India's Modi Is Not Inaugurating a New Temple, He Is Burying the Spirit of Tolerance
Erecting a temple on the rubble of a mosque displays Hindu triumphalism, not piety
In 1992, when a procession of frenzied Hindu devotees in India marched to the Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque built by a Mughal emperor, and razed it to the ground using hammers, axes and their bare hands, the whole country was in shock. The mosque had always been a thorn for Hindus who felt that it was constructed on the spot where the Hindu God, Lord Ram, was born. Still, no one really believed at the time that this gripe would culminate in an act of vandalism this brazen. India, after all, was a country built on toleration, equal protection for all religions and, above all, the rule of law where such disputes were supposed to be resolved in court, not through mob violence.
That was then.
Now, 32 years later, with the rise of a muscular Hindu nationalism, what was regarded as a scandalous episode in the country’s history—a terrible slighting of the country’s 200 million Muslim citizens—has been redefined as a great act of Hindu devotion. On Jan. 22, on the rubble of the mosque, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will consecrate a shiny new Hindu temple. (He has been reportedly fasting for 11 days, ingesting only coconut water, to purify himself for the ceremony.)
The central government and many states controlled by Modi’s BJP have declared Jan. 22 a holiday or a half-day so that Hindus can stay at home and watch the temple inaugurated on TV. (Many major hospitals will only provide emergency services for the duration of the festivities.) The national press for days has been providing wall-to-wall coverage of the runup to the ceremony like to the cricket World Cup, carefully omitting all mention of the mob violence that got the ball rolling in the first place. Except for some conscientious objectors, the whole country is consumed by the approaching spectacle.
Indian Hindus think that all this displays their deep piety. In fact, notes historian Ramachandra Guha, one of India’s prominent public intellectuals, what it really displays is Hindu triumphalism. The temple is not a monument to Lord Ram—it’s a mausoleum of India’s constitutional commitment to toleration and pluralism. It’s true meaning is that India, going forward, will be a Hindu-first country where other religions will be allowed space at the pleasure of Hindus, not because they have equal rights—much less an equal claim to their own country.
Modi is inaugurating not a new temple—but a new India in which the state will no longer stay out of religion, but resolutely use its power to promote the interests of the Hindu majority.
To understand just how radically the country and its commitments have changed in a few, short decades, read Guha’s piece, reprinted from Scroll.In, one of the few remaining independent voices in India.
“If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country,” B. R. Ambedkar, India’s founding father.
In a recent talk in Bengaluru, the writer, Parakala Prabhakar, made a perceptive observation about the changing language of political discourse in India. In the late 1980s, when the Bharatiya Janata Party was first becoming a significant force in Indian politics, the BJP leader, Lal Krishna Advani, then in the opposition, said he stood for “positive secularism.” The ruling Congress Party at that time, argued Advani, had practiced a spurious form of secularism, but his would be the genuine article, a secularism which promised “justice for all and appeasement of none.”
Forty years after India’s Independence from the British, secularism was thus an ideal to be upheld and cherished, so much so that a BJP leader, no less, was putting himself forward as the true torchbearer of an authentic secularism. Now, however, no major politician of either the ruling BJP or the opposition Congress wishes to publicly avow secularism. Rather, they want to be known as the truest of Hindus. Thus, in opposing the politics of the ruling regime today, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi claims that his is the real Hinduism, as opposed to the spurious Hindutva of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (an organization of Hindu volunteers that serves as a paramilitary arm of the BJP whose member was responsible for assassinating Mahatma Gandhi). This public affirmation of loyalty to the Hindu faith is eagerly endorsed by Rahul Gandhi’s advisers, who proclaim him to be a “Shiv bhakt” (worshiper of Lord Shiva) and a “janeu-dhari Hindu” (one who wears the sacred thread and treads the righteous path).
As Prabhakar points out, the discourse has thus moved full circle. Once, BJP leaders wished to be known as better secularists than their opponents in the Congress. Now, Congress leaders wish to be known as more devout Hindus than their opponents in the BJP. Illustrative in this regard was the campaign strategy of the former Congress Party Chief Minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath, as more devout in his Hindu faith than the incumbent BJP chief minister.
This Hindu-fication of political discourse has greatly intensified in recent years—and has been further strengthened by the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. That event is being celebrated as a great triumph by the BJP. But some other, professedly “secular,” parties shall welcome the new temple with equal gusto. These cheerleaders will include those from smaller parties seeking to ingratiate themselves with the Modi-Shah regime. After his party forged an alliance with the BJP in Karnataka, H. D. Kumaraswamy, the leader of the Janata Dal (Secular), has taken to ending his speeches with the salutation, “Jai Shri Ram.”
As I was drafting this column, K. Kavitha, the leader of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi, a single-issue regional party that wants a separate province for the small region of Telangana, issued a post on X saying that the building of the temple represents the fulfillment of the dreams of “crores of Hindus.” Although some Congress leaders have declined the invitation to attend the inauguration of the temple for now, it is probably only a matter of time before one or more leaders of the Congress inform us that since it was Rajiv Gandhi who, as prime minister, first ordered the unlocking of the small shrine to Ram at the disputed site, it is he, and not Advani or Narendra Modi, who is the original architect of the temple now being consecrated in Ayodhya.
As a Hindu myself, I cannot bring myself to “celebrate” this new temple. My reluctance to do so is in part because I was based in North India during those bloody years when thousands of innocent people, mostly Muslims, but also quite a few Hindus, lost their lives in the frenzied rioting that accompanied the movement led by Hindutva hordes that led to the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya.
As a Hindu, I cannot celebrate this new temple because I do not believe that to affirm or proclaim my faith I must do so in front of, or inside, a colossal edifice costing thousands of crores of rupees to build. When I was a boy, my mother, a devotee of Ram, would take me to a tiny shrine, sited on the banks of a canal, walking distance from our home in Dehradun. When I got married and moved to Bengaluru, my mother-in-law, also a devotee of Ram, regularly visited a small temple to Ram located in the dense neighborhood of Shivaji Nagar. Later, as a student and biographer of Gandhi, I learned to appreciate how Gandhi did not require a temple of any size or shape to proclaim his devotion to a deity whose name was always in his heart and was on his lips when he died.
My ambivalence about the temple does not, of course, imply an ideological defense of the mosque that once stood in its place. The Babri Masjid was a symbol of religious and military conquest; hence its name. But the new temple will also be a symbol of religious triumphalism, a sign that this is becoming ever more a Hindu-first country. Even if a shrine had to be built there for Ram, it did not have to be monumental in scale and it did not have to seek (and get) the ringing endorsement of the ruling party and of the prime minister himself.
What will this massive new edifice being inaugurated on Monday, the 22nd, portend for the future of the country? A friend suggests that it shows that India is on the cusp of creating a “Second Republic”, which will commit itself to a Hindu-first form of politics and policymaking, thus supplanting and superseding the “First Republic” that was brought into being by the Constitution of 1950, and which had sensibly declined to define the state’s ethos on the basis of the religious faith of the majority of its citizens.
The events of the past decade do suggest a determined move in that direction by the ruling party, with the opposition mostly complicit. The state’s involvement in the Ram temple project is a further reinforcement of the idea that India is above all a “Hindu” country. One must, however, enter a caveat with the use of the term “Republic.” With the prime minister playing a leading part in the rituals accompanying both the first and final rites of the Ayodhya edifice, there is a decidedly monarchical cast to the proceedings. Nor is this restricted to this particular temple; when, in December 2021, Narendra Modi led some religious ceremonies in the town of Varanasi, the priests who were present chanted in unison, “Raja Saheb ki jai”—Glory to the King.
But perhaps the most egregious example of Narendra Modi’s imperial ambitions was the inauguration of the new Parliament, where the prime minister stood triumphantly alone, flanked only by supplicant priests, acting the role of a Shahenshah–Emperor—in a building supposedly representing the Will of the People.
One way of understanding what is happening in India today is to set it in the context of the other countries in our neighbourhood. Pakistan and Bangladesh are self-proclaimed Islamic states, where Hindus and Christians are effectively second-class citizens. Sri Lanka and Myanmar are self-proclaimed Buddhist states—it is surely no accident that both have witnessed state-sponsored violence aimed at minorities. India, which once stood apart in terms of its separation of faith from State, has now joined this South Asian club.
Will making our politics and policymaking more Hindu-centric help India? The post-Independence history of other countries does not present happy auguries. A cautionary tale of particular relevance is that of Sri Lanka. Of all the nations in South Asia, Sri Lanka had the best human development indicators—the best educated population, the best healthcare services, the least discrimination against women. It had a highly skilled professional class, beautiful beaches and historic sites to attract tourists and a colonial past unmarked by violence (it escaped the horrors of Partition).
Had the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists not set themselves against the Tamil minority (themselves mostly Hindus), thus sparking a savage civil war, Sri Lanka would today be one of the most prosperous as well as most peaceable countries in all of Asia.
Our leaders like to boast that India has the fifth-largest economy in the world. However, in terms of indicators that truly matter, such as per capita income, infant mortality, percentage of women in the workforce and so on, India ranks much lower. With regard to overall economic and social development, the best performing countries in Asia are Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. Of these, Japan and South Korea are properly democratic, Singapore partially democratic. Yet, in all three countries, the presence of religion in politics and public life is extremely muted. This striking fact should give us pause as politicians across the board rush to “celebrate” the inauguration of the grand new temple in Ayodhya.
This piece is reprinted with permission from Scroll.in.