The New Ram Temple: A Triumph of Hindu Nationalism
Maria Tavernini 22 January 2024

January 22 will go down in history as a big day in India. Construction works have been feverish in the months leading up to the inauguration of the Ram temple, an event that many have labeled as important as August 15, 1947, the day India gained independence. Tens of thousands of pilgrims have flocked to the once-quiet town of Ayodhya in northern India. Some 7,000 official invitees, including politicians, industrialists, religious figures and actors, attended the Ram Mandir Pran Pratishtha, the long-awaited opening – the rest of the nation watched it live on Doordarshan, the state-run television. “Jay shri Ram” chants accompanied the frenzied celebrations around the newly built, only partially completed temple – a 200-million-euros project that sprawls over 7.2 acres with its massive three-story structure made of pink sandstone and white marble. A towering idol of Ram was placed on a pedestal and unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who performed all the rituals. The city, adorned with lights, flowers and saffron flags, underwent a multimillion-euro makeover to become the “Hindu Vatican.”

Modi accomplished a decades-long Hindu nationalist commitment by consecrating the temple, built on the ashes of a 16th-century mosque, the infamous Babri Masjid, which once stood on one of the country’s holiest and most controversial religious sites. To understand the significance of this day for the Hindu nationalist government, under whose tenure India has seen a significant rise in violence against Muslims and other minorities, one must delve deep into the country’s history of sectarian policies. Hindus believe the mosque was erected on top of an ancient temple dedicated to Lord Ram (also named Rama) that was destroyed by the first Mughal Emperor, Babur – a claim that is not supported by historical or archaeological evidence. The temple was believed to have stood directly on the hill they believe to be the birthplace of Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu and one of the most revered deities in Hinduism, before it was destroyed by the “Muslim invaders.” After decades of controversies, angry mobs of Hindu activists armed with swords, sticks and pickaxes finally tore down the Babri mosque in December 1992, sparking nationwide riots that claimed nearly 2,000 lives. The trail of sectarian hatred has continued to ripple through India’s social fabric, erupting from time to time in violent clashes and outright pogroms.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid marks one of the darkest moments in India’s multi-religious history and dealt a heavy blow to the inclusive values enshrined in its Constitution. Today, the opening of the half-completed temple and its consecration by the Hindu far-right closes a circle on which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the nationalist party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has put its lotus stamp. While many Hindus see the opening of the temple as an important religious event, many believe it will rather be the tombstone of India’s secular character. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid – an open wound for the country’s Muslim population, the second-largest religious minority, which makes up about 14 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people – and decades of legal wrangling, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court gave unanimously green-light to the temple’s construction in 2019. It also assigned a plot of land on the outskirts of the city to the local Muslim population to rebuild the mosque. In 2020, the first stone of the temple was laid by Modi himself.

PM Narendra Modi at the Pran Pratishtha ceremony of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh on January 22, 2024. Credits: PMIndia.

The judges’ decision, while stating that the demolition was an “unlawful act,” was a huge victory for the BJP’s majoritarian agenda and dashed the hopes of the Muslim community to receive some sort of moral compensation for the injustice suffered by their community. The decision was clearly a step towards the transformation of India into a Hindu Rashtra, the Hindu nation, where religious minorities are treated as second-class citizens and where violence and fanaticism at the hands of the Hindu far-right are overlooked and, in some cases, even condoned. The movement revolving around the Ram Mandir has been a springboard for Modi’s political career. In the 1990s, it grew into a rally of right-wing organizations dedicated to rebuilding the temple. When the rally reached Ayodhya in 1992, the mob gathered around the mosque and demolished it in full view of the police in an act of unprecedented religious vandalism. Rebuilding the Ram temple on the ashes of the mosque has been the leitmotif of the BJP and Modi’s political rise.

“The agitation for the ‘liberation’ of the Ram Janmabhoomi [Rama’s birthplace] has been pivotal to the rise of Modi and the BJP – which was a very small party before the Ram temple movement began in 1984. Modi also rose on the national scene because of the politics and the popularity associate with the Ram temple agitation. The inauguration of the temple at this time is actually a symbol of Hindu triumphalism,” explains to ResetDoc writer and journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who has written extensively on the rise and growth of Hindu organizations and authored the book The Demolition, the Verdict and the Temple. “What has been done in Ayodhya is a victory ceremony and the victory procession was led by none other than Mr. Modi. History will remember him as the person under whose tenure the temple was completed. The way the inauguration has been planned, the way the government has publicized it, is indicative of the fact that there is no longer any difference between religion and politics, all lines have blurred. This is very dangerous for the future of secularism – India is on the way to become a theocratic state”.

According to Mukhopadhyay, if the ceremony at Ayodhya’s half-finished temple has to be compared to any event in history, it is not independence but the partition of British India into modern India and Pakistan, a division drawn along religious lines that he calls “intensely apocalyptic.” “Independence came along with partition and, like any event that comes at the end of a long process, it can be celebrated or mourned. So, August 15, 1947, can be celebrated because we became free, but it can also be mourned for the partition and all that came with it. Similarly, January 22 can be a very positive event for a large number of Indians, but for an equally significant section of people, even among Hindus, it has been a very sad day”, he explains. “Partition meant religious and communal violence, people attacking each other in the name of God, thousands of people killed. In the course of the Ram temple agitation, too, countless people were killed, there were communal riots – it took a very heavy toll, both in terms of human lives and property.”

The construction and grand opening of the temple is just the latest in a series of major political moves by Modi to enforce his party’s Hindu nationalist ideology and majoritarianism. The fact that the inauguration took place before the temple was fully completed – and the emphasis on Modi (who does not even belong to the priestly cast) – has enraged some of the most prominent Shankaracharyas, or Hindu sects, who boycotted the event. Another major absentee was the Congress Party, which decided to skip the inauguration, claiming it was more of a political show than a religious ceremony. In fact, the event is seen as the unofficial launch of Modi’s re-election campaign for the upcoming general elections next Spring, in which he will seek a third term in office. The Ram Mandir inaugurated in Ayodhya is the best single achievement that the BJP could boast of before the elections. Not only might this overshadow its government failures, but it also sends a chilling message to the Muslim community and other minorities: India is a country for Hindus.

Muslims in India today live in a state of fear because the government has repeatedly proven that they must be invisible and silent in order to survive. While the “collective delirium” over the inauguration of a half-built temple seems to bring an end to the decades-long controversies over the Ram Mandir, many believe it will not be an epilogue. “This will not end here, it will continue from one city to another – there are already claims on other major mosques in North India, one in Varanasi and one in Mathura. After Ayodhya, any property dispute can be open, so we do not know if there will be 15, 50, 100 or 1,000 other Muslim places of worship that will be claimed and destroyed to build a Hindu temple on top of them. It can happen anytime very soon; we do not know when, but it is going to happen,” comments Mukhopadhyay.

“January 22, 2024, is not merely a date but marks the advent of a new era,” Prime Minister Modi said in Ayodhya after the Ram temple consecration ceremony, and many fear that it will indeed be so.



Cover photo: a man is watching the Ram temple ahead of its opening in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, on January 19, 2024. Photo by Indranil Aditya / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP.

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