This is not the first time that GoI has granted permission to an event in Ayodhya when the country has been beset with major challenges. Weeks after the terrorist attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001, and the consequent India-Pakistan standoff (Operation Parakram), GoI allowed the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to launch a fresh bid to begin construction of the Ram temple before judicial hearings were over.
The Godhra carnage in February 2002 was a direct result of mass mobilisation in Ayodhya and triggered one of the most violent communal riots in Gujarat. The Supreme Court verdict in November 2019 cleared all hurdles for construction of the temple without giving any deadline for completing the project. In March this year, there was little need for Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath to shift the idol in Ayodhya to its temporary abode, within hours of a nationwide lockdown being announced.
Since 1984, the now-on, now-off Ram Janmabhoomi Andolan triggered inter-community violence, felled governments, deepened a pre-existing social schism and catalysed the acceptance of a religio-cultural nationalism. It was also a primary factor behind BJP securing a majority, not once but twice in succession. Over the past 35 years, the Ram temple often acted as the ‘go to’ issue for the party whenever it sensed a challenge on hand. So, is the decision to stick to a prior timeline a sign of worry over how the narratives of the two aforementioned challenges facing India are evolving?
It is difficult to assess if the Ayodhya ceremony will ‘bring back’ unsettled supporters to BJP. Without doubt, the function will revive interest in the temple at a time when people are gnawed by livelihood concerns that could determine their political choices. It will be argued that just as the election wheel keeps circling regardless of calamities and national challenges, other calendars too must be allowed to follow their courses. But now that most of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement is behind us, any programme related to constructing the temple should ideally be an occasion to bury past animosity. The worry, however, is that the ceremony will pan out as another occasion from some quarters to cock a snook at India’s minorities and the current administration’s critics.
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi scheduled to attend the ceremony on Wednesday, the event marks a further blurring of lines between religion and State. Over the years, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement followed a linear narrow track, never allowing questions over its grounding and authority. Its leaders became sole amplifiers of the epochal tale and its central character. Multiple ideas of Ram were reconfigured and depicted solely as ‘unequalled symbol of our oneness’, the epitome of Indian nationhood.
It is no coincidence that bhoomi poojan will be performed on the first anniversary of the altered status of Jammu and Kashmir and Article 370 of the Constitution. L K Advani, the first political shepherd of the movement, explained during the infancy of the campaign that it was not just to build a temple in Ayodhya, but to secure support for cultural nationalism — Hindutva. During the 2002 Gujarat elections, Modi did not rake up the Ram temple issue. Instead, he contested the state polls on issues of bolstering Gujarati asmita (identity) and gaurav (pride), terms also used for ‘Hindu’ distinctiveness and respect. Modi infused this plank with issues of national security and targeted the ‘Other’ — both within India and across the border in Pakistan —while implying partnership between these forces ‘inimical’ to Bharat.
From the late 1940s, the shadow of danger lurked over contested shrines in Varanasi and Mathura. The apex court’s verdict unanimously upturned the Allahabad High Court’s 2010 judgment apportioning disputed land among litigants and, instead, awarded the entire land to the Hindu parties. It went by the principle of possession of an immovable property on basis of evidence and not guided by faith, the principle basis of the Ram temple movement.
Questions remain over the Supreme Court putting its judicial stamp over what it had described in its November 9, 2019, judgment as ‘an egregious violation of the rule of law’ on December 6, 1992. Yet, religious minorities and other critics accepted the verdict. But the legal principles the court established, ‘secured’ the status quo of other sites that VHP wants ‘restored’. This message will resonate from the site of the ceremony on Wednesday.