Zack Beauchamp in Vox: On Monday, tens of millions across India celebrated the opening of the Ram Mandir — a huge new temple to Ram, one of Hinduism’s holiest figures, built in the city of Ayodhya where many Hindus believe he was born. The celebration in Ayodhya, presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, attracted some of India’s richest and most famous citizens. But in the pomp and circumstance, few dwelled explicitly on the grim origins of Ram Mandir: It was built on the site of an ancient mosque torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992.
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
Many of the rioters belonged to the RSS, a militant Hindu supremacist group to which Modi has belonged since he was 8 years old. Since ascending to power in 2014, Modi has worked tirelessly to replace India’s secular democracy with a Hindu sectarian state.
The construction of a temple in Ayodhya is the exclamation point on an agenda that has also included revoking the autonomy long provided to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, creating new citizenship and immigration rules biased against Muslims, and rewritten textbooks to whitewash Hindu violence against Muslims from Indian history. Modi has also waged war on the basic institutions of Indian democracy. He and his allies have consolidated control over much of the media, suppressed critical speech on social media, imprisoned protesters, suborned independent government agencies, and even prosecuted Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi on dubious charges.
National festivities this week danced on Indian secularism’s grave — and pointed to an existential threat to Indian democracy.
For many Hindus, the inauguration of the Ram Mandir was a meaningful religious event. But viewed from a political point of view, the event looks like a grim portrait of Modi’s India in miniature: a monument to an exclusive vision of Hinduism built on the ruins of one of the world’s most remarkable secular democracies.
Understanding the temple’s story is thus essential to understanding one of the most important issues of our time: how democracy has come under existential threat in its largest stronghold.
How the Ayodhya temple dispute gave rise to Modi’s India
The dispute over Ayodhya has become a flashpoint in modern Indian politics because it speaks to a fundamental ideological question: Who is India for?
The relevant history here starts in the early 16th century, when a Muslim descendant of Genghis Khan named Babur invaded the Indian subcontinent from his small base in central Asia. Babur’s conquests inaugurated the Mughal Empire, a dynasty that would reign in what is now India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh for generations. At least a remnant of the Mughal state survived until the British seized India in the 19th century.
The mosque in Ayodhya was a product of the early Mughal Empire, with some evidence suggesting it was built almost immediately after Babur’s forces conquered Ayodhya in 1529. Called the Babri Masjid — literally “Babur’s Mosque” — it was a testament to the impact the Mughal dynasty and its Muslim rulers had on Indian history and culture.
During the British colonial period, different Indian factions diverged sharply on how to remember the Mughal empire.
For Mahatma Gandhi, who led the mainstream independence movement, the Moghul Empire was a testament to India’s history of religious diversity and pluralism. Gandhi praised the Moghul dynasty, especially its early leadership, for adopting religious toleration as a central state policy. “In those days, they [Hindus and Muslims] were not known to quarrel at all,” he said in 1931, blaming current sectarian tensions on British colonial policy.
But the leadership of the Hindu nationalist RSS organization saw things differently. Focusing in particular on the late Mughal emperor Aurangzeb — who imposed a special tax on non-Muslims and tore down Hindu temples — they argued that the Mughals were more like the British than Gandhi allowed. The Muslim dynasty was not, in their mind, an authentic Indian regime at all; it was just another colonial conquest of an essentially Hindu nation. Muslims could not, and should not, be seen as full and equal members of the polity.
The Babri Masjid swiftly became a major flashpoint for this historical and political dispute. Because Ayodhya was widely seen by Hindus as Ram’s birthplace, the presence of a prominent Mughal mosque there was seen as an affront by Hindu nationalists. In 1949, shortly after independence, a statue of Ram was discovered inside the mosque itself. Hindu nationalists claimed that this was a divine manifestation, proof that the mosque itself was the site where Ram was born.
But according to Hartosh Singh Bal, executive editor of the Indian news magazine The Caravan, the historical record tells a different story.
“Members of a Hindu right-wing organization clambered over the walls, took the idol, [and] placed it there,” Bal told Vox’s Today Explained. “This was the first supposed proof that this [site] was in any way connected to a Hindu monument.”
For years, this manufactured conflict over religion and the Mughal legacy didn’t play a major role in Indian politics. The Congress party, the political descendant of Gandhi’s secular liberal vision for India, dominated Indian politics — winning every single national election for the first 30 years of Indian independence.
But in the 1980s, as the public tired of the Congress party’s domination, Hindu nationalist efforts to stoke tension surrounding the mosque intensified — and caught political fire. The BJP, the political arm of the RSS, made the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of the Babri Masjid a central part of its political agenda. The party, which won just two seats in India’s parliament in 1984’s election, won 85 seats in the 1989 contest. More here.