Ayodhya Ram Mandir a test case for Indian secularism

Under the Modi regime, India’s journey from secularism to sectarianism and from democracy to fascism reflects the transformation in Indian society. On August 5, the day when a year ago the special status of Jammu & Kashmir was revoked by the Indian parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided over the ground breaking ceremony of Ram Mandir (temple) in the northern city of Ayodhya where till December 6, 1992, stood the 16th century Babri Mosque.

When the Prime Minister of the world’s so-called largest democracy officially participates in religious ceremonies and gives patronage to Hindu communalists, it means it is an end of its democracy, political pluralism and secularism. Neither the Indian Supreme Court nor its parliament takes any notice of growing religious schism in India supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu extremist ally Shiv Sena. In fact, it is the SC which after years of hearings allowed the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

The controversy that the Babri Mosque was built by demolishing a Hindu temple — which was the birth place of Hindu deity, Ram — was augmented by BJP in 1992 when under its leaders Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi. A mob of Hindu extremists destroyed Babri Mosque on December 6 and pledged to build Ram Mandir on that site. Since then the matter had been lingering in the SC and on November 9 last year, the court gave the verdict to hand over the disputed 1.77 acres of land to a trust to be created by Government of India to build the Ram Janmabhoomi, the birth place of Ram. The court also ordered the government to give an alternate five acres of land in another place to the Sunni Waqf Board in order to build a mosque. In return, the Chief Justice of the SC, Ranjan Gogoi was rewarded by offering him a seat in India’s Rajya Sabha.

On August 5, Pakistan’s Foreign Office, in a statement, deplored “the flawed judgment of the Indian Supreme Court paving the way for construction of the temple not only reflected the preponderance of faith over justice but also the growing majoritarianism in today’s India, where minorities, particularly Muslims and their places of worship, are increasingly under attack.” The statement also criticised the haste in starting construction of the temple amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the controversy over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), as well as measures that “demonised, dispossessed, marginalised and subjected” Muslims to targeted violence. At stake is the future of more than 200 million Muslims in India who are vulnerable since the Modi regime came into power and are facing lynching, fear, terror and discrimination at the hands of state-patronised Hindu nationalist groups.

The Ram temple is a serious test case for the so-called Indian democracy and secularism because of three main reasons.

First, despite its fault lines Indian democracy and secularism were termed a role model for the rest of the world. But, with the overt support of Hindu extremism and transforming India into a Hindu state since the Modi regime came into power in 2014, the myth of Indian democracy and secularism has been shattered. But, constitutionally, despite fascist techniques used by Hindu fanatics against Muslims and other minorities, India is still a democratic and secular state. After revoking articles 370 and 35(A), introducing CAA, NRC and starting the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, BJP’s next step will be to amend the Indian Constitution and delete articles which term India as a democratic and secular state. BJP is confident that with two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) and its resolve that it will secure two-thirds majority in Rajya Sabha (Upper House) in the next elections, it will be in a position to declare India as a Hindu state.

Second, at stake is political pluralism and religious tolerance in India which is under threat since long. Even during non-BJP governments, the lives of the Muslim minority were not safe because of repeated communal riots. One cannot undermine the fact that Babri Mosque was destroyed when the Congress government was in power and prime minister Narashima Rao utterly failed to prevent such an unpardonable act. In order to placate criticism against its incompetence while dealing with the Ayodhya issue, the Congress government merely dismissed the BJP state government of Utter Pradesh but its actions were unable to deter Hindu fundamentalists who got encouraged with the destruction of the Babri Mosque and pledged to build Ram Temple in its place. The erosion of democratic and secular values in India is a major reality because state organs like judiciary, bureaucracy, police and military which should have been neutral and ensure the rule of law are either complacent or incompetent to deal with Hindu communal elements that are not reluctant to take the law into their own hands. Communal violence in Delhi and elsewhere unleashed by Hindu fascist communal groups having the patronage of BJP against Muslim protesters against CAA reflected partisan attitude of police and bureaucracy. When the state condones violence against religious minorities as was the case in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the outcome is a fragmentation of society.

Third, India is not like Pakistan where religious minorities are only 4% of its population. There are 20% religious minorities in India composed of Muslims, Christians and Buddhists. If one takes into account the schedule castes and schedule tribes (Dalits), the religious minority population in India totals more than 50%. Christians, Sikhs and Dalits rightly express their concern that today the Muslim minority is a target of upper caste Hindu chauvinism but tomorrow they will become a victim of BJP, RSS and Shiv Sena’s Hindu state agenda where they will not only be persecuted but also liquidated. The Modi regime is trying to unite the followers of the Hindu religion but Dalits know very well that since centuries they are the ones who have been victims of discrimination by upper caste Hindus. In that case, the very project of Ram Temple, CAA and NRC will further polarize the Indian state and society and eventually threaten its existence as a state.

Unfortunately, it is not only in India where the wave of religious chauvinism, extremism and intolerance exists by converting the Babri Mosque into Ram Temple but in Turkey too, where on July 24, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan inaugurated the conversion of Hagia Sophia, originally a Catholic church built in 537 AD and then converted into a mosque when Ottomans occupied Constantinople on May 28, 1453. In 1934, Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish president converted Hagia Sophia into a museum which reflected the secular identity of Turkey but was reverted into a mosque on July 24 this year. Fanning religious sentiments for political purposes whether in India under Modi or in Turkey under Erdogan is a very dangerous trend which is a major threat to democracy, political pluralism and religious diversity.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2020.

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