When Indian prime minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a Hindu temple to Lord Ram in the holy town of Ayodhya two weeks ago, he marked a moment of weighty, if not alarming, transformation for both India and Hinduism.
The site of the temple had been the subject of a decades-long communal dispute in India: While many Hindus consider it to be the birthplace of Lord Ram – one of Hinduism’s most revered deities – the site had previously hosted a mosque built during the Mughal Empire. The mosque had been vandalized and demolished in 1991 by Hindu nationalist activists, who contended that it had been built on the ruins of a temple.
After years of quibbling in courts and bloodshed on the streets, India’s Supreme Court decided last year to allow the construction of a temple to Lord Ram on the disputed site, while ordering the allotment of an alternative plot elsewhere to rebuild the old mosque.
The court’s verdict was welcomed by many when it came – including even Muslim religious leaders, who hoped that it would end India’s most iconic, bitter and deadly historic dispute. Many Muslims, in fact, saw the dispute as a key driving force behind the rise of Hindu nationalism, as it allowed majoritarian parties to unite a very diverse Hindu vote bank by painting Muslims as the common enemy. Its conclusion, therefore, was a great relief.
Yet, as communal tensions exploded in the months that followed, concerns began to mount, among India’s Muslims and more generally Indians committed to the country’s founding secular principles and constitution, regarding the politics surrounding the temple and its construction.
The temple is now being portrayed by Hindu nationalist politicians as a mere milestone in their quest to transform India from a multicultural and secular republic to a 'Hindu nation.' On the day of its inauguration, for instance, Tejasvi Surya, a Member of Parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) argued that "control of state power by Hindus is absolutely essential."
Modi’s own inauguration speech did not serve to dilute that agenda in any way. The prime minister said that the temple will be a "symbol of [India’s] nationalism" – and he even went so far as to compare the date of its inauguration to August 15, the date of India’s independence in 1947.
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While Modi also appealed to India’s long-held ideal of "unity in diversity," his use of a Hindu god to define India’s national culture and identity is unprecedented. This is the single most significant departure by a prime minister from the secular national identity forged by Mahatma Gandhi and the founding fathers of the republic.
By comparing August 5, the date of the temple’s inauguration, to August 15, Modi all but seemed to indicate the beginning of a new Hindu epoch. In the days that followed, Hindu nationalist politicians began to tout the temple as India's new pre-eminent national monument.
This is a narrative that could have profound consequences along several dimensions.
Take, for example, religious tourism. As the birthplace of many religions and the confluence of several foreign religions over centuries, India’s religious tourism has long been multicultural in nature. The country receives pilgrims of various faiths to a diverse range of sites, including Bodh Gaya (where the Buddha is said to have attained Enlightenment), the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, and the Muslim Sufi shrine in Ajmer.
Yet, as Hinduism takes preponderance over other religions and traditions – with the Ram temple as the new symbol of India itself – India could begin marketing its faith-based tourism in a more monocultural light.
Already, there are significant political consequences underway. During the temple’s inauguration, Modi broke political convention: He publicly assumed Hindu religious duties for the first time. Taken along with the elevation of Lord Ram to a national symbol and the temple to a national monument, this could be the harbinger of a new trend for India’s politics.
Much like the King of Saudi Arabia, who styles himself as the "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," the Indian prime minister now appears to have adopted, unofficially at least, the title of "Custodian of the Hindu Rashtra," or Hindu nationalist polity.
India has only had one non-Hindu prime minister in its history so far: Manmohan Singh, who was a Sikh. But if the Indian prime minister is now politically expected to double up as a Hindu ritual leader, Singh may well be the last.
Indeed, some Hindu nationalist politicians now brand their rivals as “impure Hindus” and “traitors” for speaking up against religious nationalism. This was clearly demonstrated, explicitly, on national television, when BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra called his counterpart from the opposition Congress party "traitor" earlier this month, and questioned the authenticity of his Hindu credentials, saying he didn’t deserve to wear a tikka on his forehead.
Throughout its history, India has escaped multiple attempts to homogenize its diversity, in large part owing to Hinduism’s own diversity and its multitude of deities, monuments and traditions. The syncretic nature of Hinduism facilitated India’s syncretic national identity, allowing equal space for all religions, not least the country’s 182 million Muslims.
Hindu nationalists now seek to flatten this diversity, so as to create a tight, coherent Hindu identity from which non-Hindu identities can be separated. The elevation of Lord Ram to a national symbol – and the construction of a temple in his name to serve as a national monument – strike many analysts as a key step in that effort to homogenize Hinduism – and exclude Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and others.
India could soon become a different nation. If it isn’t already.
Mohamed Zeeshan is editor-in-chief of Freedom Gazette and a writer for The Diplomat. He has previously served as an adviser to the Indian delegation to the United Nations in New York and worked as a consultant to governments in the Middle East. Twitter: @ZeeMohamed_