At its core, the August 5 bhumi pujan ceremony for the Ram mandir at Ayodhya marks yet another definitive political step by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar towards its long-held objective of dismantling the pluralistic foundational values and structures of India as a country and as a sociopolitical entity. That Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself officiated at the evidently partisan, Hindu religious function underlined the brazen manner in which the Sangh Parivar is pursuing this objective, riding on the overwhelming sway its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has at the national level and in many State legislatures, including Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is situated. Along with the Prime Minister’s direct involvement, the manner in which the event was organised, the State government’s sponsorship of the bhumi pujan in blatant violation of the Supreme Court’s directives, the narratives at the venue, which went to the extent of equating the Sangh Parivar’s agitation for the Ram Mandir with the country’s freedom struggle, signified the depravity quotient of this episode.
The responses that all of this generated in other mainstream political organisations, including the principal opposition Congress, also scaled a new high of crassness, with many of its top leaders complaining about not being invited to the distinctly sectarian function. The return of the BJP to Ayodhya for the bhumi pujan also helped its governments at the Centre and in the States divert attention from their failures in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Subjugation to majoritarianism
However, there is little doubt about the cumulative effect of the bhumi pujan ceremony on the sociopolitical firmament of the country, particularly its politics. It has signalled an abject subjugation to the Hindutva-oriented majoritarianism that the Sangh Parivar has honed and propagated consistently over several decades.
Indeed, the history of the Sangh Parivar and its parent organisation, the RSS, right from its formation in the 1920s, is replete with many such political and organisational offensives against the tenets of pluralism, democracy, equality and communal harmony. This streak manifested itself in horrific deeds such as the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The periodic forays of the Sangh Parivar’s political instruments, the BJP and its predecessor Jan Sangh, into power in the post-Independence period were also marked by overt and covert manoeuvres to undermine the ideals and spirit of the Constitution and the national institutions founded on its principles. The bhumi pujan of August 5 at Ayodhya is veritably one of the high points of this sustained “operation sabotage” of the Sangh Parivar.
The historical connect of this agenda can be deduced right from early responses of the Sangh Parivar leaders to the Constitution. Even as the final version of the Constitution was being put together by the Constituent Assembly towards the end of 1949, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the then RSS chief, castigated it, saying that it contained nothing from Manusmriti, ‘Bharat’s own code of laws’. He branded the work of the Constituent Assembly as “just a cumbersome and heterogeneous piecing together of various articles from various Constitutions of Western countries”.
Golwalkar said the views on egalitarianism expressed by B.R. Ambedkar, the principal architect of the Constitution, were not acceptable to the Sangh Parivar. He repeatedly questioned Ambedkar’s emphasis on equality accorded by the Constitution to all communities and castes. He went on to argue that “Muslims, Christians and Communists were the internal enemies of the country” and that Ambedkar’s idea of equality was not condoned by Manusmriti and would not be condoned by Hindus who followed Manusmriti.
True to form, throughout the history of independent India, there were recurring attempts by the political instruments of the Sangh Parivar to redefine and recast Indian history on the basis of the precepts of Hindutva. This also formed a key component of these “sabotage manoeuvres”. There were repeated since the mid-1960s, when the Jan Sangh acquired political significance, especially in a number of northern and western States. These attempts continued, in fits and starts, through the next few decades, but gathered momentum with the Raj Janmabhoomi movement in the 1980s and 1990s and reached the climax in 2014, when the BJP got a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha under Modi’s leadership. The party’s return to power in 2019 with a bigger majority made these ventures even more intense. Thus, on August 5, 2019, the BJP government steamrolled one of its core Hindutva-oriented policies by abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution according a special status to Jammu and Kashmir. The bhumi pujan for the Ayodhya Ram mandir, the construction of which was another core component of the Hindutva agenda, was carried out on August 5 this year, on the first anniversary of the move on Kashmir.
Falsifying contemporary history
Almost all the components of “operation sabotage” came into play at the bhumi pujan ceremony. Modi led it from the front when he likened, in the early parts of his speech, the country’s freedom struggle with the agitation for the Ram Mandir. Striking his usual rhetorical posture he stated: “Several generations devoted themselves completely during our freedom struggle. There was never a moment during the period of slavery that there was not a movement for freedom. There was not a place in our country where sacrifices were not made for the freedom. August 15 is the embodiment of sacrifices of the lakhs of people and a deep yearning for the independence…. Similarly, several generations have made selfless sacrifices for several centuries for the construction of the Ram Temple. Today marks the culmination of that centuries-old penance, sacrifices and resolve. There was sacrifice, dedication and resolve during the movement for the construction of the Ram Temple and that dream is being realised today because of their sacrifices and struggle. Buildings collapsed, every attempt was made to erase the existence … but Lord Ram is fully embedded in our hearts. Lord Ram is the foundation of our culture; he is the dignity of India. He personifies dignity. It is with this splendour that the ‘Bhumi pujan’ ceremony of the grand temple of Sri Ram has taken place.”
He went on to add that “this day is a unique gift from the law-abiding India to truth, non-violence, faith and sacrifice”. In its essence, the rhetoric swept aside the tumultuous history of Ayodhya, and even the observations the Supreme Court made on November 9, 2019, when it awarded the land on which the Babri Masjid stood to the Hindu side for the construction of the temple. The apex court’s judgment had drawn attention to the turbulent happenings since the 1940s and, in particular, the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, by Hindu kar sevaks and described them as criminal actions. Contemporary history is testimony to the fact that the Sangh Parivar’s Ram Janmabhoomi campaign spearheaded by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) since the mid-1980s, leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, had seen sustained violence and communal riots that left thousands of Indians dead. By equating this sectarian history with the freedom struggle, the Prime Minister was plainly advocating communal polarity and ascribing a high value to Hindutva politics. This is certainly bound to acerbate Hindu-Muslim communal divisions across the country, especially in sensitive Hindi heartland States such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
While several political observers in Ayodhya and outside viewed the positions taken by the Prime Minister as criminal, voices within the Sangh Parivar found it completely in order and in keeping with the larger, historical precepts and style of functioning of the Hindutva outfits. Talking to Frontline after the bhumi pujan and with particular reference to Modi’s speech, Vinay Katiyar, the founding president of the Bajrang Dal, known as the militant wing of the VHP in the 1980s and 1990s during the peak of the Ram Mandir agitation, said that overlooking many tussles, losses and sacrifices was in the interests of the future. “After all is said and done, the Muslim community in general has accepted the November 2019 Supreme Court verdict handing over the land to Hindus, though the Babri Masjid Action Committee [BMAC] continues to raise some reservations over the verdict and its implementation. But the fact of the matter is that large sections of the Muslim community are silent. There is no point in pushing them further and if glossing over helps tide over discontents of the past, it is the duty of the rulers to pursue that path.”
Katiyar added that the Prime Minister’s participation in the Hindutva event was also in keeping with the larger Sangh Parivar agenda on politics and governance. He reminded this writer what the late Mahant Ramachandra Paramahans, the then president of the Sri Ramajanmabhoomi Nyas, the VHP-led trust of the Mandir agitation days, said in 1993 after the shock defeat in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections that year at the hands of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance that the Sangh Parivar would wait for greater political power to accrue to it to fulfil its plans.
Katiyar also pointed out that even former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, often described as the “moderate face” of the party, had asserted in Parliament his commitment to the core Hindutva agenda. “If you remember, Vajpayeeji was Prime Minister for a mere 13 days in 1996. In his May 28, 1996, speech in the Lok Sabha just before resigning he had stated that his government had not pursued components of the core agenda such as Ram temple, Article 370, and Uniform Civil Code only because we did not have a majority then. Vajpayeeji stressed he would gladly own up to this core agenda once there was a majority. Now, we have that majority and Narendra Modi need not have any compunctions about owning up the agenda openly and in front of the whole world. We are not duty-bound to follow the path of the ‘nastik’ [non-believer] Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who admonished President Rajendra Prasad for attending the inauguration of the rebuilt Somnath temple in Gujarat.” When this correspondent pointed out that despite the Supreme Court’s specific mention that the construction of the Ram Mandir was to be done by a special trust formed for that purpose, the whole bhumi pujan function was being sponsored by the State government, Katiyar laughed it off saying, “Is anyone talking about this?”
Katiyar’s derisive laughter and rhetorical question could well be seen as a commentary on the response of the major opposition parties, especially the Congress, to the bhumi pujan event. The top leaders of the Congress virtually fell over one another in applauding the ceremony and indirectly expressing wish to be part of it, betraying the ludicrous levels of political obsequiousness. It all started with two leaders from Madhya Pradesh—former Chief Ministers Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh—seeking to take credit for the Congress as the original proponent of the Ram mandir idea. Kamal Nath argued that it was Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of the Congress who opened the locks of the Babri Masjid in 1986 and allowed Hindu worship on its precincts. Digvijaya Singh pointed out that Rajiv Gandhi had performed the original Shilanyas for the mandir in 1989. He even complained about not being invited for the August 5 bhumi pujan ceremony.
The utterances of these senior leaders were soon followed up by former Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his sister and party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, who also welcomed the bhumi pujan. Priyanka Gandhi said she hoped that the bhumi pujan became an occasion of national unity, fraternity and cultural congregation and spread the message and blessings of Lord Ram all across.
Rahul Gandhi came up with platitudes that Lord Ram is for all and that he is a god of peace. He tweeted: “Maryada Purushottam Lord Ram is the ultimate embodiment of supreme human values. He represents the core of humanism embedded deep in our hearts. Ram is love, he can never appear in hatred. Ram is compassion, he can never appear in cruelty. Ram is justice, he can never appear in injustice.”
While this banal line was the hallmark of the Congress in most parts of the country, some party leaders from south Indian States such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu questioned it. Mani Shankar Aiyar, former Union Minister and a close associate of Rajiv Gandhi, was the most vocal among these. He refuted almost all the points Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh made.
In an article in The Hindu, he said rather than competing with the BJP to determine who is more Hindu, the Congress should be asking “who is more secular…. We would be better advised to fight for our own principled ‘Idea of a secular India’, whatever the perceived electoral cost. We can only justify our existence in the eyes of the nation as an alternative to the BJP, not as a pale imitation.”
Other opposition parties with significant stakes in Uttar Pradesh, such as the S.P. and the BSP, also steered clear of highlighting the controversial aspects of the event, such as the open advocacy of sectarian religious points of view by the Prime Minister and the violation of the Supreme Court directives. Some leaders of these two parties told Frontline that large sections of the minority Muslim community, the aggrieved party in Ayodhya, wished to let bygones be bygones and wanted to look towards a peaceful future.
Criticism from the Left
However, the Left parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Maharashtra-based the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) raised critical points on the bhumi pujan event as a whole and the Prime Minister’s participation in it. Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary, pointed out that the event was an open violation of the Supreme Court’s directives and constitutional norms. Senior NCP leader Sharad Pawar iterated that it would have been in the fitness of things if the Union government had given priority to the fight against the COVID pandemic at this moment in time.
But these voices are a minority even within the largely depleted and ineffectual opposition ranks. The stark fact is that the leadership of almost all major opposition parties are scared of the sway that majoritarian Hindutva politics has on the ground. They seem to have come to the conclusion that taking principled positions on questions of secularism and constitutional norms and propriety are not politically expedient.
An year ago, when Article 370 of the Constitution was abrogated, the dominant voices in the opposition had at least taken a stance highlighting the gross human rights violations that had accompanied the move, though there were some confusions regarding its political import and ramifications. But the opposition leaders, barring a few exceptions, are literally tongue-tied in the face of the majoritarian Hindutva push by the Sangh Parivar and its representatives in the government.
Sense of resignation
At Ayodhya and its twin town of Faizabad, barely eight kilometers away, members of the minority community watched this aggression of the Sangh Parivar and the political ineptitude of the opposition with a sense of resignation. Latheef Ali Siddiqui, a resident of Faizabad who is in his early thirties, summed up the plight of the minority community thus: “Twenty-eight years ago, as a child of four, one had seen these roads getting blocked by rampaging crowds who burnt huge mounds of tyres, build makeshift stone barricades and intermittently set up human walls to stop the movement of security forces, who they thought could curb the vandalism on and around the Babri Masjid. Those karsevaks were considered to be indulging in illegal, criminal activity at that time. Nearly three decades later, those rioters have become the authority, the ones who wield political authority. And once again, there are roadblocks coming up, but this time they are being set up by the security forces to facilitate the movements of the erstwhile rioters towards the area where once the Babri Masjid stood. The movement this time is to start the construction of the Ram Mandir at that very place. Yes, the lawbreakers have turned the custodians of power. Indeed, that is a life-changing turnaround. But the message of the roadblocks, whether put up by the lawbreaking rioters or by the law-enforcing rulers, is the same. They merely signify marginalisation of us minorities, loss of our lives and livelihoods and self-esteem as citizens.” No other voice could have explained this shameful slice of history as aptly and powerfully as Siddiqui’s.