Why India’s New Ram Temple Is So Important

Why India’s New Ram Temple Is So Important

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a gigantic new temple in the Indian city of Ayodhya on Monday, the conclusion of a mostly 20th-century odyssey in which Hindu nationalists eventually tore down a centuries-old mosque that has now been replaced with a structure devoted to the Hindu deity Ram.

Leading up to the temple’s consecration, public spaces around India were thrumming with excitement. Ram is one of the most revered gods among India’s Hindus, who make up about 80 percent of a total population of 1.4 billion. As the hero of the Ramayana epic, he is a king and a paragon of virtue, exiled from his native Ayodhya, who comes home for a jubilant coronation.

Islam does not appear in the Ramayana, having arrived in India only 1,000 years ago. But it is cast as the primary villain in the Hindu-nationalist telling of India’s history. Now, with a kind of spiritual and political homecoming for Mr. Modi, the Ram campaigners have the temple they had sought for decades.

First, the theological reason. Ayodhya is the original home of Ram. Its spot on the Sarayu River was where his just rule began. Diwali, India’s biggest holiday, marks the end of his 14-year ordeal of separation from the place.

Then there’s the more historical answer. In the area around Ayodhya, it was long believed that a Hindu temple had once stood on the land where the Babri Mosque was built in the 1500s. In 1949, soon after the British left and India became independent, Hindu activists smuggled idols representing Ram into the mosque, according to court documents.

That intensified the contest over the site, with Hindus and Muslims squabbling over access to it, and the police suppressing both sides. In the 1980s, reclaiming the site emerged as the principal goal of the Hindutva movement, which has for a hundred years sought to identify multiethnic India with Hinduism and vice versa.

As a newly fledged political leader, Mr. Modi participated in the Ram temple campaigns, which sometimes led to clashes with the police and Hindu-Muslim riots. The tensions boiled over in 1992, when about 2,000 people were killed in sectarian violence.

The political party representing Hindutva, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., and its affiliated groups organized nearly 100,000 of their volunteers to gather in Ayodhya on Dec. 6, 1992.

The party ran the local government; when young men surrounding the mosque eventually stormed it, the police stood by idly. By noon, the mob was picking the mosque apart. By evening, all three domes were flattened. The demolition crew put up a makeshift temple where the idols had surfaced in 1949.

People in India’s cities were mostly horrified by the destruction and the deadly violence that followed. Many associated the rioters with an earlier Hindu nationalist, Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1948 out of devotion to Hindutva ideology.

Today, the B.J.P. seems to have a lock on national power. But until the Ram temple movement, it was a marginal player. The opposition Congress Party, which enjoyed nearly unchallenged power until then, never made up its mind about whether to support or oppose the temple.

With the unfulfilled prospect of the Ram temple glowing in the background, the B.J.P.’s political strength grew, buoyed both by its pro-Hindu causes and its pro-business orientation, during a time when India’s economy was starting to open to the rest of the world.

After the mosque’s demolition, India’s court system tied up the disputed land in a thicket of legal decisions. There it remained until soon after Mr. Modi won his second term as prime minister, in 2019. Soon after, the Supreme Court cleared the way. It insisted that the mosque’s destruction had been an illegal act, and then issued an uneasy judgment allowing the whole claim to be handed over to a Ram Temple Trust anyway. Muslim claimants were offered an empty plot miles away.

The trust took in about $400 million, and construction began in 2020. That money was privately raised, but in many ways the consecration of the Ram temple became an undertaking of the Indian state.

About 70 percent of the temple has been built. Ayodhya itself has gotten a new airport, train services and major urban upgrades. The government declared Jan. 22 to be a national half-day holiday, so Indians everywhere could celebrate the installation of the official Ram idol in the new premises.

The bosses of some political parties, as well as some Hindu religious leaders, balked at the blurred lines between church and state and declined to attend the ceremony.

Hindu nationalist allies of Mr. Modi tended to look forward to Jan. 22 as a day of ultimate vindication, or even revenge — against India’s medieval Muslim rulers, and against the country’s independence leaders, who sought to stay neutral with regard to religion.

Naturally, India’s secularists see the rise of a Ram temple on the site of the Babri Mosque as confirmation of their own defeat, if not as a blasphemous conflation of Mr. Modi with Ram. India’s 200 million Muslim citizens feel by and large alienated, which may be the point.

But many Hindus, especially in the so-called cow belt in the country’s north, just think it’s nice that Ram will finally have a temple in the holy place where he was born. They were celebrating its inauguration at live screenings, as at a once-a-millennium holiday.

The memory of 1992 is dim among younger Indians, who could observe the day’s spectacle without recalling the Babri Mosque. The timing seemed calculated to bolster Mr. Modi’s campaign to win a third term; elections are only a few months away. Some of those celebrating will think he deserves that much, and others will care little either way.

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