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  Opinion   Columnists  26 Dec 2023  Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | The lesson from Ayodhya: How power eclipses piety

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | The lesson from Ayodhya: How power eclipses piety

The author is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst
Published : Dec 26, 2023, 11:47 pm IST
Updated : Dec 26, 2023, 11:47 pm IST

The Supreme Court judgment in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Majid case had decided the issue in terms of a property dispute.

Construction work in progress at Ayodhya Railway Station, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. (PTI Photo)
 Construction work in progress at Ayodhya Railway Station, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. (PTI Photo)

From 1853 to 1931, when the local groups rioted for space in the then Babri Masjid, it was the religious motive that dominated, however flawed it was. And there is little doubt that it was flawed in historical terms, though it was a sentimental issue. The Supreme Court judgment in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Majid case had decided the issue in terms of a property dispute. Neither religion nor myth was given any credence. But for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ever since it adopted in its Palampur session the Ayodhya dispute as its core agenda, along with Article 370 and the Uniform Civil Code, it has been purely a political matter. But there was enough ambiguity in its stance. It did not fight any election from 1989 to 2019 on the issue of the temple. Mr Narendra Modi was silent on the issue in 2014 and 2019, and Mr Amit Shah had said that it could either be decided in a court of law or it has to be based on a compromise between the Hindu and Muslim communities. It never became the party’s poll plank.

The ambiguity persists and looms larger than before when Prime Minister Modi wants to give it the pride of place on his political agenda. He wants to make it a grand affair, showcase it as an issue of revival of national glory, and there is a thin, blurring dividing line between the political agenda and the party’s, and the Modi government’s, rhetoric of cultural nationalism. The BJP governments at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh are trying to maintain that the construction of the temple is that of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, which the Central government had set up in February 2020 through an announcement by the Prime Minister in the Lok Sabha, and 12 of its 15 members were nominated by the government. This is an autonomous body which does not come under government purview. It is in more ways than one a legal fig leaf. Ayodhya has been declared Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra “place of historical importance” and “place of public worship of renown”, which do not really survive critical scrutiny. But a government can take arbitrary decisions, especially after the Supreme Court judgment in the mosque-temple matter. Despite everything, the Modi government has to maintain the legal façade that the construction of the temple, the functioning of the temple, is not by the government. The state-church separation is sought to be maintained. There is no doubt that the undeclared intention of the BJP is to claim it as its political victory and flaunt it as an achievement in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Right from 1949, when the idol of Lord Ram was stealthily placed under the central dome of the then mosque, it had turned into a battle between the two communities, and both Hindus and Muslims have been guilty of taking the matter out of Ayodhya and turning it into a national issue. The Muslim community, especially the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Waqf Board, had accepted the judicial verdict and it is busy building a mosque at the five-acre plot away from the Ayodhya town allotted by the state government following the directive of the Supreme Court. The BJP governments have been managing the Ayodhya temple construction and the sprucing up of the little town with grand plans to make it a spot of international tourist attraction.

The interesting cultural and religious aspect of North Indian culture is the widespread popularity of 17th century Hindi (Avadhi) poet Tulsidas and his devotional epic Ramcharit Manas, which dominates the consciousness and sentiments of the people, both the sophisticates and the ordinary folk. The Ramcharit Manas is saturated with piety for Lord Ram as the great god incarnating as a human being, and displaying divine uprightness and compassion. The temple that is set to be symbol of the BJP’s cultural nationalism is literally trying to overwhelm the unparalleled popularity of the Tulsi Ramayan. The temple would want to appropriate the text of Tulsi. It will then be a contest between the modern building and the old text. The Tulsi text has survived the test of time. It is to be seen whether the newly-constructed temple at Ayodhya will become a sacred place for the Hindus. The Tulsi Dhyan Mandir in Varanasi has not been able to outshine the religious and cultural status of the Tulsi Ramayan.

What is emerging in the construction of the temple and its inauguration in January is the power play of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and not so much of Hindu piety, which is the hallmark of the people in this country, where the story of Ram exists in its various literary retellings in many languages of India, and there is no Ram temple in brick and mortar to counter this cultural and religious legacy of the Hindus. In contrast, the Krishna cult has its temple centres in Dwarka, in Puri, in Guruvayoor, in Udupi and in Nathdwara, and the Krishna worshippers feel fulfilled visiting these temples. The BJP, it seems, is caught at the wrong end of the religious and cultural consciousness of the Hindus. The BJP and the Hindutva folks are babes in the wood, and that too in the shameful sense of ignoramuses and in the sense of innocence, while they grapple with the history and legacy of the Hindus.

Like Tulsi in the Varanasi of 17th century, which was not part of the Ramayan lore, in the early 19th century, Tyagaraja was content with the idols of Ram, Sita and Lakshman in his home, to pour his devotion through the immortal songs that he composed. The subtleties of Hindu culture are beyond the grasp of the vulgar politics of power of the BJP. After the pyrotechnics of the temple inauguration in Ayodhya recede and the 2024 parliamentary election gets over, Ayodhya will remain the small place it has been, and the people will find Ram in Tulsi and Tyagaraja for centuries to come. There will be an initial gold rush of tourists and then the dust will settle. The new temple in Ayodhya will not inspire Hindu piety the way the Golden Temple in Amritsar inspires Sikh piety. The show of power symbolised by the construction of the temple in Ayodhya will remain an expression of worldly pomp.

Tags: babri masjid case, ayodhya case, article 370 abrogation