The destruction of a mosque on the site in Ayodhya, India, triggered deadly religious riots in 1992
By Gerry Shih, Karishma Mehrotra and Anant Gupta
The opening of a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Ram in Ayodhya, India, on Monday. (Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)
AYODHYA, India — When Hindu radicals stormed a 16th-century mosque in this Indian river town and tore it to the ground in 1992, the demolition mortified India’s leaders, ignited religious riots that killed 2,000 people nationwide, and spurred figures in the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused of inciting the mobs, to issue anguished apologies.
On Monday, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a grand Hindu temple on the site of the razed mosque, he spoke not of contrition but of justice achieved and pride restored — of a glorious “new epoch” awaiting the believers of Lord Ram like him.
Thirty-one years after the Babri Mosque was destroyed in a seismic event in modern Indian history, Modi’s consecration of a $300 million Hindu temple on the contested hill that many Hindus believe to be the birthplace of a beloved deity marked another watershed for India: the triumph of Hindu nationalist ideology over the secular, multicultural vision espoused by the country’s founders.
“We must not bow down anymore. We must not sit down anymore,” Modi said in a speech after he emerged from the shrine’s ornate inner sanctum. “The spirit of Lord Ram is present on the very first page of our constitution. It is unfortunate that we had to fight to prove the existence of our lord.”
Featuring seven shrines, a soaring dome 160 feet high and grounds encompassing 71 acres, the Ram Temple, in some ways, traces the rise of the Hindu nationalist movement; its most prominent political wing, the BJP; and their effort to remake India into a religious state.
As a fringe political party in the 1980s, the BJP gained national traction by making the construction of the temple a mainstream issue that galvanized the Hindu vote. Many Hindu nationalists believed that a Hindu temple had existed at the site before it was torn down by Muslim conquerors in the 16th century to make way for a mosque built in the name of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire.
The Ram temple campaign, and the BJP’s image, suffered a setback in 1992 when a mob demolished the mosque, shocking the world. But following a decades-long court battle, the Indian Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that a Hindu temple could be built on the hilltop. Modi, reelected resoundingly that year after a heavily Hindu nationalist campaign, laid the foundation stone at the construction site in 2020 as work began.
A man raises a fist on Oct. 30, 1990, as he and others are stopped from entering the Babri Mosque, which was destroyed by Hindu radicals two years later. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
Modi’s ceremony on Monday, attended by Bollywood stars and guests representing various castes, was anticipated in recent weeks by wall-to-wall coverage on pro-government television channels and in ebullient speeches by BJP politicians, who called the project a symbol of a new India proudly steeped in Hinduism, the faith of 80 percent of the population.
Busy intersections in New Delhi have been blanketed by the saffron flag of Lord Ram. Schoolchildren have participated in organized prayers to the god. Shops selling meat, frowned upon in modern Hinduism, have been closed in some states. Government offices and hospitals were ordered shut for a half-day on Monday morning so people could watch Modi and priests imbue the temple with its soul in a “Pran Pratishtha” ceremony.
Priests and devotees hold candles on Sunday to celebrate the opening of the temple. (Amit Dave/Reuters)
Raghavan Jagannathan, a right-wing commentator, said the outpouring showed the significance of the temple inauguration in the Hindu psyche after centuries of Muslim and British rule and decades of “self-loathing” under independent India’s early leaders, who emphasized secularism.
“Hindus got the short end of the stick with secularism, where minorities could celebrate their religious identity but majority Hindus had to suppress theirs,” said Jagannathan, author of “Dharmic Nation,” a book stressing India’s essentially religious national character. “That’s why you’re seeing a widespread celebration right now. This temple is a coming-out party for Hindus who say: I can finally be a Hindu without fear.”
But critics feared the state-encouraged religious festivities — and simmering talk of Hindu supremacy and historical vengeance — showed how India under Modi has diverged from the vision of those who struggled for freedom, including Mohandas K. Gandhi, a defender of minority rights who often pleaded for the safety of his Muslim compatriots when Hindu-Muslim riots erupted.
Hindu devotees chant slogans at a religious procession in Hyderabad on Sunday. (Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Modi biographer, said Monday’s event marked “an era when the prime minister is the high priest of Hinduism, blurring all lines between religion and politics on the one hand and between religion and the Indian state on the other.”
“We are on our way to becoming a de facto theocratic state with Hinduism becoming the official religion,” Mukhopadhyay added. “It will be very difficult for the country and its religious minorities to return to what was experienced before 2014.”
Since Modi’s election that year, emboldened Hindu nationalist groups have pushed for legislation discouraging interfaith marriage and Muslim cultural practices. Reports of hate crimes against Muslims have increased. Modi, meanwhile, has become the most powerful and popular leader in decades, partly by leaning into his Hindu bona fides.
This month, he prepared for the temple inauguration by praying at more than a dozen holy sites, draping himself in robes of pure white and, according to his press office, sleeping on the floor and drinking only coconut water in accordance with rules governing Hindu rituals.
A billboard in Bangalore, India, with images of Modi and Lord Ram promotes the new temple ahead of its opening. (Jagadeesh Nv/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
The temple consecration is expected to give Modi a boost ahead of national elections expected in April, in which he is heavily favored to win a third term. Several opposition parties boycotted Monday’s event, and some high-ranking Hindu theologians, known as the Shankaracharyas, rebuked the prime minister for consecrating an unfinished temple in violation of Hindu scripture and scheduling a religious event in the lead-up to elections.
Modi has brushed aside criticism, citing his divine backing.
“God has made me the representative of the people of India during the ceremony,” he told the country in a video this month that garnered 4.2 million views on social media. “I seek blessings from all of you.”
For the prime minister, the temple’s opening also caps a personal decades-long journey.
As a young party worker in 1990, Modi helped Lal Krishna Advani, the hard-line BJP president, organize a cross-country rally to agitate for a temple in Ayodhya.
The Ram Temple construction site last month. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images
After the events of Dec. 6, 1992, Advani called the mosque’s demolition the “saddest day of my life,” and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a BJP leader who later became prime minister, said he felt “regrets, agony, anguish.”
On Monday, the mood was altogether different. Modi hailed the “sacrifices” made by Hindus to realize the temple project and apologized for failing to build it earlier. Yogi Adityanath, a BJP ally, said that Hinduism had been humiliated for centuries and that the temple represented the revival of India’s national identity.
The success of the Ram Temple project has given fresh impetus to Hindu nationalists who say other mosques across the country should be replaced by temples to settle historical scores. Already, Hindu activists have called for studies to examine whether two major mosques in the northern cities of Varanasi and Mathura were built on top of temples destroyed by Muslim invaders — a finding that would potentially support the argument for their demolition.
And last week, former Modi cabinet minister Anantkumar Hegde called for mosques in southern India to also be destroyed in the name of “revenge, revenge, revenge.”
“If we do not take revenge for the 1,000 years, then the Hindu community can clearly say that our blood is not Hindu blood,” Hegde said.
In a narrow alley in Ayodhya, a pilgrim named Himanshu Kumar Mehta, who had bicycled 400 miles in seven days to visit the temple as it opened to the public, weighed the significance of the monument that Modi had helped deliver.
The Ram Temple was only the beginning, said the 27-year-old tire salesman. He wanted to see more temples, more religious schools, more Indians return to living devout Hindu lives.
“The Hindu Rashtra is inevitable now,” Mehta said, referring to the formation of a Hindu state. “This temple is done. The Mathura temple is next. We are fighting on all fronts. And we are winning.”
By Gerry Shih
Gerry Shih is the India Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, covering India and neighboring countries.
Karishma Mehrotra is the South Asia correspondent for The Washington Post. She was previously a Fulbright fellow and has written or worked for Radiolab, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Indian Express, Scroll.in, and Bloomberg Businessweek.
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