How rewriting India's Muslim history could cost Modi at the polls

The Ayodhya temple and the renaming of cities has become a cynical ploy to camouflage BJP failures

Indian Hindu hardliners participate in a rally calling for the construction of a temple on the site of the demolished 16th century Babri mosque, located in Ayodhya, in New Delhi on December 9, 2018. Tens of thousands of activists rallied on December 9 in the Indian capital on a call by a militant Hindu group demanding construction of a temple on the remains of a medieval mosque. / AFP / Sajjad HUSSAIN
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For more than 450 years, the Mughal-era Babri mosque stood as a testament to India's Muslim population, the third largest in the world. Despite being destroyed by right-wing Hindus 26 years ago amid claims it was the birthplace of the deity Ram, it has remained a controversial site, even after being razed to the ground in riots that killed 2,000 people.

Every once in a while – usually when elections loom – the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India pulls out its favourite tactic: whipping up Hindu passions over the notion of building a temple in Ayodhya. The aim is always to divert attention away from bread-and-butter issues by insisting that a Hindu temple must replace the mosque – an incendiary issue that plays to the most hardline Hindu nationalist vote and maligns the nation’s Muslims.

Faced with elections in three important states earlier this month, the Narendra Modi government wheeled out ministers and low-level rabble-rousers to revive the temple issue. During the four years that he has been in power, Mr Modi had barely mentioned it. But with elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – big Hindi heartland states where the results would be seen as an augur of next year’s general election – BJP members started a shrill campaign demanding that the temple be built, and quickly.

All Mr Modi’s earlier talk of development and better days was ditched. Leaders of fringe groups affiliated with the BJP made inflammatory remarks about how Hindus have waited “long enough”, that the “sentiments of Hindus must be respected” and that building the temple was a matter of “Hindu self-respect”.

Alongside these efforts to get Hindus worked up – and to remind Muslims of their minority status - was a renaming spree as the Muslim names of cities were changed for Hindu ones. The federal government has given consent to the renaming of at least 25 towns and villages in the past year. The latest is in Uttar Pradesh, where BJP chief minister Yogi Adityanath has renamed the Faizabad district as Ayodhya. Last year, he gave Mughalsarai railway station a Hindu name and last month, Allahabad city was reborn as Prayagraj.

The renaming business, if taken to its nonsensical conclusion, would require that the BJP re-christen the Taj Mahal, a Muslim monument. This is not quite as ludicrous as it sounds. Some fanatics preposterously claim that the Taj Mahal was originally a Hindu temple. The monument has always stuck in the gullet of Hindu extremists because it is the symbol of India for the world – yet was built as an Islamic tomb for a Muslim queen.

This revisionist desire to obliterate the Muslim contribution to Indian culture and society lies behind Mr Adityanath’s decision to stop giving replicas of the Taj Mahal to visiting dignitaries, a long-established tradition. He said the gift did not “reflect Indian culture”. Now his government instead gives copies of the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, as gifts.

In short, religious patriotism is the tool with which the BJP has been trying to camouflage its failures after four years in power. The ruling party has lost its sheen, as has Mr Modi, although to a lesser extent. The government has failed to improve the lives of most Indians. Farmers across the country have been venting their anger in rallies. According to the State of Working India, unemployment is at its highest rate for 20 years. Anecdotally, young graduates have told me they are struggling to find suitable jobs. Earlier hopes of Mr Modi’s ability to transform India into a modern, prosperous nation have dissipated among sections of the population.

Moreover, Mr Modi’s demonetisation of high-value currency notes in 2016 slowed economic growth and the inept way his government rolled out the goods and services tax last year set back small businesses. Both measures damaged the economy and made the government unpopular.

Faced with public dissatisfaction, the agitation over the temple and the renaming of cities is intended to stir up sectarian hatred and make Hindus vote in elections along religious lines – as aggrieved Hindus rather than as Indian citizens.

But with the BJP losing power in three states, it has to consider whether mobilising Hindus over the temple issue will actually reap the dividends it hopes for in next year’s general election. Voters in the three states did not seem enthused by the temple issue.

For farmers on the verge of bankruptcy, it rang hollow. For a young generation desperate for jobs, it sounded like an insult. As one youth told a TV channel: “Is the BJP offering us a vision of the 21st century or the 18th? Is a temple going to solve the crisis in agriculture or get me a job that will enable me to pay my bills?’

BJP leaders have been huddled in talks since the election results. Some in the party will no doubt argue that campaigning on the temple issue has yielded diminishing returns.

But it would be premature to think the BJP will abandon it altogether and focus instead on development. The recent election campaigns in three states leave no illusions about what the party wants and stands for. The question is whether voters will vote for this regressive ideology next year.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi