the government found this time of pandemic, when the Parliament is not allowed to meet and courts are alive through zoom calls and public protests are banned, as the most opportune for fulfilling an electoral promise. It also helped in deflecting attention from the anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370 and lockdown in Kashmir after the state was reconstituted The BJP government was further emboldened by the fact that courts have helped the State criminalize dissent as witnessed after the belligerence shown by the government after the anti-CAA protests and the Bhima Koregaon incident.  They jailed intellectuals, students and concerned citizens who found abrogation of Article 370 or change in citizenship laws that denied Muslims from neighboring countries to get citizenship in India, as violative of the basic character of the Constitution. Much of these policy changes were made by the government to make Hinduism central to the Indian state. So it was possible for stray evidence coming from state governments like UP or even Delhi where Hindus had to be treated differently for the same crime. In Delhi a police official had the gall to write to his juniors that they should not go after the Hindus as it would create resentment in the majority community.

In many ways, August 5 seals the process that started way back in 1990 when Advani sat alongside a young Narendra Modi as a fellow charioteer. Now India has reinterpreted its past in a manner that may not find easy acceptance with the neighbors whose creation is linked with the cataclysmic partition. Why should Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nepal agree with our reading of history or epics are some of the questions that Modi government would have to face now. New disputes would spring up and new power struggles will engage us as we try to understand why our neighbours, who lived off our largesse, are showing swag after our poor response to the pandemic. Even the US would wonder whether they should ally with a country that had hunkered down due to the pandemic and allowed the Chinese PLA to enter our soil without fighting back. Events of the past few months have made us friendless and weaker than what many of those who are blowing conches after laying the foundation stone would believe. The only redeeming feature of this event is the return of Sita in the pantheon of Hindutva’s male dominated gods when Modi called out “Jaisiaram” rather than the blood thirsty war cry of “ Jai shree ram”– that has been used by mob-lynchers and cow vigilantes against the Muslims. Would this be a harbinger of change?

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Laying of foundation of Ram Temple during the pandemic is the beginning of an exclusionary India that could be challenged by its secular past and its enraged neighbors
Temple of Lord Ram, pandemic and an angry neighbourhood