Navigating the fault line of Ram Mandir politics - Hindustan Times

Navigating the fault line of Ram Mandir politics

Jan 11, 2024 09:54 PM IST

The self-appointed guardians of secularism and those who claim to be protectors of Hindutva nationalism have fed off each other for decades

“It was we Shiv Sainiks who brought down the Babri Masjid in just 17 minutes, the BJP just ran away. Ram Mandir in Ayodhya is our creation,” member of Parliament and Shiv Sena spokesperson Sanjay Raut said at a recent press conference. To reflect upon just how far Indian politics has travelled between December 1992 and January 2024, Raut’s strident remarks are instructive. In 1992, the Shiv Sena was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s staunch ally; now its Uddhav Thackeray wing is part of the Maha Vikas Aghadi alliance in Maharashtra that includes the Congress. At least Raut and Sena have taken a consistent stand. Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray boasted in 1992 that “our boys did it” while seeking credit for the demolition. Paradoxically, it is the so-called secular parties whose political ambivalence and unethical compromises have led to the ideological capitulation of the Nehruvian secular order before the relentless march of the saffron brotherhood.

Ram Mandir is ready for “pran pratishtha” (consecration ceremony) of Ram Lalla (the child Ram) on January 22. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
Ram Mandir is ready for “pran pratishtha” (consecration ceremony) of Ram Lalla (the child Ram) on January 22. (HT Photo)

The Congress, in particular, seems unable to articulate a coherent response to the Modi government’s determined approach to take full electoral advantage of the Ram temple inauguration in a general election year.

When the party’s overseas Congress chief, Sam Pitroda, raised a pertinent question last month — “Is Ram Mandir the real issue or is it unemployment or inflation?” — the Congress instantly distanced itself from the remarks, dismissing them as a personal view. But now by declining the invite to attend the Mandir pran pratishta ceremony and labelling it a “BJP-RSS event”, the party seems keen to reaffirm its secular credentials. In reality, the Congress is caught between a rock and a hard place: By boycotting the ceremony, the party stands accused by the BJP of being “anti-sanatana dharma”, but had they attended, the party leaders would have been mute spectators to an inevitable Modi-centric mega show.

The Congress’s predicament is symbolic of the confusion within those who once claimed to be the flag bearers of Nehruvian secularism but are now fearful of articulating any firm response that might be seen as “anti-Hindu” or conversely “pro-Muslim”. The party’s longest-serving president Sonia Gandhi candidly admitted as much in 2018 when she remarked that the BJP had managed to convince people that the Congress was a “Muslim party”.

Fear of a religious backlash has been a recurrent theme in the Congress’s timid response to the political Hindutva challenge for nearly half a century now. Hark back to the 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi’s government was guilty of pandering to religious extremists of all hues. If opening the gates of the Babri mosque and allowing shilanyas to be performed at the disputed site was designed to mollify the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, then the Shah Bano case and the banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses were aimed at appeasing Islamic fundamentalists.

Anxiety-ridden prevarication was the key again when Narasimha Rao’s government turned a blind eye to the vast gathering of kar sevaks in Ayodhya in 1992, a dereliction of constitutional duty that eventually led to the demolition of the mosque and the bloody riots that followed. In recent years, Congress leaders have emphasised their staunch Hindu credentials: Be it Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits and claims of being a “Shiv bhakt” and a “janeudhari” (the one who wears Brahminical thread) Hindu or Kamal Nath’s “Hanuman bhakt” bombast. Nath even claimed recently that the Congress should take credit for the Ram Mandir since it opened the gates to the site.

It is this history of selective “soft Hindu” secularism that has pushed the Congress on the backfoot on a pitch prepared by the BJP: You cannot deny the existence of Lord Ram in court in 2007 (the affidavit submitted in the Ram Sethu case rejected the veracity of events described in the Valmiki Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas, but was withdrawn after an outcry) and simultaneously claim to honour sentiments of millions who revere Lord Ram.

The “secular” Mandal warriors of the Hindi heartland too have faced a credibility crisis because of their unprincipled approach to constitutional values. Lalu Prasad, for example, earned his political spurs when he arrested BJP leader LK Advani in 1990 on the rath yatra but disregarded his own partyman Mohammad Shahabuddin’s criminal record because the latter had a sizeable vote bank. Mulayam Singh Yadav controversially fired upon kar sevaks in 1990 to protect the Babri mosque, but his Samajwadi Party government failed to stop communal violence in the state, most noticeably during his son Akhilesh Yadav’s tenure in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.

In a sense, the self-appointed guardians of secularism and those who claim to be the “protectors” of Hindutva nationalism have fed off each other for decades. A true secular order would have ensured equality and justice for all, without any form of religious discrimination. This would have meant that those responsible for the “criminal act” (in the words of the Supreme Court) of the Babri demolition would have been prosecuted swiftly rather than being protected and patronised. A principled secularism would promote ideals of pluralism, based on tolerance and mutual respect for all faiths, not one where specific religion-based politics is openly practised to consolidate vote banks. Religion is a personal matter but by cynically exploiting it for votes, it becomes an instrument to divide and rule.

In 1960, Jawaharlal Nehru articulated his vision of secularism: “We talk about a secular State in India. It is perhaps not very easy even to find a good word in Hindi for ‘secular’. Some people think it means something opposed to religion. That, obviously, is not correct. What it means is that it is a State which honours all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities.” Can any political party occupy the moral high ground on this vision of Nehruvian secularism?

Post-script: A friend asked me whether I had been invited to the Ram Mandir pran pratishtha ceremony. When I replied in the negative, he smirked: “Clearly you are not a VVIP or a celebrity who matters.” When a religious occasion becomes a political spectacle, then even a darshan of Ram Lalla will perhaps be a show of strength and not a sacred exercise of piety.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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