On August 5 of this year, a fairly noteworthy event occurred in India, which can be viewed as an important phase in the transformation of the complex socio-political environment within this nation. It is bound to impact (possibly indirectly and with a delay) the relationship between India and Pakistan, which is among the key foreign policy issues for New Delhi.
The author is referring to the “bhoomi pujan”, involving a 40-kg brick made of pure silver, performed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mark the start of the construction of a grand temple for Lord Rama in Ayodhya, located in northern India in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The date of the groundbreaking ceremony will be used to calculate how long the work takes. The project designers estimate that the temple will be completed in 3 years’ time.
Rama or Ram is one of the most revered divine beings among numerous deities in Hinduism. According to rough estimates, followers of Hinduism and its more politicized branch, Hindutva (a term that was first used by Indian intellectuals at the end of the 19th century), may account for 40 to 70% of the country’s population nowadays. For this proportion of citizens, Lord Rama symbolizes India’s past, present and future.
The reason the aforementioned estimates could be inaccurate is because it is difficult to define the concept of Hindutva in the first place, which is probably why there is a distinction between soft and hard Hindutva.
The hardliners obviously include the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, which has won two general elections in a row). The origins of the relatively moderate BJP lie in the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a former Indian right wing political party and the political arm of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist volunteer organization. The BJP was founded in 1980. In recent years, the party has been trying to tone down some of its openly nationalist posturing on India’s domestic political landscape by focusing on the universal nature of Hindutva and on how well-suited it is for numerous minority religious groups in the country.
Clearly, such messages from RSS and BJP primarily target India’s Muslims. There are 180 million people who identify themselves as followers of Islam in the country. And on account of the numbers, it is actually difficult to categorize Muslims as a religious minority in India.
It is the complex nature of the relationship between Hindus and Muslims that lies at the heart of the problem to do with the construction (or according to followers of Hinduism, restoration) of the aforementioned temple in Ayodhya. Its predecessor was supposedly demolished on orders from the Mughal emperor Babur at the beginning of the 16th century. The latter was the founder of the Islamic Mughal Empire that controlled much of India between the 16th and 19th centuries.
The author would like to remind his readers that according to India’s Supreme Court ruling on the disputed territory atop the hill in Ayodhya of November 9, 2019, there was no evidence to suggest that the prior Hindu structure had been destroyed to build the Babri Masjid mosque. In addition, the court ordered “the local government to give the Sunni Waqf Board approximately 2 hectares of land” as compensation for the actual demolition of the ancient Mosque of Babur (in whose place the temple for Lord Rama is to be built), which occurred in December 1992 at the hands of a (supposedly out-of-control) large group of Hindu activists.
Nowadays, discussions about the significance and possible consequences of the construction of the temple for Lord Rama in Ayodhya are reminiscent of equally heated debates that occurred between members of two political groups in India in the first years of its independence. One of them was headed by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a leading figure in the independence movement. The other was led by the first Deputy Prime Minister of India at the time, Vallabhbhai Patel, a conservative rooted in traditional Hindu values.
They both played prominent roles in establishing the Republic of India but their approaches to resolving practically all key issues at the time were substantially different. For instance, there were heated disagreements over the proposals to “restore” (or in reality, to build on top of ruins) the Somnath temple near the Arabian Sea in the state of Gujarat. According to historians, the temple in question, a shrine to another Hindu deity, Lord Shiva, was repeatedly demolished by Muslim invaders and subsequently resurrected by followers of Hinduism.
In 1952, similar statements to those regarding the temple for Lord Rama were made about yet another “resurrection and restoration of the Somnath temple”, which was hailed “as a proud moment in the history of independent Bharat”. Such words were spoken by Vallabhbhai Patel (a respected figure nowadays) and his supporters who refused to understand the viewpoint on this issue (among others) of Jawaharlal Nehru. Since that time, many different events have transpired in modern India. A possible question that will, of course, go unanswered is “What role did Lord Shiva, who must have felt a great deal of satisfaction because his worshippers remembered him 70 years ago, play in all of this?”.
It is worth pointing out that the foundation stone laying ceremony to mark the start of the construction of the temple for Lord Rama was curtailed. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was used as an official explanation for such measures. In recent months, the spread of the Coronavirus has indeed risen to dangerous levels in India (the daily increase in the number of individuals infected with the virus reached 55,000 at the beginning of August, while in the middle of May the rate was 3,500). The fact that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat attended the ceremony is noteworthy.
Still, the central figure at the “bhoomi pujan” was unquestionably Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, in his speech, said that a grand temple would be built for Lord Rama “who had been staying in a tent”. He also stated that the temple would “keep inspiring the future generations”.
Based on reports published by Indian media outlets, there is a wide range of opinions about the ground-breaking ceremony, which had taken place in Ayodhya, ranging from complete approval to serious concern about the step. The latter viewpoint encompasses several interconnected aspects. In particular, they include concerns about the potential rise in tensions between Hindus and Muslims; the possibility that Hinduism will be recognized as India’s state religion, which will essentially put an end to the existence of the secular democratic republic (something that Jawaharlal Nehru feared), and perhaps either a deceleration of the process to dismantle the caste system in Indian society or even its complete reversal.
Still, it appears that there are considerably more supporters of the construction of the temple for Lord Rama than its detractors. Nowadays, the former group includes “moderates”, such as the current leadership of the Indian National Congress (INC) party, which was, at some point in the past, headed by Jawaharlal Nehru.
As the popularity of the INC continues to decrease in India, it seems that its leaders do not have much choice in the matter, especially because the party (which was in power 30 years ago) is being currently accused of not having a definitive position regarding the justified demands to restore the temple for Lord Rama. Supposedly, such indecisiveness “compromised peace and harmony for years” and led to the tragedy in 1992.
Finally, the author would like to note that there is no (official) basis for the claim that the long awaited landmark event on India’s domestic landscape led to certain actions, taken in its neighboring countries. Hence, in this report, the author would simply like to mention that the aforementioned ceremony happened to coincide with the fact that Pakistan released a new political map that depicts Jammu and Kashmir “as a disputed territory, and claims the regions of Sir Creek and the erstwhile state of Junagadh in Gujarat as part of its territory”.
It is quite clear that this (most likely propagandistic in nature) move made by Pakistan was meant to coincide with the anniversary of yet another official step on the domestic front taken by India, which resulted in the scrapping of Article 370, a constitutional provision that granted a special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Together with the dispute over the territory atop the hill in Ayodhya, the aforementioned move reflects overall the political issues facing India, in particular, the complex relationship between Hindus and Muslims.
The anniversary prompted Pakistan to approach its key ally, China, with the request to once again raise the Kashmir issue at the United Nations Security Council. As expected, the move resulted in a negative reaction from New Delhi.
The author would like to once again point out that there is no consensus among Muslim-majority countries on this issue. Formal statements made by officials from some prominent Muslim nations (such as Turkey) typically express concern but not stronger opinions on the Kashmir problem. None of these countries are prepared to spoil their relationships with the Asian giant, whose role on the international arena is becoming increasingly prominent.
On August 5, a noteworthy event took place in the city of Ayodhya, and its consequences are hard to predict. Hence, we will continue to observe further developments in the Indian subcontinent.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.