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The Big Story: Temple politics

Whichever way you look at it, August 5, 2020, will be a tremendously significant day in the history of the Indian republic.

It marks a year since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government decided to unilaterally revoke the autonomy of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, putting the entire population under curfew, taking away high-speed internet, jailing nearly every mainstream politician in the Kashmir valley including former BJP allies and downgrading the state – India’s only Muslim-majority one – to a Union Territory controlled by New Delhi.

It is on the same day that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend a religious ceremony, to be telecast live on state television, to mark the beginning of construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. The temple will be built on a site whose history encapsulates the rise of Hindu nationalism as the pole around which Indian politics currently revolves.

Depending on which way you look at it, the ceremony to kick off the construction of the Ram temple – on the anniversary of the government’s repressive moves in Kashmir a year earlier – is either:

  • an appropriate culmination of the century-old Hindu nationalist movement that has found its fullest expression in the image and politics of Narendra Modi, a Hindutva leader who has been in charge during religious riots in Gujarat and Delhi, and promises to restore India’s status as a global, civilisational power, or
  • a reflection of the successfully cynical use of the Hindu religion to power the anti-Muslim ideology of Hindutva that has steadily undermined the secular ideals of independent India, torn apart the cultural fabric of the country to the extent that Hindutva mob violence receives the active support of the ruling order, and successfully distracts the Hindu majority even as the economic and development promises that fueled Modi’s political rise have fallen apart.

It would take many books (or a remarkable documentary) to recount the complex history of the Ram temple, which will be built on the site of a medieval mosque, the Babri Masjid, built during Mughal rule that was demolished by a Hindutva mob in 1992.

Here is how we summed it up on this newsletter last year, where you can find more links on the subject:

“For over a century, Hindus and Muslims have clashed over this spot in Ayodhya where the Babri Masjid stands, with the Hindus claiming it is the birthplace of Ram, one of the avatars of Vishnu. In 1949, Hindutva organisations conspired to place a Ram idol in the mosque, effectively turning it into a makeshift Hindu temple and leading to a court case over who owns the land.

Then in the 1980s, the BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, used a nationwide campaign for the building of a Ram temple on the spot as a means of whipping up passions (and sparking off violence), culminating in mass-scale vandalism that demolished the mosque on December 6, 1992.”

One of the threads to disentangle, for example, is the role of India’s Supreme Court, which was actually responsible for ensuring that a temple will be built on the land where the mosque was – by the court’s own admission – illegally demolished.

India’s Supreme Court has, despite the impression of judicial independence, tended to bend in favour of the majoritarian impulse of the moment in India, a trend that has only accelerated over the last six years.

The 2019 judgment, paving the way for the construction of the temple is a perfect example of this:

Will the construction of the temple bring the BJP electoral gains? One view is that an adverse Supreme Court decision may have actually been better for the party, since it would then have had another popular issue to rally its supporters.

Instead, for Modi, this move now seems more of a culmination of a movement at a time when the BJP’s popularity in North India is at its peak, with the temple unlikely to bring in more supporters in the South and the East.

That said, Aditi Phadnis and Shikha Shalini do point to someone who will gain:

“Existential questions apart, there is unanimity within both BJP and RSS that the prime beneficiary of the Ram temple is going to be Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. ‘I don’t know if Yogi Adityanath is personally anti-Brahmin. But Brahmins certainly feel he is anti-Brahmin. The temple building project will paper over that friction,’ [central figure of the Ram Temple movement] Govindacharya said.

Badri Narayan, professor at GB Pant Social Sciences Institute, agreed. ‘Adityanath will oversee the construction. For the next two years, there will be excitement... There will be potential for mobilisation. The gains will go to Adityanath.”

Another thread is the ease with which the BJP leaders who actually led the Ram temple movement in the 1980s and 1990s have been set aside. These leaders helped the party go from two Lok Sabha seats in 1984 to overwhelming majorities in 2014 and 2019.

There was much talk that Modi would not be joined in Ayodhya by LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, two BJP leaders who were responsible for the Ram temple movement – and all the violence it sparked – in those years. Word has now been put out that they will join by video conference, though the impression remains that they have been discarded because of their reluctance to give up all control of the party and movement to Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.

Then there is the Congress, eternally opposed to the BJP and nominally the defender of India’s secular ideals, yet in many ways responsible for the way the temple case turned out – it was after all under former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that the locks of the Babri mosque were opened for Hindu worshipers.

The Congress is now uncertain how to deal with the move towards actually building a temple, with the top leadership silent even as others in the party welcomed the ceremony and complained about not being invited.

And finally there’s the view from Kashmir. My colleague, Ipsita Chakravarty writes in:

“As Modi lays the foundations for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya on August 5, Kashmir will complete a year without special status. On the morning of August 5, 2019, Kashmir was entering one of the strictest lockdowns in its history as the Centre announced that Article 370, which guaranteed special status, would be hollowed out, the state of Jammu and Kashmir would be split into two Union Territories and Article 35A, which ensured special protections to the residents of the state, repealed.

Removing Article 370 and building the Ram Temple have always been part of the BJP’s core agenda. So it is perhaps not surprising that the party should want to inaugurate the temple on the anniversary of Article 370’s dismemberment. For many Kashmiris, the function is a declaration of intent.

‘On the first anniversary of the demolition of Jammu & Kashmir statehood and its takeover,’ one Kashmiri journalist wrote on social media, Modi will inaugurate a Ram Temple ‘built on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid’. The message, he felt, was ‘loud and clear’.

The Centre had argued that removing special status would bring development to the region, endow the residents of Jammu and Kashmir with the rights enjoyed by Indians elsewhere. There were few takers for this argument in Kashmir.

Residents saw the removal of special protections as a prelude to demographic change in the Muslim-majority valley, a Hindu majoritarian assault on the character of India’s only Muslim-majority state.

The Ram temple function has turned that belief into conviction.”

Scroll.in Ground Report

All week, leading up to the anniversary of the unilateral withdrawal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, Ipsita Charkavarty and Safwat Zargar are bringing you reports
on what the last year has meant for residents of the former state.

The stories have covered how the courts have failed to hear petitions and left jailed Kashmiris at the mercy of the government, how the ban on high-speed internet has hurt education, health and entrepreneurship, and how Kashmiri Muslims have disappeared from government:

“‘In civil bureaucracy, police and judiciary, Muslims in Kashmir feel nowhere,’ said Ghulam Hassan Mir, a former minister in the state and now a member of the newly floated Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, in a recent interview. ‘They are being sidelined and there is complete imbalance in the system. Kashmiris are found nowhere and even in the civil secretariat, which is the seat of power, the dejected Kashmiri officers are feeling detached…’

Kashmiris have disappeared from the core unit of the administration altogether. While the administration is closely controlled by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs – most important policy decisions have been announced by it – the lieutenant governor and his four advisors are now the face of government in Jammu and Kashmir. Each advisor has the powers of a minister, supervising different departments instead of holding portfolios. Three of the advisors are from Jammu. The fourth is from Uttar Pradesh. None of them is from the Kashmir Valley.”

Flotsam and Jetsam

If you missed it, do read our Friday Q&A with Pallavi Raghavan, author of Animosity at Bay: An Alternative History of the India-Pakistan Relationship, 1947-1952, which looks at how the two countries collaborated in the early years after independence.

Home Minister Amit Shah has tested positive for coronavirus, days after he was photographed addressing an indoor even without a mask and not long after attending a Cabinet meeting. He has been admitted to a hospital in Gurugram with mild symptoms, after doctors told him he was vulnerable due to comorbidities.

The Congress is once again fighting internally. Younger leaders – often, but not always, a euphemism for those in the Rahul Gandhi camp – blamed those who were in charge during the Congress-led years from 2004-2014 for the current state of the party, prompting others to take to Twitter to defend the Manmohan Singh era.

Recently freed Kashmiri leader Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister, broke his silence on the Article 370 issue saying that he will fight it in court, will not contest elections until statehood has beenr restored and does not want people to take to the streets.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has said that if the Congress leadership forgave Sachin Pilot and his rebels, he too would welcome them back into the fold.

The government has altered the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code to remove some Supreme Court-inspired alterations that would have treated secured and unsecured creditors as equal. The Reserve Bank of India has to decide: Will it extend the loan moratorium, allow a one-time restructuring of loans or… do nothing?

That’s all for today’s The Political Fix. Send feedback to rohan@scroll.in, and if you enjoy this newsletter please do share it.