India's Ram Temple: Modi accused of mixing religion with politics ahead of grand opening

Critics have called the event a 'vulgarisation' of Hinduism

Workers put up cutouts of Hindu deity Ram and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ayodhya, India. AP Photo
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A temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Ram on the site of a demolished mosque is to be opened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in one of the biggest religious spectacles in India yet.

Mr Modi is preparing for national elections amid an increasing clamour for asserting the ruling BJP’s Hindu nationalism policies.

The Ram Mandir in Ayodhya in northern Uttar Pradesh is one of the most contentious religious places, whose history is bloodbaths, litigation, and sectarian acrimony.

The multimillion-dollar temple is being built where the 16th-century Babri Mosque once stood but was torn down by Hindus in 1992.

Although still under construction, an idol of the deity has been installed at the main sanctum of the temple and the consecration ceremony will be led by Mr Modi on January 22.

More than 7,000 people, including high-ranking officials, are scheduled to join in the ceremony.

Mr Modi has called the day an “auspicious occasion” adding that he is “fortunate” to represent the people of India – a constitutionally secular nation of 1.4 billion.

He has urged the citizens, regardless of their religion, to celebrate the day as Diwali, the festival of lights, by lighting earthen lamps.

His government has announced public holidays for employees and educational institutions have been asked to remain closed, while his party colleagues in Uttar Pradesh have banned the sale of meat on the day.

'Vulgarisation of religion'

A wave of fervour has gripped the Indian nation where saffron flags – a colour associated with right-wing Hindu nationalists – fly in markets and even schools, while caps, scarves and shirts with the image of Rama are selling like hotcakes.

Mr Modi's BJP is calling it the “moment of renaissance” for the country.

“This is a renaissance moment. For 500 years people in the country have waited for this moment. They were in repression; they were not allowed to [pray],” RPN Singh, BJP spokesman, told The National.

But Mr Modi has come under sharp criticism from the opposition and his critics who say the mixing of religion and his high office goes against the secular credentials of the country and its constitution.

Of India’s 1.4 billion people, 80 per cent follow Hinduism. Islam is the biggest minority religion, with more than 200 million adherents, while it is home to Christians, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and a Jewish community.

However, since coming to power in 2014, Mr Modi’s government has often been accused by opponents of espousing the cause of Hindutva – Hindu supremacy.

His government has banned beef, brought anti-conversion laws, and pushed discriminatory citizenship laws. There is an increase in summary punishment of Muslims like demolition of their homes, attacks on Christians and churches, and vilification of Sikhs over farmer laws.

Professor Apoorvanand, a Delhi-based political commentator, called the grandiose temple the “vulgarisation” of religion and “an announcement of de facto Hindu state”.

“The Indian state has made a significant and worrying departure. It has clearly identified itself with religion. We can say with confidence that the state definitively identifies this brand of Hinduism. It is no longer a secular state,” Prof Apoorvanand, who goes by one name, told The National.

“It is definite vulgarisation and temporalisation of religion. This is a very different kind of experience that Hindus are being given … This will create an invisible distance between Hindus and minorities and give a false sense of supremacy to Hindus,” he said.

Electoral Gain

The opposition parties have accused Mr Modi of turning the religious event into a political spectacle to consolidate the Hindu vote in time for national elections to take place by May.

Congress leaders such as Sonia Gandhi have rejected the invitation, saying that the temple has been made into a political project.

Ram Temple has been a cornerstone of the BJP since its inception in Indian politics in 1980.

Many Hindus have long claimed that the mosque built by Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, was over the temple dedicated to the birthplace of Ram Lalla – the baby Ram.

In 1989, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu group associated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the ideological parent of the ruling BJP, had performed a foundation stone-laying ceremony of the temple at the disputed site.

Two years later, Lal Krishna Advani, a veteran leader from the BJP, began a nationwide movement to win support for the construction of the temple.

On December 6, 1992, tens of thousands of members of BJP and RSS attacked the mosque and within hours tore it to the ground, despite the claim being tested before the court of law.

Around 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in the violence after the demolition.

In 2019, when Mr Modi, who was seeking a second term, promised the construction of the temple.

The same year, the Supreme Court in a 1,045-page unsigned judgment ruled that the disputed land be given to a trust for the construction of the temple.

“The Supreme Court authorised temple’s construction, therefore, has been put in place but the Prime Minister doesn’t need to be there. This is a wholly political event,” Kapil Komireddi, author of Malevolent Republic, which tells of the rise of Hindu Nationalism in India, told The National.

“The campaign of the BJP is going to be built on the erection of this monument. This is the moment of their coronation, their consolidation, and authority over India,” he said.

Narendra Modi inaugurates grand Hindu temple built on ruins of mosque

Narendra Modi inaugurates grand Hindu temple built on ruins of mosque

There is also apprehension about the fate of other disputed structures.

At least two other mosques – the 17th-century Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and Meena Masjid at Shahi Idgah Mosque in Mathura – both built by Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, Babur’s descendant, in Uttar Pradesh, are claimed by Hindus, who have filed petitions before courts.

Hindus claim the Gyanvapi mosque was built over a Lord Shiva temple, whereas the Meena Masjid was built at the birthplace of the deity Krishna.

The sites are protected under The Places of Worship Act 1991, a legal provision that bars such lawsuits or changes the character of religious monuments.

Many fear that if BJP returns to power, it will move its focus on the new simmering disputes to continue with its polarisation.

“This government, their intellectual capacity consists entirely of seeing themselves as victims and wanting to take revenge for something that happened six centuries ago.

“They are never going to give up. They will go to Mathura; they will try to find exceptions to the Act … this country will fall apart if we carry on the obsessions of these people that's so regressive,” Mr Komireddi said.

Updated: January 22, 2024, 6:28 PM