A Bridge Too Far

So what is this hullabaloo over the Ram Setu? Were the Sangh parivar the only ones to protest? But how does Lord Rama come into the picture? Why did the ASI not just stick to the available evidence about it being a natural formation?
A Bridge Too Far
A Bridge Too Far

What and where is this Ram Setu?

Rama Setu (or Rama's bridge), also known as Adam's Bridge outside India, is a chain of limestone shoals, between the islands of Mannar, near northwestern Sri Lanka, and Rameswaram, off the southeastern coast of India.

It is 48 km long and separates the Gulf of Mannar (southwest) from the Palk Strait (northeast).

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So why is it called the Rama Setu?

Well, technically it links India to Lanka. The Ramayana says that Lord Hanumana's monkey-brigade had anchored the rocks to the sea bed, and thus created the chain of rocky shoals which was used by Lord Rama to cross-over to Ravana's Lanka in order to rescue Sita. So the legend. As recently as 2002, some propagandist Hindu groups had tried to misuse NASA imagery which was touted as "proof" of the Ramayana narration about how the bridge had been built.

NASA had been forced to issue a denial: "The images [...] may be ours, but their interpretation is certainly not ours. [...] Remote sensing images or photographs from orbit cannot provide direct information about the origin or age of a chain of islands, and certainly cannot determine whether humans were involved in producing any of the patterns seen."

But why did the government have to come into all this?

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The controversy has been raging for close to over 150 years. Way back in 1860, one Alfred Dundas Taylor of Indian Marines had conceived of a Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project to create a ship channel across the Palk Strait. The government of India appointed the Sethu Samudram Project Committee in 1955, headed by Dr. A. Ramasamy Mudaliar, which was charged with the duty of examining the desirability of the project. It was finally approved in 2005 and the cost of the project is estimated to be Rs 2,427 crore

It envisages dredging up 82 million cubic m of the Palk Strait -- the shallow ocean floor near the Dhanushkodi end of Rama Setu -- to create a 44.9 nautical mile (83 km) long deepwater channel linking the shallow water of the Palk Strait with the Gulf of Mannar. that would allow ships to pass through instead of having to go around the island of Sri Lanka. It is estimated that this would save up to 30 hours' shipping time by cutting over 780 km off the voyage. The deadline for the project is November 30, 2008.

Were the Sangh parivar the only ones to protest?

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Well, all sorts of people have been protesting. While the Sangh parivar's protests have been on religious grounds, on the fear that the project will destroy the existing Ram Setu, many environmentalists -- including known secularists such as Justice Krishna Iyer -- have been protesting against the project because it's feared that the large amount of dredging could damage coral reefs in the area. Environmentalists argue that the costs and benefit of the projects have not been properly carried out and that it might cause geological imbalance with no significant saving in costs or increase in trade.

But how does Lord Rama come into the picture? Doesn't it have something to do with the ASI?

Yes, the issue had been controversial for some time and is before the Supreme Court already. ASI was brought in to plead that the "bridge" is actually a natural formation. Instead of staying with the plethora of scientific facts available that testify to this, the ASI went on to say that legend or mythological texts can't be seen as "historical record". Which was perhaps fair enough, but then instead of sticking to the wealth of evidence in support of its claim -- including the disclaimer from NASA! -- the ASI went on to say that this isn't proof of the "existence of characters or events".

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That was enough for the VHP to pounce. And Sri Lal Krishna Advani of course only needed an opportunity to remind his core constituency of what a great Ram-bhakt he is. That a disgruntled leader of a party, with a clear bankruptcy of issues and ideas to engage with, should move from Ram Janambhumi to Ram Karambhumi shouldn't have surprised anyone. That the elections are in the air was all the more of a reason -- and it was true to form for the Congress to have handled it with its exceptionally immaculate sloppiness and then suddenly to remember "Ram naam" No surprise then that L.K. Advani had a field day mocking the Congress in Agartala when he argued, "Why is there a picture of Ram and Krishna in the Constitution if Ram or Krishna did not exist? And why
did Gandhiji, the father of the nation show us the dream of 'Ramrajya'? Were all these fictitious?" All such unnecessary rhetoric and bombast and disruption over an issue that needed merely to be dealt with historical and scientific facts but was allowed to be hijacked and politicised.

So what is the latest on it?

Well, at a hurriedly-called press conference, Law Minister H R Bhardwaj announced that the offending paragraphs would be withdrawn and a fresh affidavit would be filed before the apex court hearing the petitions against construction of the Sethusamudram canal project off Rameswaram. "We are filing a supplementary affidavit tomorrow in the Supreme Court," Bhardwaj says. "Lord Rama is an integral part of Indian culture and ethos and cannot be a matter of debate. The existence of Rama cannot be doubted. As Himalaya is Himalaya, Ganga is Ganga, Rama is Rama. There is no requirement of any proof to establish the existence." Oh, well, then why not ensure that no scope is provided for such debates to be initiated via affidavits, and that too in the Supreme Court in the first place?

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