A strong India cannot be built on religious division

When prime minister Narendra Modi laid the silver foundation stone this week at the site of what will become a temple to the Hindu deity Lord Ram in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, it in many ways signalled the end of India as a secular, multifaith republic. In the ceremony, Mr Modi played the role reserved for Hindu kings whose consecration of temples would legitimise their power. The danger is that the country is entering a new era of majoritarianism, where the interests and beliefs of the Hindu majority will take precedence over the rights of minorities, especially Muslims who account for 14 per cent of the population.

The site of the new temple was a former mosque razed by a Hindu mob in 1992. The destruction of the 16th-century house of worship sparked religious riots across India in which 2,000 people died and launched a wave of Hindu nationalism that eventually helped to propel Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party to power. Starting to build a temple on the site of the mosque fits a pattern of the marginalisation of India’s Muslim minority under the BJP administration. It came exactly a year after the removal of autonomy from India’s only Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. 

For devout Hindus, however, the new temple is seen as reversing the humiliation under the Muslim Mughal empire, which built the Babri mosque on what was a particularly holy site to Hindus. Ayodhya is said to be the birthplace of Ram and the setting for the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. The BJP has argued that it was essential to build a temple on the site to heal India’s “civilisational wounds” and in November India’s supreme court allowed the building to go ahead. 

While Mr Modi’s status will be raised among his Hindu nationalist supporters for delivering the temple, his rhetoric on the day was less inflammatory than sometimes in the past, paying at least lip service to national unity. Mr Modi chose to avoid using a dedication to Ram that has become a rallying cry for rightwing Hindu nationalists and opted for a more neutral phrase. But if he truly wishes to ensure the nation holds together, he should turn away from divisive sociocultural issues and focus on delivering a stronger economy that gives jobs and opportunities to far more of India’s citizens.

With an economy that was in trouble even before the devastating effect of the coronavirus pandemic — India has the world’s third-highest caseload and there is little sign of the virus slowing — it will be tempting for Mr Modi and the BJP to rely on religious symbols rather than government competence to shore up their support. There are at least two other locations in India where centuries-old mosques now stand on ground that formerly housed important Hindu temples. These have also been previously mentioned as sites that must be reclaimed by Hindus and avenged. Such calls must be rejected.

Mr Modi earned a reputation for economic management in his home state of Gujarat and was elected on a platform of rejuvenating Indian growth and incomes. Yet hopes for business-friendly reform have come to little and the economy has been slowing since mid-2018. Recent border clashes have strained ties with an increasingly assertive China. The prime minister still has a choice: to continue down the path he seems to have chosen of pursuing divisive religious politics to reshape India into an even more overtly Hindu state, or focus instead on growth and genuine reform. Not temples, but a strong economy, modern infrastructure, and opportunities to rise out of poverty would be the true tonic to heal India’s civilisational wounds.

This editorial has been amended since publication

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