In his speech at the Ram Mandir bhoomi pujan in Ayodhya, Prime Minister Narendra Modi likened the Ram Mandir movement to the freedom struggle and invoked your name, Mahatma Gandhi, to say people from all walks support the temple just as they all joined Gandhi in the movement for independence.
What would you make of the Ram Mandir which will be built on the ruins of the Babri Masjid, the mosque which was demolished in an act which the Supreme Court in 2017 called “crimes that shake the secular fabric of the Constitution”? You were the torchbearer of non-violence. For you it was always the means that justified the end. You called off the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920-22 because it descended into violence at Chauri Chaura. You believed that without ethical means, the ends degenerate into amoral power lust. As playwright Anton Chekhov said, “Despicable means used to achieve laudable goals render the goals themselves despicable.” India’s freedom movement shone with moral luminosity because it was almost entirely non-violent.
Yet by contrast, the mandir movement spearheaded by VHP-RSS-BJP from the 1980s onwards was a violent one, which took many lives. The mandir movement set off myriad communal conflagrations through India. Over a thousand people died in the 1993 post-demolition Bombay riots. Even today, 28 years later, the criminal case against those responsible for the demolition drags on. Would you have approved of this saffron mobilisation in Lord Ram’s name, insistent as you were that moral means are imperative for a moral end?
Today the mandir will be built with the full force and paraphernalia of state power aligned to a dominant political force. Yet you were a vociferous opponent of state power. For you, the state was an inherently violent entity. You said: “I look upon an increase in the power of the state with the greatest fear” because the state “cannot be sustained and defended without adequate force”. Promoted as it is by the prime minister and UP chief minister, the planned Ram Mandir is the very embodiment of state power.
The word ‘Ramrajya’ is being chanted. But can the proposed Ram Mandir, backed by powerful politicians, usher in Ramrajya? About Ramrajya, you said: “When I visit the Frontier Province I call it Khudai Raj, while to a Christian audience I would describe it as a Kingdom of God on earth…I must repeat for the thousandth time, Ramanama is one of the many names of God.” For you, god was not a particular religion, god was truth and the personal struggle for truth.
Ramrajya is surely not about buying and selling MLAs, toppling governments through money power, using state agencies to intimidate the Opposition or crushing dissent through draconian laws. Today many students, professors, doctors, lawyers are jailed, charged under anti-terror laws or sedition, the antiquated law used by the British to imprison you. But you prized dissent and disagreement. You said: “Resist me always, I shall not love you less for your resistance.” During the abrupt lockdown, desperate migrant workers were cruelly left to their own devices as they travelled hundreds, even thousands of kilometres, across scorching highways.
The ruling BJP sees Ram as a muscular figure, drawing his bow, vanquishing enemies, lording it over religious minorities. Was this your view of Ram? Instead, you saw Ram as the ideal man because in spite of his personal struggles he strove constantly for goodness. You wrote: “What is the Ramayan but a record of the trials, privations and penances of Ram?” Thus, the Ramayan is not about wielding power over the “other” or over religious minorities, instead it’s about herculean personal striving to gain power over one’s own inner demons.
How different the government’s grand bhoomi pujan was from your own prayer meetings. Yours were spartan, mostly held outdoors, and always multi-faith with readings from the Gita, the Quran, Bible and Zend Avesta. You hardly ever visited temples nor were you pictured with any deity or seen conducting rituals. Today, politicians perform the rituals of religion, but do they care about the values of religion? It would be unfortunate if the dazzle of a Ram Mandir blinded us to the ideals of Ramrajya: compassion, justice, love.
Bapu, if you were alive today, would you have attended the power-packed ceremony at Ayodhya? Almost certainly not. You would have been far away, walking in south Kashmir or in flood-ravaged Assam or sitting with desperate jobless migrants in Covid times, reaching out to the weakest and most vulnerable, not just with financial help, but offering emotional and spiritual comfort. However, you are gone, and we will soon get a grand Ram Mandir. But who will build Ramrajya in India?