The politics of Ayodhya
As authorities prep up to give Ayodhya a quick makeover before the inauguration of the Ram temple, a cultural renaissance seems imminent, thrusting history into the centre of Indian politics
Ayodhya is the city of Ram, the most virtuous and austere of Hindu gods, and the dispute revolving around it has existed almost as long as independent India itself. The legal battle between Hindus and Muslims in Ayodhya began in 1949 as a title tussle that by the 1980s, shot to centre stage, riding a wave of identity politics. In the early 1990s, the dispute gained popular support and took the shape of a movement, which culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.
The first major legal challenge to the Babri mosque came in 1885 when Mahant Raghubir Das filed the first suit in the matter, seeking to build a temple on land adjoining the mosque. The Faizabad District Magistrate (DM) refused him permission and Das went on to file a title suit in Faizabad Court against the Secretary of State for India, seeking permission to build a temple on the chabutra (courtyard) of the Babri mosque, which was eventually rejected by the Faizabad Court.
It was the BJP’s adoption of the Ram Janmabhoomi issue that propelled the idea of a temple in Ayodhya into the national mainstream. In turn, it helped revive the fortunes of a party whose performance in the Lok Sabha elections of 1984 suggested imminent extinction.
A significant fallout of the protracted legal dispute over the structure at Ayodhya has been the extent to which it was exploited for political gains and had its reverberations across the country.
Even though the first litigation dates back to 1885, it was only after the idols of Ram Lalla, the infant deity, were planted under the mosque’s central dome in December 1949 that there was a litigation spree. And then began the process of altering the very nature of the structure.
Ayodhya has been the epicentre of political and electoral discourse following the Ram Mandir and the Babri Masjid controversy in 1992. Its history, marred by the Babri Masjid’s demolition on December 6, 1992, by a right-wing Hindu mob resulting in nationwide riots killing over 2,000 people, projects another overwhelming pre-election push upholding the politics of Ayodhya as another monumental election season nears and assesses where the holy land stands in the current electoral landscape.
The Ram Mandir, a longstanding electoral agenda for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has finally materialised after years of legal battles. This significant win for BJP is expected to strengthen its position in the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The timing of the temple inauguration suggests an effort by the ruling party to broadcast a message nationwide. The BJP expects to gain by resolving religious conflicts, boosting Modi’s political stature, and encouraging voting based on Hindu pride in the upcoming general elections.
From massive roadshows to inaugurating an airport and the redeveloped railway station at Ayodhya, the temple town has become the centre stage of activity, being virtually covered with flowers and murals for the mega inauguration on January 22.
The opening of the Ram temple will be a key element in the BJP’s narrative for its 2024 campaign with the ruling party likely to be the main beneficiary of the public sentiment built around the religious issue. The Modi government has delivered on two of its core ideological promises ahead of the elections — building the Ram temple and the removal of Article 370. The temple will find resonance in the Hindi-speaking states which have remained the saffron party’s core support base. The new temple could also attract voters from the southern states, especially on the cultural and spiritual fronts, by creating newer linkages for social integration.
The BJP is all set to invoke the cultural linkages with the new temple as the building materials are sourced from many of the poll-bound states. For instance, granite has come from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and marble from Rajasthan.
A total of 300 metric tonnes of aromatic rice is said to be reaching the venue from Chhattisgarh in 11 trucks for the ‘prasad’ in the consecration ceremony.
While the Ram temple has been the BJP’s biggest politico-cultural project, it is also keen on developing other religious sites like the Kashi Vishwanath corridor, the Mahakal corridor in Ujjain and the Kartarpur corridor, in an attempt to deepen its engagement with the electorate.
“The Ram temple is not a political issue for the BJP. It is one of its commitments. The party always stood for due legal process given the fact that a wrong has been committed. The identity of Ram and what he stands for is part of India’s proud civilisational heritage,” BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli has been quoted as saying. “The building of the Ram temple has been welcomed by all, including by those political entities who created every possible impediment when we tried to resolve the issue.”
There lies an economic standpoint too. Such temple complexes bring in tourists and pilgrims in hordes which help rejuvenate local and state economies.
The BJP’s weapons for the upcoming elections are welfarism and development backed by cultural and spiritual nationalism.
Prominent Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders believe that the temple construction should not worry the minorities as it is a cultural work that is not against anyone but assimilates everyone.
For nearly three decades, the BJP has campaigned for a “bhavya” (grand) Ram temple in Ayodhya, a populist platform that catapulted the right-wing party from two parliamentary seats in the 1980s to political dominance.
At the centre of the dispute and the years of litigation surrounding it is history itself and how it is used in seeking legitimacy for contested and competing versions of the past. History also becomes a means for communities to write themselves into the nation’s collective memory, passed on from one generation to the next.
The Babri mosque had been a place of worship where Muslims had offered their prayers in continuity since medieval times. At the same time, for a section of the Hindu community and those claiming to represent them, the mosque represented a reminder of Muslim conquest and cultural subjugation and the act of its demolition was a way to reclaim history.
The final judgment on the Ayodhya case recognised how central history is to the dispute. By upholding the claim of the Hindus over the disputed land, the verdict ultimately favoured the version of truth that is most agreeable with the vision of the party in power in India with the promise of the construction of the Ram temple consistently featuring in the BJP’s manifesto since 1996.
The verdict acknowledged that the litigants representing the deity Lord Ram were able to better establish a chain of unbroken Hindu possession of the inner courtyard of the mosque than their Muslim counterparts. The evidence of this continuous possession does not conclusively determine the land as the actual place of his birth, but according to the judgment, it does establish an unbroken Hindu belief that it was.
The immediate responses to the ruling across the political spectrum in India were largely ones of acceptance, along with calls from leaders for the maintenance of communal peace and harmony.
India — the birthplace of many faiths, including Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism among its minority religions — is also a melting pot for different ethnic groups. The Indian polity’s DNA lies in this composite culture of co-existence and inter-faith harmony. For the saffron party, “this is not a political issue for us to get votes, Ram Janmabhoomi is a cultural issue for us,” as stated by Defence minister Rajnath Singh.
India seems to be on the cusp of a cultural renaissance with the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya proving to be a turning point in the country’s cultural history.
While the debate around the historicity of the Ramayana will continue, it is a fact that Ram in particular and the Ramayana, in general, reflect the essentially Hindu/Indian belief that every individual has some elements of divinity within him/her — a foundational principle that Hindus often forget. Ram symbolises the core of the Indic value system that is founded on a humanitarian approach.
As described by Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan, India is a country that is always ageing but is never old. This spirit finds resonance in the temple that is currently getting its final shape and will, in the coming years, uphold the eternally relevant message of Ram’s life and mission.
Views expressed are personal