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It is unlikely that the dust billowing from falling debris, whether in India’s remote past or near history, will ever settle. India lives as if in a constant series of detonations, of making and unmaking, wilfully filling out the idea of an endless cycle of death and rebirth…animated by the (often imagined) memory of past lives. The November 9 Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya, which cleared the path for temple construction, spoke to different memories in different people. For many, it recalled December 6, 1992—the day that saw enough debris, “an egregious violation”, in the court’s words—and the mobs that exacted their toll before and after. For those moved by the promise of a Ram temple, it recalled another: Somnath. The phoenix among temples, if ever there was one.
Reaching back to Somnath’s historical symbolism was always a deliberate part of the Ayodhya story. It was from there that L.K. Advani, the BJP’s original Hindutva icon, launched his rath yatra in 1990. In his 2008 book My Country My Life, he wrote of Somnath with the tropes appropriate to a Hindutva party’s self-validating narrative—primarily, “the historical lineage of Muslim aggression”. “The intention was to contextualise Ayodhya…and then to seek legitimacy for (the) mandir movement by drawing a parallel,” he wrote. Some of his compeers in the saffron brotherhood are drawing more prosaic parallels too. Especially in the way the temple is proposed to be built and managed. Now that the Supreme Court has mandated temple construction, the next act will be about the who and the how—with more than one aspirant temple authority on the scene. And the other question beyond Ayodhya: what next?
Babri Masjid before it was demolished.
So how the BJP-RSS plays its game from here on? Will the moment of saffron exultation be delayed? Or prolonged? How will it play out in electoral politics, in the heartland and beyond? Will the template be used again and again? Or will the party acknowledge that fatigue may set in with symbolic hurrahs, especially when not much is going right for the country in material terms?
The Centre, mandated with the task of setting up the trust to oversee the temple construction, has already sought details from the Somnath Trust on its composition and constitution. Not that they lack familiarity. PM Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah and the veteran Advani, now 92, are among the seven trustees who manage its affairs. It was Gandhi who suggested to Patel and K.M. Munshi, while blessing the idea of rebuilding Somnath, that it be done with funds donated by the public, and not the government. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which led the Ram Janmabhumi movement for decades, suggests a similar model of funding for the Ayodhya temple. The setting up of the trust has become a contentious issue, though, with the Ram Janmabhumi Nyas staking claim to construct the temple. “What is the need for another trust? We have been spearheading the struggle from the beginning,” says Nyas chief Mahant Nritya Gopal Das. Government sources, however, tell Outlook that nobody will be allowed to hold temple construction to ransom and the home ministry will decide on the trust.
While this air of busyness gathers around Ayodhya, the man who led the agitation for years, giving the BJP its first taste of the mass popularity it has now, allowed himself a moment or two of quiet satisfaction. “Ramjanmabhumi holds a special and sacred place in the hearts of crores of our countrymen,” said Advani in a statement. “It is gratifying that their belief and sentiments have been respected.”
Along with other BJP leaders like Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma BhaRTI, Advani is facing charges of criminal conspiracy for the Babri Masjid’s demolition in 1992. The Supreme Court had in 2017 directed the Lucknow sessions court to complete the trial within two years, and the deadline has been extended until April 2020. With the November 9 verdict too upholding the demolition as illegal, it may be interesting to see the fate of the mandir plank’s original authors, even as the temple itself rises.
Ever since Ayodhya’s political weaponisation in the 1990s, the BJP has woven its narrative around it, promising its construction in every manifesto. Now that all legal hurdles have been cleared, the party is planning to tom-tom it before the coming assembly elections in Jharkhand and Delhi. However, several leaders claim it may not yield major electoral benefits. “A Ram temple may have limited appeal in a state like Jharkhand. In Delhi too, an issue like NRC may find more resonance, although issues like jobs, electricity, water, health and education are likely to trump both,” says a senior BJP leader.
National issues like Article 370 failed to cut much ice with voters in the recent Maharashtra and Haryana elections. Uttar Pradesh, where Ram is part of a deeply embedded local culture, may behave differently though. A BJP general secretary is confident that the temple structure taking shape will surely impact the UP assembly polls in 2022. The plan is to complete the construction in the next three years.
The details do not bother Sangh leaders ecstatic at the turn of affairs. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, addressing a rare press conference, blew the conch-shell, as it were. Welcoming the verdict, RSS veterans recall how Patel and Munshi oversaw Somnath’s reconstruction, and how then President Dr Rajendra Prasad partook of the linga’s ritual installation. “While Patel took the decision to rebuild Somnath, Nehru had called it an act of Hindu revivalism in a secular country. That was a different Bharat, in self-denial mode. This is a new, self-assured Bharat,” says a senior RSS functionary, who doesn’t see Ayodhya as a Hindu-Muslim or even a mandir-masjid issue, but as a “conqueror-subjugated” issue. “It’s an expression of national pride. In 1992, the structure came down, but no other masjid was touched. There was order in the mob’s frenzy. We only wanted to reclaim Lord Ram’s janmabhumi.” A grand temple and a mob in orderly frenzy: there are things for new India to derive comfort from.
The logistics, anyhow, take centrestage now. Also, the question of the land to be allotted to the “Muslim side” for building a mosque…and what community leaders on that side may decide to do with it. Opinions abound. Many Muslims, leaders and commoners, have expressed the thought that they needed “justice, not charity”, and that they must give up their allotted acres. On the RSS side, it’s up to the detailing now. Dr Manmohan Vaidya, RSS joint general secretary, says key issues remain to be tackled by the proposed trust—maintenance, upkeep, rules of entry. “It’s complicated and there will be people trying to create faultlines. We have to stay calm…India’s image depends on it,” he adds. Asked about the VHP slogan, popular during the Ram temple movement—“Ayodhya toh jhaanki hai, Kashi, Mathura baaki hai (Ayodhya is just a sneak peek, Kashi Mathura still remain)”—Bhagwat said the RSS does not get into agitations, and that the Ram temple was an exception. Another RSS functionary says the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah adjacent to the Krishna Janmabhumi temple at Mathura are not on their agenda as of now. “They are protected by the Places of Worship Act, 1991. Also, we have done our job by claiming Ram Janmabhumi. Kashi and Mathura are for the next generation to take care of,” says the functionary.
Shridhar D. Damle—who has co-authored definitive books on the Sangh, including The RSS: A View to the Inside—says the verdict will be a shot in the arm for the BJP in a changing political narrative. “It’s evident from my discussions with Sangh and BJP leaders that, politically, the narrative is changing from urban and secular to rural and Hindu,” says Damle. “Hindutva has evolved. From Savarkar’s definition—largely cultural—it has moved to manav dharma as universal philosophy. Now, the RSS will work more closely with the Muslim Rashtriya Manch. The plan is to highlight gaushalas managed by Muslims rather than incidents of cow slaughter. I wonder if people know Yogi Adityanath’s gaushala is managed by a Muslim.”
American academic Walter K. Andersen, who collaborated with Damle on the RSS books, also reiterates the RSS outreach to Muslim groups to keep the peace. The Sangh, he says, had actually cautioned against temple activism in the months before the 2019 general elections. “It had so advised a gathering of Hindu leaders during the Kumbh Mela, though it also announced that it expected some kind of action after the elections,” reveals Andersen. “Caution was possible as the issue had lost much of its passion, as witnessed by the ouster of the VHP’s firebrand head with the RSS leadership’s covert support.”
The Muslim outreach has limitations, though. Andersen anticipates movement on the uniform civil code and, in the immediate term, the inherently controversial citizenship amendment bill (CAB), which will restrict the entry of Muslim refugees while accepting Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Buiddhist and Christian refugees. Still, he believes development and job creation will be key. “The PM has suggested to me that economic development too is an element of Hindutva,” says Andersen. “The BJP and, to a certain extent, the RSS—as reflected in Bhagwat’s past few Vijayadashmi speeches—see economic well-being as key to get popular support and reduce chances of unrest,” he adds.
Damle believes NRC and CAB will be bigger issues, and that the BJP will use them in the West Bengal polls. “The Modi government may avoid making them Hindutva issues, but will get some kind of legitimacy from the Supreme Court. CJI Ranjan Gogoi (at a public event) defended NRC as a base document for the future,” he says. Damle also foresees action on Kashi and Mathura too. “If need be, the government, with two-thirds majority, may change the Constitution to amend the Places of Worship Act to claim Kashi and Mathura too. If it could be done to remove Article 370, why not for this?” he asks. The dust will not settle soon.
Plans For Ayodhya
Designed by Ahmadabad-based temple architect Chandrakant Sompura, 40 per cent of the stones to be used in the proposed Ram temple are ready. For almost 30 years, craftsmen have been chipping away at the special pink sandstone sourced from Bharatpur. Sompura says that then VHP chief Ashok Singhal contacted him through the Birla family. The 15th generation of a family of temple architects, his grandfather had designed the Somnath temple in 1949. Other shrines the clan worked on include Akshardham in Gujarat, Swaminarayan Mandir in Mumbai and Birla Mandir in Calcutta. He says sadhus approve of his plan and hopes that the new trust will go ahead with it.
- In addition to the Ram temple in the 2.77-acre land granted to Ram Lalla Virajman, an ambitious plan is in place to develop 62 acres (after allotting five for the mosque) of acquired land in Ayodhya
- A wide road from river Sarayu leading up to the Ram Mandir will be built. After taking a dip in Sarayu, devotees will walk along the road, both sides of which will depict stories from the Ramayana
- A state-of the-art auditorium with a focus on Ram katha and the message of samajik samarsata (social harmony)
- A library with religious texts, scriptures and books
- Gaushalas managed by Muslims will also find a place
- A centre for training priests from all sections of society, including Dalits and OBCs