By Sher Bano
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has overseen a significant shift in India’s political landscape, steering the nation away from alleged secular and democratic foundations towards more sectarian and fascist direction. The pivotal moment in this trajectory unfolded on Monday 22nd January, 2024 with Modi presiding over the grand inauguration ceremony for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya built after demolishing the 16th-century Babri Mosque that stood until December 6, 1992. This event, coupled with the prior revocation of Jammu & Kashmir’s special status, prompts essential questions about India’s allegiance to secularism, democracy, and political pluralism.
Modi’s involvement in religious ceremonies has become emblematic of India’s departure from its secular ideals, with his open support for Hindu communalists. The construction of the Ram Mandir, endorsed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally Shiv Sena, exacerbates the growing religious divide in the nation. Notably, neither the Indian Supreme Court nor the parliament has actively addressed this concerning trend. The controversy surrounding the Babri Mosque, intensified by BJP leaders Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi in 1992, culminated in its destruction by a mob of Hindu extremists on December 6. The ensuing legal battle concluded on November 9, with the Supreme Court ruling to hand over the disputed 1.77 acres of land to a trust established by the Government of India for the construction of the Ram Janmabhoomi. Additionally, the court mandated the allocation of an alternative five acres of land to the Sunni Waqf Board for a mosque.
The aftermath of the verdict raised concerns about the judiciary’s independence and impartiality, particularly with Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi being rewarded with a seat in India’s Rajya Sabha. Criticism from Pakistan’s Foreign Office argued that the court’s decision reflected a prioritization of faith over justice, contributing to the rise of majoritarianism in India.
The significance of the Ram temple inauguration extends beyond religious and cultural symbolism; it holds political implications crucial for the BJP. The Ram temple movement has proven to be a political asset, significantly impacting the party’s fortunes. In 1984, the BJP secured a mere two seats out of 543 in the lower house of parliament. However, a little over a decade later, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the party experienced a meteoric rise, becoming India’s largest party with 161 seats in the first national elections post-demolition. Despite its initial success, the BJP’s first stint in office lasted only 13 days due to reluctance from other parties to form alliances, primarily because of the mosque demolition association. As the party’s brand of Hindu nationalism gradually gained acceptance, it returned to power in 1998, ruling with allies until 2004. Following a decade out of power, the BJP staged a triumphant comeback under the leadership of Narendra Modi, who emerged as the party’s most unabashedly Hindu nationalist leader.
Therefore, the timing of the Ram temple inauguration is strategic for the BJP, as it not only fulfills a longstanding promise but also seeks to leverage the resonance of Hindu nationalism in the lead-up to national elections. The political dividends from the Ram temple movement have been evident in the BJP’s historical electoral success, making this event a pivotal moment in the party’s ongoing narrative of religious and political consolidation.
The Ram temple now serves as a litmus test for Indian democracy and secularism for three crucial reasons. First, despite its imperfections, India’s democracy and secularism were often lauded globally. However, since Modi assumed power in 2014, overt support for Hindu extremism has shattered the myth of India’s democratic and secular values. Measures like the revocation of articles 370 and 35(A), the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) underscore a deliberate move towards transforming India into a Hindu state. Anticipated moves by the BJP to amend the Indian Constitution and delete articles defining India as democratic and secular further raise concerns. With a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha and a determination to secure a similar majority in the Rajya Sabha, the BJP aims to constitutionally declare India a Hindu state.
Second, political pluralism and religious tolerance in India have long been under threat. Even during non-BJP governments, the Muslim minority faced insecurity due to repeated communal riots. The destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992, under a Congress government, showcased the inability to prevent such acts. The erosion of democratic and secular values is exacerbated by the complacency or incompetence of state organs – judiciary, bureaucracy, police, and military – in dealing with Hindu communal elements. Recent instances of communal violence in Delhi involving Hindu extremist groups with BJP patronage against Muslim protesters highlight a partisan attitude undermining the rule of law and fostering societal fragmentation.
Third, India’s religious diversity adds complexity to the situation, with over 20% of the population belonging to religious minorities. Christians, Sikhs, and Dalits express concerns about becoming victims of the Hindu state agenda advocated by the BJP, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and Shiv Sena. The divisive projects of the Ram Temple, CAA, and NRC threaten to polarize Indian society, endangering its existence as a unified state.
In conclusion, the inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya marks a critical juncture in India’s history, challenging its commitment to democracy and secularism. The erosion of these foundational values, coupled with the targeting of religious minorities, raises significant concerns about the nation’s social fabric.