IT TOOK RAM and his most loyal followers 14 years in exile—followed by travels up and down the Indian subcontinent, with demons to outwit and armies to defeat—before they could return him victorious to his kingdom of Ayodhya. That homecoming is still celebrated today, though the events depicted in the Ramayana epic are said to have happened more than 800,000 years ago. So imagine the sense of satisfaction felt by Ram’s modern-day devotees on August 5th, when they complete their own mission, seven decades in the making, to build a great temple to Ram at the very place of his supposed birth.
The question of whether to consecrate a Hindu temple at this particular 1.1-hectare (2.8-acre) site has been bothering India since its independence from the British empire, reaching a zenith of political animosity in 1992. That was when a Hindu mob demolished a mosque there, built by India’s Muslim, Mughal rulers, probably in the 16th century. For hundreds of years Muslims and Hindus worshipped under the same structure. Then in 1949, just a year after Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a fellow Hindu for having given too much to the Muslims during the partition of India, someone smuggled in a small idol of Ram. That set off a fight that escalated in the 1980s, making “Ayodhya” synonymous with Hindu-Muslim tensions.
The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, launched itself on the way to political power with a campaign to build the temple. The broad-based movement it forged among Hindu activists culminated in the frenzied mob vandalism of 1992. Thousands of people, mostly Muslims, died in the riots at the time. Legal wrangling over possession of the site kept grinding on until last November, when the Supreme Court granted it to the Hindus. Ram’s champions are an ungainly band of politicians, priests and camp followers. Having got what they always wanted may taste sweet. But it is likely to leave their alliance in a tricky new position. Having won the war for Ayodhya definitively, the BJP, now led by Narendra Modi, India’s most powerful prime minister in a generation, may find itself hard-pressed to align its ideological demands with policies that appeal to the masses.
Mr Modi will have the honour of lifting into place the foundation stone for the new temple, a 40kg silver brick. The stagecraft will be slightly muted by precautions imposed by the covid-19 pandemic, but still a grand mixture of high symbolism both sacred and profane. Mr Modi is to be joined on stage by the governor he appointed to Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and home to Ayodhya; by the mahant or religious supremo who heads the temple trust; by the state’s chief minister, who happens to be a mahant too; and by the leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a goose-stepping ideological organisation that co-ordinates dozens of pro-Hindu causes and spawned the BJP. The scene will be broadcast across the country and around the world—including on the giant flashing screens of New York’s Times Square (if Hindu-nationalists in America have their way over the civil-rights groups trying to thwart them on the grounds that the whole programme is “Islamophobic”).
The complaint that honouring Ram in this way amounts to an injury against India’s Muslims is a familiar one. Since it started winning parliamentary seats in the 1980s the BJP has had three core demands: building the Ram temple in Ayodhya; introducing a “uniform civil code” that would bring Muslim family law into line with the rest of the country’s; and repealing Article 370 of the constitution, which guaranteed a degree of autonomy to Jammu & Kashmir, the only state in India where Muslims formed a majority (and which Pakistan still claims as its own).
Under Mr Modi, and especially since his government won a thumping re-election in 2019, at least two-and-a-half of these three have been swiftly accomplished. The uniform civil code must count as half-achieved—some Muslim family law endures but the archaic practice of “triple talaq” divorce was invalidated (and then criminalised, for good measure). Then exactly one year ago, in the early hours of August 5th 2019, with 35,000 extra paramilitary troops on hand to enforce order, the phone lines to Kashmir were cut in the dead of night and local politicians rounded up and locked away. In Delhi, the BJP-dominated parliament ran through a breathtaking bit of constitutional jugglery that simultaneously ended Jammu & Kashmir’s designation as a state, reneged on the associated guarantees and decreed that it would be ruled by the national government in perpetuity.
August 5th, then, is meant to go down as a kind of dual holiday: celebrating both the new age of Ram in Ayodhya and Indian primacy in Kashmir. The public ardour that once characterised the Ayodhya movement has dimmed substantially since the mosque was torn down. It ceased winning elections for the BJP almost overnight, and by 2019, when the Muslims who opposed building a Hindu temple on its rubble were vanquished in court, nary a public protest was raised. So Mr Modi’s temple-building seems more like the repayment of an old debt to ideological fellow-travellers than a populist gesture. The revocation of Kashmir’s Article 370, however, was genuinely popular, and may point the BJP towards other patriotic goals for the future. Kashmir itself, however, has been left in a torpor, locked down cruelly even before the covid-19 lockdown. The BJP’s stated aims—of bringing greater security to the valley, ending corruption and then fostering prosperity—have all been left dangling.
That the BJP has fulfilled most of its ideological objectives might seem of little political importance. On a national level, the opposition is hapless. Congress, its main party, could never decide whether or not to admire the assault on Kashmir’s autonomy. And Priyanka Gandhi, one of its dynastic leaders, went so far as virtually to bless the proceedings in Ayodhya, tweeting: “Ram is with everyone”.
Moreover, Mr Modi was first elected prime minister in 2014 not so much because his Hindu-nationalist goals were shared by a majority but because they were tolerated. It was his pitch for an energetic, corruption-free and well-managed India that was wildly popular. The problem is that these days, little of that talk inspires much hope any more. Mr Modi has ushered in solid technocratic reforms, but under him the economy had been sliding from weakness to weakness even before the pandemic struck.
So the BJP does need an ideology to compensate. Vinay Sitapati, a political scientist at Ashoka University who is bringing out a history of the BJP, identifies this as the root of the challenge faced by Mr Modi’s broader movement. “This is not an ideology that is constructed around state power, not like communism, social democracy or fascism.” But the BJP does have three animating principles which remain constant: “an obsession” with keeping Hindus in the numerical majority; keeping Hindus unified, against the distractions of caste, region and other differences; and maintaining the territorial integrity of the Hindu sphere. One way of feeding the obsession was a controversial citizenship bill, apparently designed to discriminate against Muslims, which aroused ferocious resistance around the new year, the implementation of which has languished through the covid-19 crisis. And the concern for territorial integrity might argue for stoking confrontation with China over their Himalayan border disputes. But that seems very dangerous.
The Ramayana, like the Odyssey, usually ends with a joyful homecoming. Ram rules, and his rule is long and mostly just. In a popular version, however, the long and painful saga of kidnap, war and rescue leads to further frustrations. Ram harbours misgivings about the whole enterprise, and even casts out his cherished queen. Success in Ayodhya is not all it was cracked up to be.