Lord Ram is firmly back at the heart of political debates in India. Days after the Bharatiya Janata Party swept Uttar Pradesh elections with a thumping majority and installed its Hindutva face, Adityanath, as chief minister, party Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy approached the Supreme Court with a request to speed up the Ram janmabhoomi case, which has been pending before the court for six years.
The chief justice, in a widely criticised move, asked the parties to explore an out-of-court settlement, not considering the fact that majority BJP governments at the Centre and the State could skew the negotiations towards one side.
The Ram temple subject was bound to come up after the BJP’s victory as the party had made it a campaign issue in Uttar Pradesh. But what came as a surprise on Friday was the attempt to rekindle the now dormant Ram Setu controversy down south, a touchy subject caught in the “development versus faith” debate.
The Indian Council for Historical Research announced that it plans to undertake an “independent” survey to determine whether the Ram Setu was a naturally-occurring phenomenon or a man-made structure.
The proposed ICHR study has not gone down well with political parties in Tamil Nadu, which are accusing the Centre of trying to “convert myth into history” and create a ground for communal politics in south India.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Ram Setu, or the Adam’s bridge, “is a chain of shoals between the islands of Mannar near northwestern Sri Lanka, and Rameswaram, off the coast of Tamil Nadu in India.”
Rameswaram is now a place of religious significance.
The devout cite the earliest mention of the Adam’s bridge in Valmiki’s Ramayana. After Ravana kidnapped Sita and took her to what is considered today’s Sri Lanka, Ram began searching for her with the help of ape warriors led by King Sugriva and his friend Hanuman. Having identified Sita’s location, Ram, with the help of Sugriva’s army, built a bridge across the Palk Strait to reach Sri Lanka.
In the Ramayana, the stones used for constructing the bridge began floating on the sea after Ram’s name was written on them. Even a squirrel helped in building the bridge, so goes the story. And this bridge in the epic, maintain the devout, is none other than the Adam’s bridge, which is why it is also known as Ram Setu.
Historians like KN Pannikar have recognised the mythical value of the Ramayana, but have disagreed with the attempts to correalate its different tellings and traditions with historical facts and events. That an army of monkeys built a bridge across the sea will hardly pass scientific scrutiny, but is respected because it remains an article of faith for millions.
In an essay, Pannikar wrote in 2007:
“Such a view [that Ramayana is a myth] is not in any way a denigration of Rama or a critical reflection on the Ramayana. The Ramayana’s literary quality, whether in the original Sanskrit or in regional languages, is well known. So are the ethical and moral values it foregrounds, which exercise considerable influence over the life of believers.”
Sethusamudram canal project
The Ram Setu became the focus of a major controversy in 2005, when the then United Progressive Alliance regime at the Centre decided to implement the Sethusamudram canal project.
The project envisaged dredging a canal in the shallow waters separating India and Sri Lanka. Such a canal, it was argued, would facilitate the easy movement of large ships coming from the West, which now have to go around Sri Lanka to reach the eastern coast of India, a route that is both time and money consuming.
The project was first proposed by an English geographer named James Rennel in the late 18th century. The idea was to help cut shipping time for the East India Company, which was importing goods from England to sell in the Indian market.
After independence, the Centre formed the Sethu Samudram Project Committee in 1955, which cleared the project. However, it took over 50 years for the project to take off, with the foundation stone being laid by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005.
The project witnessed opposition from Hindu groups, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The reason being the canal’s alignment, which would involve cutting through the Ram Setu. The project was immediately challenged before the Supreme Court in 2005.
Matters came to a head in 2007, when the Archaeological Survey of India filed an affidavit before the court that said Ram was a mythical character and Ramayana had no historical basis. The BJP used the affidavit to mount a campaign against the Congress. LK Advani, then Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, did not miss the opportunity to tear into the government of the day.
“It is blasphemous and arrogant at worst, and insensitivity and recklessness at best, for a government claiming to be ‘secular’ to trash the deepest and noblest sensibilities of the Hindus. In one stroke of its legal pen, the government has sought to negate all that the Hindus consider sacred in their faith.”
In Tamil Nadu, the controversy divided political parties. Though both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam demanded the implementation of the Sethusamudram project, the latter wanted the Ram Setu to be protected.
Days after the ASI affidaviit, M Karunanidhi, the DMK president, questioned the story behind Ram Setu and wondered where Ram got his engineering degree from to construct a bridge across the sea. This comment led to a Vishwa Hindu Parishad member placing a bounty on Karunanidhi’s head.
However, the controversies surrounding Ram Setu died down after the BJP lost in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Slowly, the arguments against the canal project moved to ecological and environmental aspects, supported by the findings of the RK Pachauri committee in 2013 that said the project would be an “ecological disaster” in the sensitive Gulf of Mannar region.
Reviving the controversy
Since 2011, most political parties, including the DMK, have come to an understanding that the best way forward would be an alternate alignment that would save the Ram Setu and facilitate the canal project.
“Our party has made it clear that we will agree to an alternate alignment as long as the project is fulfilled,” said Kanimozhi, DMK’s Rajya Sabha member.
However, Kanimozhi said it was baffling that the BJP-led Centre would revive the controversy out of nowhere. “It is as though they want to impose a belief system that is not very strong in Tamil Nadu,” she added.
On the other side, Kanimozhi said any material that provides evidence for an independent, ancient Tamil culture is being systematically subverted by the government. She referred to the ASI excavations in Keezhadi in Tamil Nadu, where archaeologists had unearthed an advanced Sangam era settlement. The excavations were halted in December last year, ostensibly due to shortage of funds.
“Recently, the ASI officer who was leading the operations, Amarnath, was transferred to Assam,” she added.
Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol Thirumavalavan said the move to revive the Ram Setu debate showed that the BJP government has finally “uncloaked” and is now revealing its true Hindutva colours.
“After the Uttar Pradesh victory, the BJP thinks hiding behind the cloak of development was no longer necessary,” the former Lok Sabha member said.
Thirumavalavan said that the ICHR’s move to study the Ram Setu was a blatant attempt to “convert myth into history” and whip up communal emotions in Kerala and Tamil Nadu using Ram’s name.
“The ICHR chairman Sudershan Rao’s Hindutva sympathies are well known. We do not have any trust in that institution,” he claimed.