Will the 5th of August free Ayodhya from the burden of shouldering the cause of Hindu nationalism?
It is no coincidence that work on a Ram temple on the site where the Babri Masjid once stood is beginning on 05 August, exactly one year after the government of India revoked the limited autonomy granted to Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
It is, rather, deeply symbolic of the fact that what is indeed being founded is a new nation state on the remnants of India’s Constitutional democracy—a belligerent state in which the impulses of a strategic majority at the intersection of religion, caste and class take precedence over civil rights and are represented by a form of governance where power is no longer fragmented in the interest of imposing checks and balances.
PM Modi’s Vision of a ‘Rashtra Mandir’ in Ayodhya
The symbolism is further fortified by the fact that for the construction of what is being called the “Rashtra Mandir”, a pan Hindu celebration has been conceived with priests and tokens from across the country in place of local traditions associated with the worship of Ram in Ayodhya, and the highly select list of invitees include key figures responsible for forging the socio-political movement that has culminated in this historic moment – presided by the last man in the relay, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi is the de facto head of a very different nation from the one in which Nehru, in 1951, opposed the state’s involvement in the restoration of the Somnath temple with a view that in a secular country the government should not be seen to be associated with any one religion in particular.
Muscular Nationalism Vs Constitutional Idea of India
The ideas upon which this new nation state is being formed, however, are not new – they can be traced back to the muscular nationalism of leaders such as Lokmanya Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai, publishing houses such as Gita Press, poetry and fiction of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, essays of Ramananda Chatterjee and Sister Nivedita, historical works of Jadunath Sarkar and R C Majumdar, and at its most extreme, to the ideas of Savarkar and the raison d'être of organisations such as the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, founded in the 1920s and the 1930s.
These ideas clashed with the Constitutional idea of India that eventually triumphed in 1950 and while the moderate strands wove themselves into the life of the republic, a more radical essence lurked in the shadows until the 1980s. The movement for a Ram temple, that culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid and nationwide violence in its wake, was to be the vehicle for its return into the mainstream of India’s consciousness.
The resurrected project was not merely political. The ideas of another India were seeded at ground level through educational, cultural, organizational, and social projects that penetrated into parts of the country where the state and the liberal elite had been largely absent.
Ideological Evangelism and the Making of Ayodhya
The ideological evangelism filled a vacuum. Generations after the 1950s were increasingly shorn of a collective national identity. The Constitutional identity failed to be a rallying force because its ideas and promises remained abstract and unfulfilled for the better part of India. In the decades preceding 2014, significant strides were made with respect to the provision of public goods and services but as history has repeatedly reminded us, the people need bread but they also need roses.
The articulation of the ideas for a new India appealed to the baser instincts that man has been vulnerable to since times immemorial—pride in the idea of a superior and aggressive civilisation, wrath against the common enemy (presented variously and often interchangeably as Muslims, neighbouring states, and the ideological left), envy of the real privileges of the urban elite and the imagined appeasement of minorities, lust for blood, greed for a greater share of the economic pie, a gluttonous appetite for outrage, and slothful groupthink.
Ayodhya remained the thread around which a new pan Hindu identity was being woven, coming back into prominence in 2002, when the murder of kar sevaks returning from the temple town led to a horrifying carnage against Muslims in Gujarat
The polarization that followed the carnage was cemented irrevocably by the meteoric rise of social media in the years to come. Seeded ideas of identity morphed into the fanatic fervor of captive minds and thus began the process of normalizing distrust, hatred, and violence against minorities and dissenters. The electoral rise of the BJP was both a cause and an effect of this normalization, but its real import lies elsewhere.
Where is Ayodhya—a Real Place with Real People?
2014 onwards the idea of India as a sanatan Hindu rashtra disrupted by foreign invaders and a misguided Constitution not only began to be articulated freely but also received state sanction. Power consolidated in the PMO, and, one by one, institutions were either dismantled or became cogs in the wheels of the juggernaut whose time had come.
On the 6th of August last year the Supreme Court began daily hearings to settle the dispute over the Ram temple clearing the way for the building of a temple where the demolished mosque stood and, perhaps inadvertently, for the foundation of a new republic.
This is the larger picture. When you zoom in there is Ayodhya – a real place with real people. It also happens to be my ancestral home town – an impressionistic medley of dialect, food, songs, folklores, traditions, difficulties, eccentricities, peculiarities, humour and micro-histories that run in my bloodstream. A place now made invisible by a grand socio-political project that has also obscured my own identity as a devotee of Ram and as an Indian who does not subscribe to the hegemonic view of what it means to be either in India today.
Ram Not Just a Litigant in a Property Dispute
The town I love and belong to does not resemble the gaudy images being flashed on television screens. It is a quiet and dignified town, bathed in a serenity that belies its modern history. When the mosque was demolished, Ayodhya also lost precious small temples in its vicinity.
Its certainties were effaced by barricades and concertina wire and the security it offered its people was ripped apart by the lingering threat of violence.
Will the 5th of August free Ayodhya from the burden of shouldering the cause of Hindu nationalism or will it forever seal its fate as a metonym of the violent rupture that dismantled India’s Constitutional democracy? Will it ever go back to being simply my home town again or will its delicate syncretic culture remain a cherished secret? There is little I can do to shape or to predict its fate so I must do what I can—retreat to the Ayodhya that lies outside the disputed site —where the mazaar of BaRi Buaa, the monkeys of Hanumangarhi and the magnanimous Saryu are equally revered, where Sita also lives, and where Ram is not merely a litigant in a property dispute.
Originally published in The Quint.