India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center) performs a religious ritual during the groundbreaking ceremony of a grand Hindu temple in Ayodhya. (Photo: PIB/AFP)
India kept its tryst with the "Hindutva moment" as Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in a ceremony on Aug. 5 to lay the foundation stone for a temple at a controversial site.
For India's Hindu majority, the historic event seeks to undo the five-century-old humiliation Hindus suffered after Muslim invader Baber destroyed a temple and built a mosque in 1528 in Ayodhya town, where Lord Ram was born.
At a ceremony televised nationwide, Modi, a devout Hindu and right-wing leader, prostrated before an idol of Ram Lalla or the infant Ram.
He joined prayers and rituals before laying a silver brick weighing 40 kilograms and performing rituals at site controversial site.
Hindus have been demanding the demolition of the mosque structure for centuries so that it could be replaced with a temple. Their wish gained momentum when Modi's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1992 conducted a nationwide campaign supporting a temple that resulted in Hindu zealots demolishing the mosque in December that year.
Riots followed, killing at least 2,000 people, but the controversy over the land's ownership refused to die down. The Hindu-Muslim dispute was settled in November 2019 when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Hindus. That ruling came five years after Modi took power in Delhi.The Aug. 5 ceremony was a landmark as it marked a turning point in India's political history underlined by principles of secularism and equality.
Many question if the prime minister of a secular nation should have attended a purely religious function. However, for Modi, the temple's construction was part of the BJP's poll promise and a political victory.
Even the principal opposition Congress party, which upheld secularism for most of its six decades in power, surrendered to the demands of the changed political scenario.
Its leaders in recent statements welcomed the temple construction lest they offend Hindus. Majoritarianism seems to be the new order of the day.Modi was wary of political criticism for attending a purely religious function. Thus, in his speech, he sought to carry forward the message of unity in a country of multiple faiths and over 200 linguistic communities. "Social harmony was the core principle of Lord Ram's governance," the prime minister recalled in his 35-minute speech. "We have to join stones for the construction of a Ram temple with mutual love and brotherhood."
However, there was sharp criticism of Modi's decision to attend the purely Hindu function in the presence of radical Hindu leaders and over 100 Hindu Sadhus (ascetics).Asaduddin Owaisi, a prominent Muslim parliamentarian from Hyderabad, said the prime minister "has violated the oath of office of a secular country by laying the foundation stone of a Ram temple. This is the day of the defeat of secularism and democracy and a day of success for Hindutva." Yogendra Yadav, another secular intellectual and president of the newly floated Swaraj India party, went a step further and said: "More than religiosity, it was a day of ritual and also a ritual of conquest [by Hindus]."He said what India "witnessed was not the celebration of the spiritual values of Lord Ram. We rather witnessed the fusion of multiple layers of power. There was state power represented by the prime minister, the power of the BJP as a political party, and there was the religious authority of Hindus." He added: "The secularism we have known was dead today." However, such strong views did not have many takers even among opposition parties, including the Congress, the principal opposition. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who is generally seen as the chief competitor to Modi, said his party wished "good luck" to the country for the grand bricklaying ceremony. Another Congress leader and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Kamal Nath, organized a recitation of religious discourse in Bhopal to mark the occasion. "We are sending 11 silver bricks to Ayodhya from the people of Madhya Pradesh," he said. Assam-based social worker Meenakshi Kakoty said "the BJP and its machinations have pushed a line that majoritarianism is right and thus others have to follow that line."
Ironically, in 1992 the Congress party was opposed to the destruction of the controversial mosque and building the temple at the spot. The Indian Union Muslim League, a Congress ally, was predictably upset with its volte-face.Pavan Varma, a former diplomat and a leader of socialist party Janata Dal-United, told a television discussion that secularism "has never been defined in the Indian constitution" in a "European sense, where there is complete separation of religion and the state."
Observers like him note secular governments in India have provided administrative and economic support to religious minorities.
Varma said India needs to revisit the notion of secularism, endorsing the BJP view that appeasement of Muslims for votes by Congress, communists and other parties has "only provoked and left Hindus hurt."