The Transformation of India Is Nearly Complete

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The Indian Supreme Court’s decision to allow the building of a temple for Rama on a disputed site is likely to intensify the Hindu nationalist efforts to turn India into a majoritarian nation.

NEW
DELHI  On Saturday, fireworks were set
off in parts of India to celebrate the verdict by the country’s Supreme Court
to clear the way for the building of a temple for Rama  the Hindu deity and the protagonist of the
epic poem “Ramayana”  in Ayodhya, a
northern Indian town.

The piece
of land where the temple for Rama will be built is considered by many Hindus to
be his exact birthplace. But the land in question and its ownership have been
long disputed. The Babri Masjid, a mosque built in 1528, stood there until Dec.
1992, when a Hindu mob demolished it. Hindu and Muslim litigants had been
fighting for its ownership for decades. When the Supreme Court announced its
decision, lawyers outside the court yelled, “Hail Lord Ram!”

In the
mid-1980s, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a sister organization of the Hindu
nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, started a campaign to reclaim the
birthplace of Rama in Ayodhya. In 1990, Lal Krishna Advani, then the president
of the B.J.P., rode through India on a truck designed like a chariot to whip up
support for Rama’s temple. Amid appeals to Hindu pride, Mr. Advani and other B.J.P.
leaders framed the building of the temple as the way to end what they termed as
thousand years of servitude to Muslim rulers.

On Dec. 6,
1992, a mob led by the leaders of the B.J.P. and its affiliates illegally
demolished the mosque, sparking riots that killed more than 2,000 people.

The
movement to build Rama’s temple and the demolition of the Babri Masjid led to
the B.J.P.’s meteoric rise in electoral politics  from two seats out of 541 in the Parliament
in 1984 to forming a national government in 1998. The campaign for Rama’s
temple ushered in an era of majoritarian politics in defiance of the promise of
secular nationalism that has held together this multireligious country since
1947.

Saturday’s
verdict by the Supreme Court of India, while distilling the complicated history
of the disputed site, made some important observations on the history of deceit
and criminality that got us here.

The court
concluded that while excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India at the
site revealed the ruins of a Hindu religious structure dating back to the 12th
century, there was no evidence to suggest this structure existed or was
demolished when the mosque was built.

The
judgment also states that the two events that have served as the basis for
Hindu claims  the supposedly miraculous
overnight appearance of Hindu idols in the mosque in 1949 and the demolition of
the mosque in 1992  were both criminal
acts, the handiwork of Hindu fundamentalists. Yet this verdict amounts to rewarding
criminality.

The Supreme
Court greenlighted the building of Rama’s temple, in effect asserting the
primacy of the faith of those who believe that the disputed site is the
birthplace of Rama. As there is no evidence for the historicity of Rama, this
must surely rank as one of the more remarkable legal justifications for
deciding a case about ownership and possession of a piece of land.

The court’s
verdict comes against the backdrop of a heightened assertion of Hindu
nationalism by the government of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, which
was elected for a second term with an overwhelming majority in May.

Shortly
after, in August, Mr. Modi abrogated the autonomy of Muslim-majority Kashmir.
The decision was in keeping with the long-stated demands of the Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist mother ship whose influence over
Indian society today can be compared to the sway of the Communist Party in
China.

The R.S.S.
is set to celebrate its hundredth year in 2025, and the temple that is likely
to be built in time is an appropriate marker of its rise from insignificance. A
few years back, I traveled to Ayodhya. Since the demolition of the Babri
mosque, a workshop run by an R.S.S. affiliate has been preparing for Rama’s
temple. A model of the temple stands at the heart of the workshop. At one end
of the workshop, rows of bricks marked “Shri Ram,” which were brought there by
pilgrims from across the country, were piled up.

The ground
where the mosque once stood was guarded by armed policemen. I walked with a
crowd of Hindu pilgrims through a corridor covered with wire meshing. Several
body searches later, we stopped in front of a makeshift temple to Rama, where a
policeman played the part of a priest. The pilgrims were curious to know where
the mosque had stood, but there was nothing to indicate that it had ever
existed. The erasure had been complete.

Back at the
temple workshop, I saw a wooden model for Rama’s temple, as envisioned by the
R.S.S.: a two-storied structure, 268 feet 5 inches long, 140 feet wide and 128
feet high, with 106 pillars on each floor and 16 statues carved on each pillar.
Behind me, the visitors raised slogans to Rama.

In the
early years of Indian Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister
of India, spoke of steel factories and dams as the temples of modern India that
would propel the country toward prosperity. Speaking after the court’s verdict,
Mr. Modi said: “The Supreme Court verdict has brought a new dawn. Now the next
generation will build a new India.” But this temple, the symbol of Mr. Modi’s
India, is being born out of acts of criminality, embodying the Hindu
nationalist vision of the subordination of others.

On a recent
visit to the northern Indian state of Punjab, I spoke to friends and
family  all from the Sikh minority  and I realized that something fundamental had
changed. The Sikhs are not a minority threatened by the B.J.P., which claims
them as their own, a part of the Hindu fold, but their clear sense of a
distinct identity has left them deeply uncomfortable with the vision of a Hindu
nation.

Most of the
people I spoke to had aligned themselves against the idea of a separate state
demanded by armed Sikh insurgents in a violent insurrection that lasted for a
decade, from 1983 to 1993. Now they were telling me this was not the country they
had staked their faith in, and for the first time they spoke of working to make
sure their children would become part of the large Sikh diaspora in Canada,
Britain or the United States.

Already,
before the R.S.S. vision takes shape, a vast majority of Muslims from Kashmir
and elsewhere, the Christians of the northeast and the rest of the country as
well as many in the south of India who lay claim to a different Hindu cultural
identity from those in northern India, like the Sikhs I spoke to, are making it
clear they want no part of it.

In a
country burdened by history, the one consistent lesson is that centralized
authority imposed against the wishes of the marginalized and those on the
periphery never holds. Mr. Modi is overseeing the transformation of India into
an exclusivist, majoritarian Hindu nation and fulfilling the dream of the
Rashtriya Swayemsewak Sangh, his Hindu nationalist parent body. A singular
question arises: What will become of an India increasingly held together not by
consent but by force?

Hartosh
Singh Bal is the political editor of The Caravan, a magazine published in New
Delhi.

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(Courtesy: The New York Times)

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