August 5 will be remembered in Indian history for several dubious reasons. The date marks events that signal a complete erosion of the founding values of the country, especially the idea of India as a secular democracy.
The country’s commitment to democratic values has been tested severely since August 5, 2019, when the Bharatiya Janata Party decided to obliterate the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir in the Constitution and divide the state into two Union Territories without the approval of its people. Institutions that are the bedrock of any democratic society, such as the judiciary, have turned a blind eye to this undermining of people’s rights. The challenges to the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status are yet to be heard by the Supreme Court.
The values of secularism embedded in India’s constitutional structure were pummeled with a road roller on Wednesday, when the prime minister decided to assume the role of a devotee not just of a deity but of a political movement with divisive strains running through its very DNA.
As Narendra Modi took the stage after having participated in rituals in Ayodhya to lay the foundation stone for a temple dedicated to Ram, he offered a cynically distorted version of Indian history.
Modi started his speech by comparing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-led Ram Janmabhoomi campaign to raze the 16th-century Babri Masjid down with India’s movement to win freedom from British colonisers. His rhetoric was carefully chosen. The freedom movement demanded severance from subjugation, exploitation and dehumanisation. It was an assertion of India’s intrinsic independence.
With this comparison, Modi announced the severance from another past, that of a country built on the values of secularism, equality and fraternity. By comparing a movement that united the country across religious and caste groups to one that tore apart India’s social fabric for narrow political gain, Modi was attempting to recast history. “This day is a unique gift from the law abiding India to truth, non-violence, faith and sacrifice,” Modi claimed, even though the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign and the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindutva mobs on December 6, 1992, had sparked riots that left thousands of Indians dead. Perhaps Modi was pointing to the peaceful acceptance of the Supreme Court verdict in November awarding the disputed site to Hindus. But acceptance, of course, is not the same as approval.
If anything, the ceremony in Ayodhya on August 5, 2020, was a celebration of the injustice meted out to one class of people, at the scene of a crime, the place where a mosque had stood for centuries and was demolished by rampaging mobs, damaging not just the brick-and-mortar structure of a place of worship but also the edifice of communal harmony that the freedom movement aimed to build. Even the Supreme Court last year admitted that the demolition of Babri Masjid was a serious crime. But so far, no one responsible for the unholy act on that Sunday afternoon in December 1992 has been punished.
Wednesday’s events also mark a decisive shift towards majoritarian politics. A prime minister, who had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, chose to project himself as the hero of a divisive movement that bulldozed India’s foundational values. Modi chose to ignore the utter insensitivity his gesture conveyed to India’s 170 million strong Muslims. Though his speech was sprinkled with calls for unity, his act legitimising the Ram Janmabhoomi movement will have the effect of further alienating members of India’s largest religious minority community. The idea that the prime minister represents all Indians has taken an enormous blow.
The idea of Indian secularism involves equal respect for members of all religions. This is not merely a balancing act. Modi may well participate in a ceremony to lay the foundation stone for a mosque in Ayodhya at a later date. But the values of secularism and fraternity involve reassuring vulnerable citizens that law and society offer them protection from the excesses of the majority. These protections are crucial in giving members of minority communities a sense of equal citizenship. That idea is now in tatters.