A bitter reality for India: secularism more under threat than ever, as the ruling BJP praises its Ayodhya project but polarises opinion as it pushes ever closer to the extreme Hindu-right.

Nearly thirty years after a bigoted mob destroyed the Babri mosque in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state, the foundation is being laid for the construction of a Hindu Ram temple on the same site –  an epochal event that coincides with the rise of the political right, as well as the marginalisation of its secular constitution.

The foundation ceremony scheduled for August 5 in the temple town of Ayodhya, is significant as it completes the victory of the Hindu-right who illegally brought down the 16th century mosque, built by the Mughal king Babar, on December 6, 1992. It is also affirmation of the authority of the conservative forces represented by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

For the BJP, whose agenda included the construction of the Ram temple, Wednesday is a day when it will gain the opportunity to showcase to its supporters the fulfilment of its promise. It is also a moment in time for its secular opponents who are being forced to swallow the bitter reality of a rising Hindu majoritarian tendency which, if allowed to continue, has the potential to threaten the secular foundations of the country and swing politics to the extreme right. 

The link with silenced Kashmir

It is no coincidence that the foundation stone for the Ram temple is being laid on the very same day that Kashmir completes one year of direct rule by India’s federal government in New Delhi.

On August 5 , 2019,  the  BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi stunned the nation and Kashmiris by revoking the special status to the state under Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution. 

In addition,  Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its position as a state, divided into two, downgraded to that of a Union Territory, and humiliated by being left with reduced powers to boot.

Of course, the revocation of Kashmir’s special status was a key item in the BJP agenda.  Contrary to the government’s expectation, full normality is yet to return to Kashmir which has been under varying degrees of a political lockdown since then. Many mainstream politicians, including former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, remain in detention, while internet and telecom connectivity works well below optimal levels. 

At the same time as the BJP’s supporters celebrate the foundation laying ceremony of the Ram temple, a curfew system will descend on Kashmir. Though it has not been explicitly stated, the scheduling of the Ayodhya event on August 5 is a possible attempt to divert media attention from Kashmir’s dark anniversary and a bold way of announcing it has achieved two big scalps on its political checklist.

Tensions with Historic Roots 

Make no mistake: the Ayodhya dispute is not merely a standalone tug-of-war confined to a particular mosque and the construction of a temple. Since the 19th century,  when India was under British colonial rule, the Babri Masjid has been coveted by a section of Hindus under the belief that the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Emperor Babur, built the structure after destroying a temple of Ram who was born in that spot.  

Archaeological excavations never conclusively proved the existence of a temple, but it did not dent the belief that Ram, the hero in the mythological epic “Ramayana”, had been born there. After clashes in the 19th century, the issue came to a head in 1949 when one morning, people found Ram and his entourage, within the precincts of the Babri mosque. The local court intervened and ordered a status quo, after which the entire complex was sealed and the issue died down. 

During the time of the first Indian government under prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and later under Indira Gandhi, the dispute was all but forgotten. Those were the heydays of secularism - the ruling Congress avowedly sworn to it and the religious right firmly sidelined. 

The BJP’s predecessor, the Jan Sangh party, was a marginal force and its ideological mentor, the RSS, was shunned for its alleged role in the assassination of freedom fighter and the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, a year after India’s independence in 1947. 

The Congress, after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, was succeeded by her son Rajiv Gandhi, a political novice who was a commercial pilot by training. Unwittingly, the inexperienced prime minister intervened in a court case that ordered alimony for a Muslim woman who had been divorced, in what is known as the Shah Bano case. 

The Shah Bano judgement was not liked by a conservative sections of Muslims. Rajiv Gandhi therefore neutralised the judgment by amending the law, by which means he restored status quo. This was seen by the BJP as appeasing Muslims. A worried Rajiv thought he would lose the Hindu vote because of the BJP campaign that tried to "expose" his appeasement. Therefore, Rajiv allowed the opening of the Babri masjid complex - to make it possible for Hindu groups to conduct a ritual in what they claimed was actually a Ram temple - in an attempt to win back the Hindu vote.

This was now 1986, and it stirred a veritable hornet’s nest. India’s religious right, which until then was held on a tight leash by a secular government, broke loose. 

Whatever calculations Rajiv Gandhi had made were upended and the BJP, then under L K Advani, seized the Ayodhya issue. It turned out to be a masterstroke: he had caught hold of India’s jugular.

With the backing of the RSS, Advani travelled across India, and overnight, the Ayodhya issue resonated across the country. In Hinduism, Ram is a key deity whose pictures and idols are found in almost every home  –  it was therefore not difficult for the BJP to capitalise on the issue politically. It culminated in the illegal destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992 when a mob of right-wing Hindu activists stormed and demolished it.

The BJP’s political drive

The rise of the BJP and, with it, the RSS, which had long wished for a Hindu theocratic state, immediately impacted India’s secular politics. The BJP, which in 1984, had won just two seats out of 573, managed to form a government in 1999 at the head of a coalition. 

The party, which was avowedly in favour of political Hinduism, or Hindutva, was able to jockey to power on the back of the Babri Masjid’s destruction.

The BJP first tasted blood in 1999 but soon lost power to the Congress-led coalition in 2004.

For a decade, the BJP-RSS combination struggled to assert itself. The Congress party and its government, which had been in power for the longest in India, had become moribund,  politically complacent and riddled with corruption.  

Under its newly-anointed leader, Narendra Modi, the BJP used the issue of corruption to unseat the Congress in 2014, returning to power with an even more decisive win in 2019 . 

This victory, that came on the ruse of development and clean politics, eventually turned out to be the achievement of a party determined to usher in Hindu nationalism and all but decimate secularism. 

If the first five years of Modi government’s rule proved a warm up exercise, the second coming is proving to be brazen. Within months of retaining power, Kashmir’s special status was revoked under questionable circumstances followed by a favourable court judgment that has enabled it to start construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya.

With the rise of the Hindu religious right, there are immediate repercussions in the form of “othering” minorities, especially Muslims. The BJP, once defensive when it came to its agenda, has no such pretensions now. 

Cattle slaughter has been delegitimised in many states. Beef is eaten by Muslims, Christians and the Dalit community besides many others in the country - today that is not possible, save a few exceptions. The political left and liberals have been targeted at various times with intellectuals in prison for inordinately long periods without their cases being heard in court. 

The country’s once-vibrant media is polarised with the government encouraging sections that support it. Those that are critical of the ruling agenda are having a tough time surviving. 

The government has attempted to single out minorities by devising controversial laws - such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) - that minorities fear will marginalise, if not ghettoise, them.   

In today’s highly-polarised India, August 5, for some, may be a day of celebration. For others, it may well send shivers up some spines.

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