By Amit Agnihotri
New Delhi: India‘s Prime Minister Narendra Modi today laid the foundation stone for a grand temple for Lord Ram, a revered human-god of the Hindu community. A Nov. 2019 judgment from the Supreme Court of India has paved the way for the Ram temple construction at a spot in Ayodhya believed and worshiped by the entire Hindu community in India and abroad as the birth place of Lord Ram. The temple for Lord Ram has a huge national, cultural and political significance.
What is the cultural significance of the Ram temple?
For millions of Hindus in India and abroad, the saga of Lord Ram as described in the Sanskrit epic ‘Ramayana’ has been an article of faith since millennia. A temple coming up at the site believed to be the birthplace of Lord Rama is fulfillment of a long-cherished desire for them. The temple is set to further consolidate the majority community and is expected to contribute towards a renewed awakening among the faithful.
Vice President of India M. Venkaiah Naidu in a recent article described Lord Ram as a secular figure and an embodiment of the Indian culture and said the foundation ceremony could lead to spiritual rejuvenation in society. He also cited Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of ‘Ram Rajya’ as a State focused on people-centric development and mentioned that reading of the “Ramayana’ in the right context helps one understand the unique Indian vision of Dharma or righteousness.
What was the legal dispute about and how did the court battle end?
The devotees of Lord Ram are elated as the temple is being built after a protracted legal battle spread over several decades and which was settled in Nov. 2019 when the Supreme Court of India ruled the 2.77 acre site would be handed over to the Hindus for the construction of a temple and an alternative five-acre site would be given to the Muslims for the construction of a mosque.
The dispute related to the site where a 16th century mosque, built by Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty, stood over the remains of a Hindu temple that preceded the Mughal invasion of India. The Hindus believe that the site where the mosque-like structure stood is the birthplace of their God-prince Lord Ram. Hindus believed the mosque was built after the demolition of an ancient temple that marked the birthplace of Lord Ram. After a prolonged national movement by Hindu organisations, into which politicians and political parties of all hues played a key role over several decades, Hindus razed the disputed structure on Dec. 6, 1992.
The current legal dispute that was decided by the Supreme Court in Nov. 2019 in favour of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya is as old as the independent India, with the dispute emerging from the appearance of an idol of Ram Lala (Baby Lord Ram) below the central dome of the disputed structure at the Ram Janmabhoomi complex in Ayodhya.
The Muslims took the matter to the court claiming the site belonged to them. The dispute was actually civil in nature, basically a title suite for the land. But the Dec. 6, 1992 demolition of the disputed structure by the Kar Sevaks (volunteers for the Ram temple) led to criminal cases being filed against the Hindus and its Ram Janmabhoomi (Lord Ram’s birthplace) movement leaders.
What is the political significance of the Ram temple?
Though the battle for reclaiming the Ram temple began right after the existing temple complex was demolished by the Babur’s army general Mir Baqi as an act of subjugation of the Hindus in India, the contemporary movement in independent India has some political significance too. In the nearly 500 years since the Ram temple demolition by the invading Muslim army, there were been at least 70 recorded military campaigns and struggles by the Hindu community to reclaim its temple.
However, the movement became pronounced after the present day ruling political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), founded in 1980, began owning the campaign for returning of the land to the Hindus to build a grand Ram temple. The movement was otherwise led by Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an Hindu religious organisation inspired by the nationalist Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh. The BJP came into the picture with a party resolution in 1986 after the then Indian National Congress (INC) government under Rajiv Gandhi opened the gates for worship of the Ram Lala placed at the central dome of the disputed structure since 1949.
The BJP had pursued the movement for the construction of the temple for years and even mentioned it in the party’s election manifestos for elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s bicameral Parliament. The BJP which had just 2 members in the Lok Sabha in 1984 went up to 85 seats in the ninth Lok Sabha in 1989. In 1990, BJP’s tallest leader after former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, started his most popular nationwide chariot procession (Rath Yatra) from Somnath temple in western state of Gujarat to Ayodhya to mobilise the majority community. In 1991, the BJP won 120 seats in the tenth Lok Sabha.
The BJP headed coalition governments at the centre from 1996 to 2004 under late Vajpayee but gained a simple majority of its own only in 2014 when Modi came to power by winning 282 seats. In the 2019 national elections, Modi went on to increase the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally to 303. As the BJP’s graph rose, the political fortunes of those opposed to the Ram temple till recently, nosedived, despite a 10 year revival under Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance led by Sonia Gandhi.
Ram temple was expected to get a push during Modi’s first government but the decks could not be cleared for it. However, the promise to build a temple ensured a massive majority for the BJP in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. In the 2019 national polls, the BJP still managed to win 62 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya lies.
The start of the Ram temple in Ayodhya is going to further improve the BJP’s sway over India’s most populous state in Uttar Pradesh and other heartland states, while throwing a big political challenge for rivals including the Indian National Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal. The Rashtriya Janata Dal in poll-bound Bihar besides All India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal too may suffer due to the overwhelming sentiment among the Hindu community in favour of BJP that has fulfilled the promise of Ram temple construction.
In contrast, the opposition Indian National Congress lacked a consistent position on the issue as it kept dabbling in Ram temple politics on and off. In 1989, former prime minister late Rajiv Gandhi supervised the foundation laying ceremony of the temple at the disputed site in order to send a message to the majority voters, but in the later decades, especially under Sonia Gandhi, the Congress wanted the courts to settle the dispute.
What has Ram temple in store for present-day politics?
Over the past week, Congress leaders questioned the timing of the foundation laying ceremony and expressed concerns related to COVID-19 protocols but have largely started welcoming the temple construction in an attempt to side with popular national sentiment.
On Aug. 4, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, INC general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, welcomed the foundation stone laying ceremony, saying Lord Ram belonged to all and that the proposed temple should be a monument of unity.
After demolition of the Babri mosque, the Congress had lost its traditional Muslim, Dalit and upper caste vote bank and gradually moved to the margins in politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, where power had since been rotating between regional players Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati till the BJP disrupted the political turf in 2014 by winning 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats.
Post 1992, the Congress lost upper caste votes to the BJP while the Muslims, who were disillusioned with then prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao’s failure to prevent the mosque demolition, shifted to the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.
The Congress, which has only one Lok Sabha from Uttar Pradesh (party interim chief Sonia Gandhi who represents Rae Bareli in the Lok Sabha) and has just seven lawmakers in the state assembly, is struggling to regain lost ground in the state.
With the BJP clearly setting the political agenda in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party too may find it difficult to counter the saffron party’s juggernaut driven by popular nationalism and self-pride in Hindu nationhood.
The rise of BJP has contributed one significant shift in Indian politics that could be forever: no political outfit can ignore Hindu sentiments and if it does, it will be at its own peril regarding it survival.