Abode for Ram at last!
Among all the images of August 5, 2020 that may outlast in the times to come, Prime Minister Narendra Modi performing ‘sashtang pranam’ to Ram Lalla to mark the start of the building of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya will stand out as an epoch-making statement. So will the images of hundreds of earthen lamps lit by people across the country —without a show of triumphalism— but with unbounded joy at the most unbelievable event of their lives.
It was an occasion like Diwali for many of them as they had lost all hope that their dream of Ram temple in Ayodhya in their lifetime. Their mood of celebration was as a result of 500 years of wait. A majority of them could not help declaring that Lord Ram’s “exile” has truly ended only on August 5.
The Supreme Court verdict on November 9, 2019 handed over the dispute land at Ayodhya to a trust to build the Ram janmabhoomi temple. So August 5 event was a natural corollary to the verdict and the PM’s act of laying the first brick of the project was to symbolise an end to the 135-year-old legal dispute between the Hindus and Muslims.
But, in the backdrop of the prolonged political, social and communal tangles, the event seemed larger than life simply because everyone had been subjected to a state of denial all these years.
From the days it was fashionable for the left-leaning historians and social scientists to completely deny everything historically connected to Ram to the day even Opposition leaders (like Priyanka Gandhi) acknowledged the “existence of Ram everywhere,” it seemed a long way to have traveled —in a civilisational sense.
No wonder, Modi could not but describe Ayodhya’s “tyrst” with destiny on August 5 as a momentous occasion at par with August 15 that symbolises freedom struggle.
Modi made history not because he was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the spot, which has been revered by millions of countrymen as the birth place of Ram, one of the avatar purush of Lord Vishnu Himself. But, because, he was literally drawing curtains to a dark period that had stretched over five centuries.
As T S Elliot wrote in “Little Gidding”,
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.”
In his own words, Modi put it clearly: “The centuries of wait is getting over today. Crores of Indians, I am sure are unable to believe that they could be a part of such a momentous occasion in their lifetimes.
“The time has come when a proper temple can be provided to the deity of Lord Rama by moving it from the makeshift tent and canopy, where it was kept for decades. A grand temple will now be built for our Lord Ram.
“Today, the Ram Janmabhoomi has become free from the centuries-old chain of destruction and resurrection.Today marks the culmination of that centuries-old penance, sacrifices and resolve.”
One could not but note that Modi was also signalling that the times have changed for us to move away from the old ways of acrimony to harmony.
“Lord Ram is entrenched in our hearts. Whenever we undertake any work, we look upon to Lord Ram for inspiration. Lord Ram is the foundation of our culture; he is the dignity of India. He personifies dignity.
“It is with this splendour that the “bhoomi-pujan” (ground-breaking) ceremony of the grand temple of Sri Ram has taken place.”
Modi prefaced his address —not with the chants of “Jai Shri Ram” which have remained the mainstay of the politically -charged people in the wake of veteran BJP leader L K Advani’s Rath Yatra in 1990. Instead, what we heard was frequent evocation of “Jai Siya Ram” to symbolise the birth of a new era.
At one time, the “Jai Shri Ram” slogan had come to symbolise the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. However, with the first step taken for the temple-building, Modi showed that the other salutation of “Jai Siya Ram” had to return with full vigour!
The construction of the temple is the logical result of the Supreme Court judgment and, therefore, should mark the end of a bitter phase of India, and the beginning of a new, harmonious phase.
No can quarrel on this point. No disputed land was taken away by force for the construction of the temple. Yes, a masjid had stood there for 464 years before it was demolished by a mob in 1992. It remains a serious crime in the eyes of the Supreme Court, as mentioned in the verdict last year that handed over the site to the Hindus.
The case against senior BJP leaders L K Advani, M M Joshi and others have not been wound up.
We must also appreciate that the Supreme Court verdict was accepted by all sides including the Muslims who were given a piece of land for a new masjid at another site at Ayodhya. Everyone must see this as an opportunity for conciliation, dialogue and tranquility. Even when the verdict came, the PM, the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had called upon everyone not to go overboard with a sense of jubilation and rather take the verdict in their stride for the sake of peace and amity.
Nevertheless, we have seen that the critics of Modi are still upset with the Supreme Court’s verdict and also opposed to the BJP. They see a grave violation in Modi’s participation in the event of August 5, particularly of the line of separation between state and religion. This is inspite of Modi doing his best to keep the ceremony apolitical, citing Lord Ram’s adherence to justice, fairness and empathy for the vulnerable.
A day after Modi performed Bhoomi Pujan for Ram temple at Ayodhya, a few leaders (claiming to be representatives of Muslim community in India) have alleged that his participation was against the spirit of secularism mentioned in the Constitution. They claim that Indian secularism is in danger now because Modi participated in the pujan!
Some have used the social media to send a message to the effect that “Babri Masjid was, Babri Masjid is still there and it would continue to remain.”
Among those who have made such statements include Samajwadi Party MP Shafiqur Rahman Burke, senior advocate Zafaryab Jilani, President of All India Imam Association Sajid Rashidi and officials of Muslim Personal Law Board.
They call themselves “liberals and secular” to say that “August 5 is a difficult day for anyone who still believes in the idea of a secular and democratic India. The spectacle of a prime minister performing the ‘bhoomi pujan’ for his political parivar’s temple in Ayodhya did no credit of the world’s largest democracy, one that incidentally is also home to more than 200 million Muslims.”
These liberals say they also felt betrayed that the Congress leaders were going to considerable length to remind everyone that it was indeed Rajiv Gandhi who had performed the shilanayas, way back in 1989.
Therefore, in their view, “the August 5 event is the clearest sign yet that the Hindu rashtra project of the RSS is now in high gear and will gather even greater momentum in the months and years ahead.”
The irony is that, all these years, they always said everyone must accept the Supreme Court’s verdict. But, once the apex Court settled the Ayodhya dispute in a novel way, they are disappointed that it is not in their favour. They do not even hesitate to insinuate that the verdict came under the government’s pressure. Their logic is that if the Supreme Court gives a decision in their favour, then the democracy and the Constitution are intact. But if the top court decision does not suit them, then they can help start questioning it.
They conveniently forget the days when the Congress prime ministers and those supported by the Congress and the Left threw Iftar parties and visited Muslim seminaries and religious congregations for the sake of vote bank politics.
Opposition leaders like CPI(M)’s Prakash Karat recall how India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru denied any state funds for the purpose of construction of the Somnath Temple in the 1950s and objected to President Rajendra Prasad inaugurating the temple.
Of course, a secular State cannot patronise or fund the construction of a religious place of worship. Nor should it control them as we see in the southern states.
In the case of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, the government of India is not spending any money. The money is already pouring from the public into the coffers of the Trust.
The real test of secularism is whether the PM or his government has done anything that only benefits a particular community at the expense of others.
Modi was present at the bhoomi-pujan at Ayodhya because he wished to symbolise what many of the 130 crore Indians felt on the occasion—and not to draw any political mileage for himself. His popularity over all other political leaders remains unchallenged till date.
In political terms, the verdict and the bhoomi-pujan were important for the BJP, its ideological mentor RSS. They had all reasons to declare victory and an end to their long struggle against the Congress-brand of “composite nationalism” to hide the ugly pain of a past, which had led to the horrific Partition too.
August 5 also marked the acceptance of the view that India owed its soul to the quintessential Indian culture, which was born of the ever flowing “Hindu-ness” (often termed as “Indianness” to make it palatable for others). This Hindu-ness or Bharatiyata (if you like) respects all beliefs and non-beliefs, and values the seeker in every individual —as opposed to those cultures that divided the world into heretics and non-heretics.
After the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) decided to adopt the Ram temple issue as its core agenda way back in 1984, the BJP national executive resolution demanding construction of a at Ayodhya at the 1989 Palampur session, which gave a big push to the cause.
By the time, Advani decided on a rath yatra, the campaign was set to assume the shape of a mass movement. His decision to start his yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya in September 1990 was based on strong symbolism and to bring back recognition and respect for the great Indian thought and culture, which Ram meant for millions.
It was to end the practice among many Indians of trying to be apologetic for their Hindu faiths and beliefs—in the face of stiff opposition from the so-called “secular” skeptics who did not let go a single opportunity to mock at them.
True, Advani’s Rath Yatra and the kar seva in Ayodhya strongly polarised the politics of North India, and led to the demolition of Babri Masjid— a serious crime according to the Supreme Court verdict last year which handed over the site to the Hindus.
It was because of the constant denial of certain historical facts by the dominant intelligentsia that led to the hardening of attitudes and no honest effort could be made for a negotiated settlement.
Ultimately, a verdict from the Supreme Court was the only way forward.
The BJP paid price for Advani undertaking the Rath Yatra. It saw the BJP become “untouchable” in 1996 when other parties joined hands to pull down Vajpayee’s 13-day government.
Nevertheless, the performance record of the United Front —under two PMs Deve Gowda and I K Gujral — saw the people repose faith in Vajpayee who returned as PM in 1998 and 1999. In the absence of a comfortable majority on its own, however, the BJP government between 1998-2004 had to keep aside the issue of cultural nationalism.
The burning of a train carrying kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya at Godhra, which led to the ugly Gujarat riots of 2002, was a low point for the country.
Not until 2010, the Allahabad High Court showed a way forward by delivering a verdict that split the dispute land into three parts. But this was not acceptable to any side. The matter appeared to be back to square one. The matter went to the Supreme Court and nothing was done for nine years.
After Modi led the BJP back to power in 2014, the hope for a settlement of the Ram temple issue was rekindled though the options were limited: either a negotiated settlement by all sides or by a court verdict.
Resisting all pressures from hardliners who were pushing for a legislation by Parliament to resolve the issue, Modi counselled patience on all sides and asked everyone to await a verdict by the Supreme Court, which was then hearing petitions against the Allahabad High Court’s verdict since it gave a stay in 2011.
The lawyers belonging to the Congress, however, preferred that the Supreme Court put off the hearings indefinitely, purely for the reason that the issue should not benefit the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls of 2019.
But Modi ensured that the Supreme Court was told by the government’s lawyers that it must expedite hearing on the title suit and delaying the matter was never a permanent solution.
Back with a renewed and huge mandate, Modi focused his government’s attention more on criminalisation of triple talaq and then on Jammu and Kashmir, which had to be rid of its special status under Article 370 to end the supply of oxygen to separatists and Islamist terrorists.
Modi never made the Ram temple in Ayodhya a key election plank in 2014 or 2019.
Yet, he has shown since he returned with a second huge mandate, he will deliver on the BJP’s core ideological issues.
That approach is considered a “course correction” because the BJP does not want a repeat of the 2004 defeat in the parliamentary polls, which is blamed on the “ideological compromises” that had to be made for the sake of NDA-I.
Those who are upset that the BJP under Modi is pushing ahead on ideological issues must remember that he ensured that the size of the BJP’s mandate went up.
On May 28, 1996, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had confided in the Lok Sabha that the reason his 13-day government had omitted references to the Ram temple, Article 370, and Common Civil Code in the President’s Address to the joint sitting of Parliament was that the BJP did not have a majority. “There is nothing to hide. These issues are not on our agenda because we do not have a majority.”
Modi got the majority that had eluded Vajpayee and L K Advani. Already, under his leadership, the BJP has achieved two of the three elements of its original core agenda.
Does the Ram temple mean more religious incursion into politics, as critics of Modi predict?
According to BJP ideologue Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, the answer to this question depends on several factors. “First, whether political parties would refrain from vote bank politics; second, if the Muslim community would choose uniform civil code supporter Hamid Dalwai’s approach or go for the Asaduddin Owaisi’s way; third, whether the opinion-making classes stick to their traditional outlook while analysing identity politics or show openness and amend their approaches.
“These factors are important because the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was not confined to the construction of a grand Ram temple. The demand for the temple had become a powerful symbol of the public unrest against a politics of appeasement and minority-ism, indulged in for electoral gains by the Congress and others,” he said in an opinion piece in a newspaper.
Sahasrabuddhe says the Congress took an otherwise divided Hindu society almost for granted. It was seen as afraid of being viewed as siding with the Hindus, even at the cost of showing absolute disregard for a justified Hindu cause. This emboldened Muslim communalists to hijack the polity.
He is clear that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement achieved at least three things. “First, the brazenness with which minority politics was indulged in earlier is no more to be seen. Remember terms such as pseudo-secularism, minority appeasement, and minority-ism that Advani contributed to the political lexicon? Today, the number of occasions warranting the use of such terms has been drastically reduced. This is because of the deterrence created by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.”
Sahasrabuddhe points to the recent development in Turkey.
On July 24, Turkish President Recep Erdogan led the first Friday prayers in the world famous Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. This historic monument was built as a church in the sixth century AD by Byzantine emperor Justinian in Constantinople (later Istanbul). After being a church for 900 years, it was converted into a mosque when the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453 AD. Under modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, it was converted into a museum. Now, it is back as a mosque under an old court order. The Pope has led the Christian world in condemning the conversion of a cathedral into a mosque.
Then, should a permanent abode for Ram be unacceptable to anyone? Let us not forget that Somanth temple is testimony to the will of the Indian people against foreign attackers who tried to demolish the Shiva temple seven times. Ultimately, it was rebuilt as a grand temple after India’s Independence. Ayodhya is more than what Somnath stands for us.
By Shekhar Iyer