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  Opinion   Columnists  31 Jan 2024  After Ayodhya: Will Modi’s ‘new era’ end old conflicts?

After Ayodhya: Will Modi’s ‘new era’ end old conflicts?

The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi-NCR. His latest book is 'The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India', and he’s also the author of 'Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times'. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.
Published : Feb 1, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Feb 1, 2024, 12:00 am IST

The inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on January 22 turns into an audio-visual spectacle

The “pran pratistha” ceremony at the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on January 22 had little to do with religiosity and was essentially an audio-visual spectacle.  (File Image: PTI)
 The “pran pratistha” ceremony at the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on January 22 had little to do with religiosity and was essentially an audio-visual spectacle. (File Image: PTI)

The “pran pratistha” ceremony at the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on January 22 had little to do with religiosity and was essentially an audio-visual spectacle.

Significantly, the event was conspicuous by erasing the lines between religion and the Indian State. This marked a big stride from the blurring of lines between religion and politics per se. The shadow of religion on politics, many would argue, always existed despite the founders of the Indian Republic choosing a secular character for the nation. This darkness became more ominous from the 1980s when the agitation for constructing the Ram temple was started by the Sangh Parivar. It has become all the more conspicuous from 2014 onwards after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office ten months after emphatically declaring: “Yes, I am a Hindu nationalist”.

The origins of this agitation followed the deeply revivalist 1983 Ekatmata Yagna, when waters from rivers considered holy by Hindus were paraded across the country by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Later, the movement gathered pace from late 1985 after protests by conservative sections among Muslims against the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano ruling triggered a panic response from the Rajiv Gandhi government. He eventually passed a law to nullify the verdict. The VHP and leaders of its ideological fountainhead, the RSS, argued this was an instance of the Congress and the Indian State “appeasing” Muslims. Driven by myopic vision, Rajiv Gandhi opted to facilitate opening the lock on the Babri Masjid for Hindu devotees to enter and offer prayers without restrictions.

Yet, although later Prime Ministers, especially P.V. Narasimha Rao, under whose watch the Babri Masjid was demolished, allowed the issue to remain a ticking time-bomb, no one formally embraced the issue and the movement as thoroughly as Mr Modi has.

There is little ambiguity the central figure on January 22 was not Lord Ram or his idol(s). Instead, the spotlight was more on Mr Modi and the entire ceremony was more of an “event” than a religious consecration. The sheen from the function had earlier faded after the shankaracharyas decided to stay away and it became a celebrity-heavy gathering. Carpet-to-carpet television coverage via video feeds by Doordarshan ensured that nothing else was telecast during the ceremony. Although in days prior to the ceremony, most TV channels had gone “ballistic” insofar as coverage from Ayodhya was concerned, few details were available on its run-order. Viewers were therefore all eyes because they knew little of what was to come next.

Undoubtedly, viewer-interest was high in the live proceedings. In the absence of empirical evidence, there is no knowing whether the semi-constructed temple’s inauguration was endorsed by the people. But, given the tumultuous gathering of devotees from the day it was opened to the public, it appears that they have accepted its “incompleteness” without much rancour. There is no indication that they are critical of Mr Modi for also enacting the role of a high priest of Hinduism while being the PM too. It must be recalled that the people have been prepped up for this as it wasn’t the first time Mr Modi publicly performed a religious ritual. In 2014, when he first contested from Varanasi, Mr Modi was first denied permission by the district administration to perform Ganga aarti before the polling day. But after his victory, he did so with then BJP president Rajnath Singh and Amit Shah in full glare of TV cameras after prior intimation to TV channels. Thereafter, on almost every visit to the city, he repeated the act and even went to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, not just as a devotee but to perform religious rituals.

This practice continued throughout his first term as PM in several cities till the “climax” as polling was ending in 2019. At that time, he headed to the Kedarnath shrine and closeted himself alone, with the exception of a camera-person briefly, inside the “cave room” where he appeared to be meditating deeply. The impact this had on voters turning out during the last phase of polling was noted then. Subsequently, in December 2021, three months before crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the PM addressed the gathering at the inaugural of his flagship Rs 800-crore Kashi Vishwanath Dham project in Varanasi. Mr Modi projected more of a “Baba” image than that of a Prime Minister, initially by a prolonged dip in the Ganga while performing religious rituals in a luminous hue of saffron. Later, after performing rituals, while delivering his mandatory speech, Mr Modi donned the role of chief of a monastic order. In the speech, he claimed that virasat (heritage) and vikas (development) go hand in hand. Significantly, whenever Mr Modi refers to Indian heritage, it is intrinsically Hindu, suggesting that the nation does not have any non-Hindu heritage worth its name.

Although Mr Modi merely continued with the past practice of turning out in Hindu religious attire, his performative act in Ayodhya is different as the temple inauguration came at the end of a watershed agitation, for close to four decades. Further, the event in Ayodhya drew greater public response and critical review because of the buildup, and the importance of the day being underlined by Mr Modi. He said it was “not just a date on the calendar” but “the dawn of a new era”. January 22, he added, marked the beginning of “the expansion of consciousness from Dev (God) to Desh (country) and from Ram to Rashtra (nation)”. On that day, he said, the foundation for India’s “next 1,000 years has been laid”.

It is true that on January 22, Mr Modi resembled to the core the high priest of Sanatan Hinduism. However, it must be noted that that scale of the event and the nature of the Ayodhya ceremony was more grandiose and significant. But if detailed scrutiny is made of the Prime Minister’s public functions in the backdrop of temples or religious events from the time he assumed office, it would be evident he has been true to his style from the beginning. Significantly, the Supreme Court in November 2019 in its judgment called for a closure to the fierce conflict between Hindus and Muslims based on prejudice and distrust. In the 40 months since the foundation stone for the temple was formally laid, no progress was made towards bringing the curtain down on this bitter dispute. As the ruling party pushes towards another electoral victory even as the controversy surrounding the Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah in Mathura rages on, India stares at a new round of antagonism that may leave deeper scars on the nation’s psyche.

Tags: ayodhya ram mandir, narendra modi, indian republic