I just read a piece you have written in a newspaper titled Why we need a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, and felt I should respond.
Now, as everyone knows, you are one of contemporary India’s most popular writers. Besides putting out your novels, you also tweet regularly, and write columns in different papers, and a lot of people read what you write. Whenever I have come across something you have written, more often than not I have disagreed with it. Often I will laugh at some article by you or some comment you have made, but till now I have not felt the need to engage or argue with you. So, why do I need to respond now, and why to this particular piece of writing? Let me try and explain.
Chetan, our country and society are at a very dangerous moment in our history. For reasons I have laid out before and will briefly repeat below, I am very wary of Narendra Modi, his organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party and their Hindutva ideology. However, I cannot imagine that all the millions who have voted for Modi and his people are all believers in the world-view that the prime minister and his close followers hold.
For every possibly dodgy Electronic Voting Machine vote that the RSS-BJP may have gained, I have to accept that there may be many more voters who have voted for them believing in the promises of sabka vikaas – a non-corrupt government, a non-dynastic, non-nepotistic party command, and so on.
I also have to accept that there are people like you, and people much younger than your 43 years, who either have short or completely non-existent memories of the last 40 years in the life of our country.
When I read your soft-voiced entreaties about the “reasonableness of the request to restore a temple in one of the holiest sites of the Hindu religion” I have to force myself to take you at face value.
“No,” I have to say to myself, “No, he is not one of these cynical, power-addicted English-fluent apologists of the RSS-BJP who would not know a bhagwa dhwaj if they sat on one. He, Chetan, is someone who actually genuinely believes in this argument, in what he is writing.”
And, if I give your sincerity the benefit of doubt, I also have to take into account that you will have some equally sincere, if completely wrong-headed, readers. So, it is to you sincere ones, writer and readers, that I address this letter in the hope that it will invite you to think and to question some things.
Hindutva vs Hinduism
Let us just take your first two sentences, Chetan. You wrote:
“It has become the fashion in some elite Indian circles to bash Hinduism and issues related to it. It has also become taboo in these same intellectual circles to discuss what I think is a very reasonable request – we should have a Ram Temple in Ayodhya.”
First, just as Indira Gandhi was not India, Hindutva is not Hinduism. Hinduism (the name given by the English) is a vast and ancient network of beliefs, philosophies and practices, as varied as a continent-sized dense tropical jungle.
Hindutva is, at best, a late 19th century or early 20th century concoction of narrow-minded people, men who decreed that the beautiful wild jungle of Hinduism be burnt down, or stripped to the ground, and only very few kinds of trees and plants be allowed to survive.
In this, these men of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha were far more closely aligned in their thinking to the men who began the poisonous Islamist (as different from Islamic) sects of Wahhabism and the schools that led to the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami, than they were to our rishis, munis, sants and yogis.
Next, Hinduism, like any great religion, is dynamic and evolving, and there are many issues that confront it today: casteism and its toxins, the role and the rights of women, the relationship to the environment and so on. The Ram temple is not, repeat not, one of the main issues facing Hinduism. The demand for a temple on the site of the Babri Mosque is a concocted issue, a decoy made up by Hindutva-vadis to create trouble and to propel themselves to political power.
Next, there are many, many people across the country who are examining Hinduism critically and questioning Hindutva. It is not just the elite intellectuals doing this, but also Dalits, Adivasis, various followers of different kinds of Hinduism, scientists, members of the lower middle-class, and rationalist-atheist teachers who are getting murdered.
Some of the intellectuals you mention may actually know our history better than the Hindutva ideologues. They may be scholars who have studied our culture, read some original texts and excavated some archaeological sites. Perhaps we should also consider their contention: there is a difference between mythical figures of ancient lore and actually verifiable historical figures.
The Ram temple
If we take into account the layers and layers of history upon which we build our current time, the huge interlacing of different sacred geographies, then it is not reasonable to say, unverifiably, that Ram was born in these exact three square metres, all those thousands of years ago. And no, “this place has been known as the birthplace of Ram for centuries”, as you put it, is not good enough. Ayodhya has also been a Buddhist site for centuries and the Babri Mosque a Muslim site, disputed between Shias and Sunnis, also for centuries.
Neither is it fair to say, as Sangh Parivar people do, that because Ram is “the most important Hindu god” (he is not, we have several) we have the right to destroy an archeological site and build a temple right there. Because if we take this to be an acceptable model, there will be no end to rewinding and destroying.
There are several thousand Hindu temples built on destroyed Buddhist sites, and on sacred Adivasi spots too. Should we request that these also be destroyed, the Buddhist temples rebuilt and Adivasi natural areas restored?
And, lastly, Chetan, you ask for “a Ram temple in Ayodhya” as if there aren’t already several Ram temples there. If you need, as you argue, a place where you can “focus on God and God alone”, then one of these temples should be good enough, or indeed a new temple half a mile down the road from the location of the now destroyed mosque.
No, the point is not, as you seem to think, about giving the Muslims a “grander mosque”, as one hands a child a larger lollipop for one they have dropped. Nor is it about building a hospital close by, as you suggest, or any of that.
The point is that this agitation that has led to the deaths of more than 3,000 people since 1992 (with the countrywide post-Babri riots of December 1992 you should also include the 1993 Bombay killings and the 2002 Gujarat killings triggered by the deaths of kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya) cannot be called a “request”, as you repeatedly do in your piece.
Since the late Eighties, the demand for a Ram temple on the exact site of the Babri mosque has always been made at a political knifepoint. It is what LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sadhvi Rithambara were saying in 1992, what Narendra Modi’s party was saying in 2002, and what Ajay Bisht also known as Adityanath and his quasi-militia are saying now.
It is a request akin to “an offer you cannot refuse” from a mafia don. It is a request that is the tip of the battering ram. It is a request from an extremist religious minority – the Hindutva-vadis – to take over the country and re-make our society in their own dark vision.
Show some courage
Chetan, I do not know if you are a vegetarian or a meat eater or even an eater of beef. I do not know if you are a practicing Hindu or an atheist, whether you worship only Ram, or are a Shiv-bhakt perhaps, or a devotee of Amba Ma, Durga Mata or Ma Kali.
I would suspect that, like me, you believe in some sort of freedom for young couples to sit in parks and hold hands, or even kiss. I would suspect that you and your reader fans would believe that women should have the equal opportunity of going out into the world and following their dreams without being tied to a husband or male figure. I want to think that, like me, you are proud of the fact that we are not (yet) like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or even Iran, that all sorts of different people, of different faiths and ethnicities can call themselves Indian, that those Indians can sing and dance and love and eat and drink as they want, that they can worship (or not), exactly as they want.
If even some of these things are true of you, I request you, really request you, to have the courage to examine this government and these leaders of ours, and call them out in your writing for being the enemies of the kind of India that we want.