Why is a giant Hindu deity appearing on Times Square billboards tomorrow?

Times Square on Friday.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi probably has good associations with New York City. In the fall of 2014, shortly after his election, he gave a rapturous speech at Madison Square Garden that drew more than 19,000 attendees. At U.N. headquarters, he’s often been an imposing, aggressive presence, especially during climate negotiations. He’s happy to stop at the city on diplomatic trips to the U.S., whether it’s to dine with Fortune 500 CEOs or schmooze with politicians. In spite of some protests at his last visit, the capital of American capital has been kind to Modi.

This continues to be the case even during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, billboards in a near-empty Times Square are going to blare images of the Hindu deity Rama and the Ram Mandir, a temple devoted to the figure that will be opening in the Indian city of Ayodhya on the same day. Modi will attend the lavish opening ceremony in the Uttar Pradesh city along with other prominent politicians and devout Hindus.

Along with the Times Square advertisements, Hindu Americans are planning hourslong celebrations in the area, while anti-Hindu nationalist groups, civil rights organizations, and Muslim advocates are rallying to protest the events they describe as a display of “Hindu fascism.” Opponents to the display, and to the Ram Mandir itself, have already been successful at getting Branded Cities, the ad company that runs the NASDAQ billboard, to back down from displaying the images; however, as of this writing, billboards sold by Disney and Clear Channel Outdoor are still set to display them.

Why are the billboards—and the temple—so controversial?

Understanding this requires a crash course in the epics of Hinduism. The ancient Sanskrit poem Ramayana, one of the most important texts of the religion, tells the life story of Rama, considered to be the seventh human avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, the supreme being and “controller of the universe.” According to the poem, Rama was born in Ayodhya, along the banks of the Sarayu River, and to devotees, his birthplace is a holy site, referred to as Ram Janmabhoomi.

Tensions over the site started in the 1500s: King Babur, founder of the Islamic Mughal Empire, ordered one of his generals to construct a mosque in Ayodhya, to be known as Babri Masjid (“Babur’s mosque”). The mosque was built on a hill known as “Rama’s fort,” and according to nationalist Hindus, a shrine to Rama at the site was demolished to make way for it. While a 2003 archaeological survey backed this theory, other scholars have found it to be dubious. Among Hindu supremacists, the narrative is clear: A Muslim religious site encroached upon a Hindu holy place and destroyed sacred artifacts while doing so.

The Mughal era, which lasted from the 16th through the 19th centuries and saw years of sweeping, mostly peaceful Muslim rule (and, among many, many other things, included the building of the Taj Mahal), is a long-standing, festering sore for Hindutva followers who believe India to be an inherently Hindu nation. And ever since Hindu nationalism established its startlingly durable structures and intellectual justifications in the early 20th century, while India was still under British rule, Mughal history has been one of its favorite targets. These nationalists argue that the Babri Masjid is a violent monument to Hindu suppression.

All of this tragically blew up in 1992, when members of far-right Hindu organizations—including the current governing Bharatiya Janata Party—organized a rally at the mosque that quickly turned violent, culminating in the destruction of the building. Immediately after, riots between Hindus and Muslims erupted all across the country, leaving about 2,000 dead. The effects spread to Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the Hindu minorities of those nations were attacked in retaliation.

As prominent Indian Muslim journalist Rana Ayyub told my colleague Mary Harris last year, the aftermath of the mosque’s destruction set off a major change for the personal lives of many of India’s Muslims. Even though Muslims had long faced discrimination and mistreatment within the country, now even communities that had been accepting turned their backs. The mosque’s destruction happened at a crucial turning point for Indian politics, as the country transitioned to a free market economy and saw the increasing rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which finally found nationwide acceptance with the election of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the late ’90s.

The plans for the Ram Mandir had been unofficially in the works since the 1980s but long delayed by legal challenges. In 2019, India’s Supreme Court controversially ruled in favor of setting aside the Babri Masjid’s original land for the construction of a temple devoted to Rama, and separate, faraway land being set aside for Muslims. Since then, construction has been swift, undertaken by the high-caste Sampura family and funded by a trust established by the Indian government. Despite delays due to the pandemic as well as clashes with China, the temple is ready to be consecrated on Wednesday, with the blessings of some of India’s most powerful.

This brings us to Times Square and the efforts of Indian American and Hindu American groups to bankroll ads there, displaying images of Rama and the temple on the day of its opening. Opponents of the billboards have sent letters to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as well as to other elected officials to request that this not take place. It was after hearing from these that  Branded Cities decided not to display these images and publicly condemned bigoted advertising—a major, surprising victory for members of the Indian diaspora opposed to the Modi regime. These groups are now racing to try to get Disney and Clear Channel Outdoor to follow suit before tomorrow.

Even if it goes ahead, the Times Square display might have less of an impact than normal, given that New York’s streets and offices are emptier than usual as a result of the pandemic. But it is still a disturbing international show of support of everything Modi and his ilk stand for.

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