On Tuesday 23 January the Ram Mundir temple, built on the ruins of the destroyed Babri Masjid Mosque, was opened to the public for the first time. Shifana Niyas explains how the supremacist Hindutva movement that destroyed the mosque in 1992 is making life increasingly dangerous for Muslims and other minorities in India.
The 6th of December 2023 marked the 31st anniversary of the illegal, state-mediated destruction of the Babri Masjid, which exposed many of India’s most celebrated myths such as multiculturalism, positive secularism, non-violent Gandhian style political mobilisation, and yoga-loving Hindu majoritarianism. This mosque was built in 1527 by the first Mughal emperor Babar in Uttar Pradesh and was once a vibrant multicultural city celebrated for its diversity. Yet in its place today stands a Ram Mandir (Ram temple), inaugurated by the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi on the 22nd of January 2024 with a chilling warning to all minorities about the changing socio-political landscape in India.
The dispute for the site of Babri Masjid arose in 1852, almost 325 years after the mosque was built, with extremist Hindu factions alleging that it sits on the birth ground of Hindu deity Ram. The relentless efforts of these factions have successfully turned an unsubstantiated claim into a rallying cry for mobilising larger segments of the population towards violence, despite the lack of credible historical or archaeological evidence to support this assertion. After decades of instigation from organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which embodies the far-right ultra-nationalist ideology Hindutva, the Babri Masjid was ultimately demolished in 1992 by a large group of Hindu worshippers/nationalists, with both implicit and explicit backing from the local government of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) then headed by, Kalyan Singh. Subsequent ationwide riots sparked by this incident killed more than 2000 people, mostly Muslims. After decades of instigation from organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which embodies the far-right ultra-nationalist ideology Hindutva, the Babri Masjid was ultimately demolished in 1992 by a large group of Hindu worshippers/nationalists, with both implicit and explicit backing from the local government of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) then headed by, Kalyan Singh. Subsequent nationwide riots sparked by this incident killed more than 2000 people, mostly Muslims.
Today Ram Mandir in the place of Babri Masjid serves as a testament to how hate speech and propaganda from extremist Hindu political entities were able to transform acts of violence, vandalism, demolition, and pogroms into acts of spiritualism. Religious and spiritual ceremonies have now become sources of communal tensions since the BJP came into power in 2014. As such, the construction of Ram Mandir signifies more than the destruction of an ancient mosque; it also marks a departure from the long-celebrated democratic and positive secular principles in India. The historian William Dalrymple argued that in destroying the mosque, ‘India’s traditions of tolerance, democracy and secularism’ symbolised respectively by each dome in the mosque were also ‘smashed to rubble.’ Consequently, secularism today is redefined by the Hindu nationalists as a constitutional value that favours Muslims while opposing Hindu interests or harbouring anti-Hindu sentiments. Furthermore, in post-colonial India, the call for decolonisation is loaded with ultra-ethno-nationalist political sloganeering particularly aimed at removing socio-political-religious-cultural symbols of minorities from the national consciousness.
In 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the first stone which is a silver brick weighing 40kg for the now-constructed Ram Mandi. The crowdfunding began in the same year that raised €38.8 million (35,000 Indian rupees) out of which €10 million (9,000 Indian rupees) was spent on building the temple. Adding perspective into this spending, Oxfam reports that the top 10% of the Indian population holds 77% of the total national wealth. 73% of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest 1%, while 670 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a 1% increase in their wealth. In addition to this, between 2018 and 2022, India is estimated to produce 70 new millionaires every day while the average daily wage of an Indian worker is 178 Indian rupees (just under €2). The Financial Times reported in 2020 that Gautam Adani, the world’s fourth richest man with USD 79 billion (after many controversies regarding financial scams), has seen his wealth increase approximately 230% in the five years since Prime Minister Modi took office.
Indian scholar Madhav Khosla contends that the historical conditions of India’s creation should encourage people to see it as the quintessential democratic experience of the twentieth century, in much the same way as Tocqueville had seen the United States as the model nineteenth-century democracy. He made this point against the backdrop of British colonial governance where cultural identities have been politicised and solidified in the process of establishing a binary of permanent national majority and minority. Khosla further points out that a constitution should charter a course that liberates individual agency while a democratic state must allow its people to create their own identities. Similarly, in India, when identities are politicised, Hindus by virtue of being Hindus are included in the state-building process. Thus, they are a sovereign subject of the Indian state. Consequently, minorities who are disenfranchised from the state-building process are relegated to being non-sovereign subjects, which means second class citizens. Hindutva, the current ruling ideology of the BJP, is premised on this cultural justification of identities.
While the inequality and income gap grow in India, Gregory H. Stanton, the founder and chairman of Genocide Watch, warned in 2022 that early signs of genocide against Muslims in India, particularly in Kashmir and Assam, have already begun. Alarmingly, many political analysts have referred to Kashmir as the Gaza of India. The occupied Jammu and Kashmir region is in fact modelled after Gaza. It is one of the most militarised regions in the world, with more than 1 million military personnel controlling approximately 4 million people. Internet access has been restricted in Kashmir for 18 months as a result of a blockade that many believe was imposed to prevent reports of state and military violence from being made public. India also imports weapons and surveillance technology from Israel.
A majoritarian society that embraces right-wing nationalist values will eventually see to its own degradation. In Kashmir that an eight-year-old girl, Asifa Bano, was gang-raped for days before being killed by seven men including the temple priest and his juvenile nephew. Following the arrests of these men, BJP members protested and opposed their prosecution. Similarly, Modi approved a premature release of 11 men who were convicted for the gang rape and murdering of 14 members of Bilkis Banu’s family during the Gujerat pogrom. These convicted rapists were welcomed with celebration. Hindu activists and scholars have been thus far unable to change the tide sweeping the society despite their best efforts. Indeed, these efforts have been met with arrests and state harassment.
The destruction of the Babri Masjid is therefore more than an isolated incident or a claim of Hindu supremacy and domination. As The Caravan Magazine has pointed out that, although the processes by which the land was acquired to construct the Ram temple will soon be forgotten in the pageantry surrounding its inauguration, they serve as an instructive episode on what progress looks like in Modi’s New India. Safeguarding democracy requires sustained effort and political will. India must face this challenge if it wishes to uphold its democratic principles and the secular values inscribed in the constitution.