The opening of Ram Mandir is a grand victory for India’s reinvigorated Hindu nationalism

Half a millennium ago, at some time in the 16th century, a Mughal commander named Mir Baqi oversaw the building of a new mosque in Ayodhya. Babri Masjid, as it was named, was built on a site believed by many Hindus to be the birthplace of the deity Rama. It’s disputed if there was a temple already present at this location and, if so, whether Mir Baqi had it demolished. This sparked centuries of debate, in the courts and on the streets, on which religion had claim to the site. Claims were made to the Mughal, British, and the independent Indian administrations, and the matter reached a stalemate in 1948, when the gates to the site were locked and the area was declared disputed. 

Of course, such an uneasy deadlock was never going to last forever. As the influence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) grew in India, so did the desire of many Hindus to build a temple on the site. In 1992, almost five hundred years after it was first built, a crowd of almost 200,000 people demolished Babri Masjid. The entirety of South Asia was thrown into turmoil. Devastating communal violence followed, with over 2000 people, mainly Muslims but also some from Hindu communities, being killed in India alone. Tensions boiled over to neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the Muslim majorities destroyed a large number of Hindu temples in retaliation. Par for the course in times of political strife in South Asia, cricket was involved, and a match between India and Bangladesh in Dhaka was disrupted as a large mob attempted to storm the stadium. 

For many Muslims, the demolition of Babri Masjid was a grand insult to Islam and an unforgivable act. For many Hindus, it was an opportunity to write a new future for their nation, in which their religion was at the forefront of the cultural fabric. It was a chance to impose their beliefs in a manner that resembled their past colonisers. Islam’s roots have been in South Asia since the religion’s infancy in the 7th century, yet many Hindus see it as a foreign religion: the faith of the invaders that destroyed India’s once great Hindu civilisation. A temple at the site of this mosque would revive the great traditions of Sanatana Dharma. However, those who followed in the footsteps of Gandhi and Nehru, and believed in a secular India, would’ve looked on in horror and dismay as the mosque was destroyed. 

Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, has overseen a period of enormous growth and development in the nation. India is a country where the wounds and humiliation of colonisation still run deep and recent advances in the economy and space have allowed many Indians to feel a deep sense of national pride.

For many Muslims, the demolition of Bari Masjid was a grand insult to Islam and an unforgivable act.

In 2019, the Supreme Court of India ruled to allow a temple to be constructed on the site of the demolished mosque. Savvy as ever, Modi capitalised on this, placing the foundational stone in 2020, when construction of the new temple officially began. On 22nd January 2024, surrounded by Hindu devotees clad in saffron robes and chanting Jai Shree Ram, Modi and other high-profile BJP ministers inaugurated the new temple, Ram Mandir, on the site in Ayodhya. He had successfully enacted a major campaign promise and delighted his Hindu nationalist base. The mosque was no more and there was a temple in its place. The BJP was showing us once again the importance of Hinduism in its vision for a new India. 

For many of us who observe these events from the West, such religious politicking makes us feel rather uncomfortable. It’s evident that Modi and the BJP have no problem stoking the fires of Hindu nationalism and many in his party have ignited these flames in some of the darkest chapters of India’s history. We mustn’t forget that question marks still remain over Modi’s own role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, where over 1000 were left dead. But the BJP was smart to remain above board in their establishment of Ram Mandir. While the demolition of Babri Masjid was the action of a lawless mob, a temple was only built on the site after a comprehensive archaeological survey and Supreme Court deliberation. However, the establishment of this temple will only lead to continued discontent for India’s Muslim minority, many of whom feel increasingly sidelined and targeted in Modi’s India. The ideals of Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, a harmonious culture where Hindus and Muslims live in a vibrant peace, interwoven like the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, seem like a more and more distant dream. 

It’s evident that Modi and the BJP have no problem stoking the fires of Hindu nationalism.

India is an incredibly diverse country. The many languages, ethnicities, philosophies, and religions add to the rich tapestry of the nation, making it one of the most beautiful and fascinating places in the world. Popular belief holds that the Sikh Guru Arjan invited the Muslim Sufi saint Mian Mir to place the foundation stone of the Golden Temple. Whether this story is true or not, it represents a harmonious India, where the faiths intermingle and act in each other’s benefit. Today, the leader of India placing the foundation stone for a Hindu temple on the site of a destroyed mosque is not in keeping with this tradition, and dims the light of a secular, pluralist India just a little bit more.

Image credit: Pran Pratishtha ceremony of Shree Ram Janmaboomi Temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh on January 22, 2024 by Prime Minister’s Office, licensed under GODL-India, cropped from original.

Image description: The opening of the Ram Mandir temple.