The most dire threat yet to India's secular ideal

Despite being the PM of a Constitutionally secular country, Modi’s central role in the Ram Mandir inauguration is a clear political statement

An aerial view of the temple complex from November 2023 (photo: @ShriRamTeerth/X)
An aerial view of the temple complex from November 2023 (photo: @ShriRamTeerth/X)

Ashok Swain

The inauguration of the Ram Mandir (temple) in Ayodhya by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 22 January represents a significant moment in India's history, one that is deeply entwined with the nation's ongoing struggle between secularism and rising Hindu nationalism. This event, laden with religious and political symbolism, is more than a mere religious ceremony; it is a vivid manifestation of a Hindu supremacist political project that challenges the secular foundations of India's Constitution.

The Ram Mandir issue has emerged as a pivotal element in the political discourse of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), especially during Narendra Modi's tenure as leader. This party, ascending to power on the commitment to a development model rooted in Hindutva, has progressively aligned with Hindu nationalist ideologies. This shift often compromises India's secular principles, blatantly ignoring the rights and sentiments of its minority populations.

A particularly contentious aspect of this narrative is the Ayodhya land dispute. This dispute centers around the site where the 16th-century Babri Mosque was violently demolished by a majoritarian mob in 1992, symbolising the deep-seated religious and cultural tensions within India.

Despite being the prime minister of a Constitutionally secular country, Modi’s central role in the Ram Mandir's inauguration is not just a religious act but a clear divisive political statement. By often equating the importance of this event to India's Independence Day, Modi is positioning the construction of the temple as a milestone in India's journey, akin to its liberation from colonial rule. This comparison is deeply symbolic, marking a departure from India's secular democratic foundations towards a vision of a Hindu theocratic nation.

The inauguration, laden with religious and political symbolism, is more than a mere religious ceremony (photo: @ShriRamTeerth/X)
The inauguration, laden with religious and political symbolism, is more than a mere religious ceremony (photo: @ShriRamTeerth/X)

The Supreme Court's highly controversial decision in 2019 to grant the land for the temple's construction over the Babri Mosque site has been criticised for prioritising majority sentiment over legal and historical evidence. This decision, and Modi's subsequent actions, raise serious questions about the independence of India's judiciary and its role in upholding the secular Constitution.

Seventy-four years ago, when India adopted its Constitution, the nation was deeply engaged in debates about the role of religion in state policy. This led to a unique form of secularism that treated all religions with equal respect while nurturing private religious practices. This distinct approach to secularism enabled India to forge an inclusive national identity, effectively steering clear of the sectarian strife that plagued many of its regional neighbours.

However, under Prime Minister Modi's tenure, there has been a notable shift towards favouring Hindu religious identity at the state level. This shift is evident in actions such as the removal of the hajj subsidy for Muslims, coupled with the introduction of supportive measures for Hindu pilgrimages, and a noticeable decrease in Muslim representation within the political sphere.

The inauguration of the Ayodhya temple marks a significant milestone in this transformation. It symbolises India's deviation from its secular trajectory, steering the nation towards what is, in practical terms, a Hindu nation.

Modi's alignment with Hindu nationalist ideology represents also a significant shift from the principles of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who advocated for a secular and inclusive India. Under Modi's leadership, the government's policies have often marginalised minorities, particularly Muslims. The construction of the Ram Mandir over a site revered by India’s 200 million Muslims is not just a triumph for Hindu nationalism; it is a stark reminder of the diminishing space for minority rights and secular values in India.

The timing of the temple's inauguration, amidst economic challenges and just prior to national elections, further highlights the prioritisation of Hindu nationalist agendas over pressing national concerns. While the country grapples with economic, agricultural, and job crises, the focus on a religious monument speaks volumes about the Hindu nationalist government's priorities.

Moreover, the Ram Mandir's consecration is expected to play a significant role in Modi's campaign strategy for the upcoming elections. By rallying the Hindu majority around this symbol of religious nationalism, Modi is leveraging religious sentiments for electoral gains, a strategy that risks deepening societal divisions.

The reaction of the Muslim community to the temple's construction is one of pain and fear. For many, the demolition of the Babri Mosque remains an open wound, a symbol of their marginalisation in a country that once prided itself on its pluralism and secular identity. The construction of the temple over this site is seen as a direct affront to their history and presence in India.

The consecration ceremony, while a moment of hubris and celebration for many majoritarian Hindus, is a moment of serious apprehension for others. There are genuine concerns that this event could further divide India’s segmented society, given the site's contentious history and the current charged political climate.

The government's preparation to make it an event to celebrate majoritarian politics, while it is being boycotted by the major Opposition party Congress and most important Hindu religious leaders, underscores the tension and conflict that surrounds this event.

The inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya is a moment that encapsulates the current trajectory of Indian politics under Modi's leadership. It is a stark illustration of the growing influence of Hindu nationalist ideologies and the erosion of secular principles in India.

As India prepares for this event, it stands at a crossroads, facing fundamental questions about its destiny, its identity, its commitment to pluralism, and the future of its secular Constitution. The consequences of this event will resonate far beyond the temple's walls, shaping the fabric of Indian society and politics for years to come.

Ashok Swain is a professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden

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