Dispatch

Praying Politics in Modi’s India

The nationalist BJP government has promised to rebuild the temple of Ram, a fiery point of contention for Hindus and Muslims. But it's not doing so ... for a surprising reason.

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AYODHYA, India — A photograph of the Babri Masjid, built in 1528 and destroyed in 1992, sits on a windowsill by the bedside of Mohammad Hashim Ansari, a 96-year-old resident of the city of Ayodhya in northern India. As his memory fades, the framed picture of the mosque reminds him of the legal battle that he and several other Muslims have been fighting against the local Hindus since 1950: Ansari is the oldest surviving litigant.

For decades, Ansari has witnessed in his hometown of Ayodhya the fierce campaign to rebuild the temple of the revered Hindu god Ram at the site of the mosque in the heart of the city — which many Hindus believe is the god’s birthplace, and where the Mughal ruler Babur destroyed a Hindu temple in the early 16th century to build the mosque. (Babri Masjid means the “mosque of Babur.”)

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this temple in modern-day Indian politics, and especially for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which swept into power in May, behind the charismatic Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A movement to rebuild the temple on that sacred piece of land catapulted the BJP from a fledgling political outfit in the 1980s to a prominent national player a decade later. On Dec. 6, 1992, Ansari watched thousands of Hindus use sledgehammers, pickaxes, and their bare hands to tear down the mosque, triggering violence between the country’s Hindu majority and sizable Muslim minority that killed nearly 2,000 people across the country.

While the riots shook the foundation of this ethnically diverse, secular democracy, they also helped the BJP win the support of middle-class Hindus on the notion of Hindu nationalism — exemplified through its quest to build a temple of Ram, the hero of the Hindu epic of Ramayana, considered the ideal man of honor in Hindu culture. Among those who led the mobs were senior leaders from the BJP and its affiliate Hindu groups. The pledge to construct a temple of Ram has regularly featured in BJP’s election manifestos, including the one for the recent general election that brought Modi to power.

The irony is that the BJP, which used the Ram temple to make inroads into mainstream politics, now refuses to discuss the issue. Though the BJP promised in its April manifesto to explore “all possibilities within the framework of the constitution to facilitate the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya,” there is fading hope among locals that the temple will get built. Instead, they say politicians have milked the holy town for electoral gains, and they attribute the town’s economic backwardness to the unresolved religious dispute.

Social activist Yugal Kishore Shastri, who has lived in Ayodhya for more than five decades, blames politicians for paying scant attention. “If politicians are getting votes in the name of religion, why will they care to work?” said Shastri. He argued that the hope of a temple lets BJP fuel the sentiments of its core voter base of Hindus, who constitute a little over 80 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people. But actually working to resolve the religious dispute would mean that the party loses a crucial electoral plank that it has banked upon for decades. “The BJP will not build a temple but Ayodhya will continue to get exploited in the name of religion,” he said.

Mohammad Iqbal, Ansari’s only son, agrees. “The BJP will neither build a temple nor a mosque here,” he said, almost prophetically.

Men in saffron robes with beads around their necks wander Ayodhya’s streets, which are interspersed with houses, ashrams, shrines, and temples — many bearing signs of neglect. On one August morning, the whirring of motorcycles and scooters gradually drowned the sounds of prayer bells and chants from the faithful. There were few cars, and almost no buses in sight. While the skyline is dotted with temples spires, open sewers hem the roads. Kiosks selling brassware, fresh flowers and other religious tchotchkes are a common sight. Poverty means that new construction or buildings taller than a few stories are alien to this town of an estimated 55,000 people, despite its location in India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 lawmakers to the 545-member lower house of parliament.

In the three-room Ansari house, the 45-year-old Iqbal sat on a cot in his father’s room; the walls were pink, with large patches of peeling paint. “This is such a big pilgrim town, there has been no development here,” he said of Ayodhya, which is roughly 400 miles southeast of the Indian capital of New Delhi. Working as a motor mechanic earns him about $132 per month to feed his family of seven, and his father. “There is no factory here, there are no jobs,” he said.

Amid winding alleys, it is hard to miss the Ram temple compound, which made Ayodhya a national metaphor for sectarian violence. Protected by a high, metal fence, a tiny portion of this roughly 70-acre expanse — controlled by the federal government — houses a makeshift temple of Lord Ram erected by Hindu extremists after the 1992 demolition of the mosque. In 2010, six decades after the land dispute first went through the clogged Indian legal system, a court ordered that 2.7 acres of the contested land be divided into three: two-thirds for the Hindu plaintiffs and the remaining for the Muslim petitioners. Both sides were dissatisfied with the judgment. In 2011, the parties approached the Supreme Court, which stayed the lower court’s injunction. Hearings on the fresh appeals are yet to begin, and a verdict in the case by India’s Supreme Court may be years away.

Given the vulnerability of the holy site to attacks, a phalanx of government security forces with assault rifles stand guard 24 hours a day. In the last attack, in 2005, six armed assailants were killed before they could reach the temple, which draws an average of a few thousand visitors daily. (Muslims won’t visit this temple; also, idol worship is prohibited in Islam.)

Unlike other temples in its vicinity, with their edifices noticeable from the street, this fawn-colored makeshift temple stands hidden under a tent deep inside the compound, visible only at close quarters. Following a thorough frisking and emptying of pockets, pilgrims are guided by security officers through a labyrinthine, caged walkway leading to the temple. One must peer from behind a barricade to see brightly adorned idol of infant Lord Ram, flanked by statues of deities from his family. No one is allowed to stop for more than a few seconds to look at the pantheon. As visitors head to the exit, a priest offers sugary white balls — believed to carry blessings from Lord Ram.

Outside the temple compound, the fortuneteller Dileep Kumar was trying to attract his first customer of the day. Kumar is one of thousands in Ayodhya whose livelihoods depend on tourist traffic, which usually peaks during certain summer days considered most auspicious according to the Hindu calendar. The temple-mosque strife “has stopped development here,” said the 40-year-old Kumar. His monthly income of about $100 is barely sufficient to support his five children; poor healthcare remains his biggest concern. “At times doctors attend to us, at times they don’t,” he said of the sole local hospital. Several other residents said that it even lacks basic medical equipment and frequently refers patients to medical facilities in Lucknow, the state capital, which is 80 miles away.

Members of Hindu nationalist organizations affiliated with the BJP, who mobilized support for the Ram temple, hailed Modi’s victory as a nod for temple construction. Ashok Singhal, senior leader and former chief of the right-wing Hindu-nationalist organization Vhishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) — which prides itself as a custodian of Hindu religion — told Indian media soon after Modi took office that he was confident the election would pave the way for constructing a temple in Ayodhya.

Not too far from the temple complex, a sprawling compound owned by the VHP known as Karsevak Puram — which roughly translates to “Place of Religious Volunteers” — treats visitors to a finely carved model of the future temple. “Modi will protect Hindu self-respect. And Ram temple is a symbol of that,” said Triloki Nath Pandey, a senior official with VHP. Although he blamed the 1998-2004 BJP governments for betraying Hindus by doing nothing for the temple cause, he has unwavering faith in Modi. “If the VHP tells Modi ‘we are going to build the temple,'” he said, “we are confident he will not say ‘no.'”

In New Delhi though, BJP leaders have distanced themselves from the VHP’s claims. “I don’t trust those media reports,” Meenakshi Lekhi, a spokeswoman of the BJP told Foreign Policy, referring to Singhal’s remarks. She refused to comment on how the party would resolve the temple-mosque row.

Modi has been in office more than six months now, but his government has not mentioned the Ram temple issue; they are trying to focus instead on rebooting the economy, eliminating corruption and red tape, and empowering India’s poor. At least for now, the top BJP leadership is trying to create a perception that their party has become more inclusive and that its priorities have changed.

As for Ansari, he is clear on how he wants the decades-old religious row to be resolved. “We want our mosque back at any cost,” he said, poking the air with a wrinkled finger.

NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

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