As the Ram temple gets under way, India must put the past of a communal struggle behind
The bhoomi pujan or the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a grand temple for Lord Sri Ram in Ayodhya on Wednesday marks an end and a beginning. What it ends and what it begins can both be interpreted in different ways; how India collectively makes meaning out of it will define the future of the country hereon. One view is that the rising Ram temple signifies the end of perceived humiliation of the Hindus and the beginning of a new phase of their political ascendancy; the other is that it denotes the end of strife that shackled India’s potential for decades and heralds a new dawn of fraternity among religious communities. The end and the beginning, therefore, are not just open to interpretation, they hold the possibilities of change. For those who yearned for a temple at the site which they believe is the exact spot of Sri Ram’s birth, the journey so far has been tumultuous and violent. A Muslim place of worship that stood there for 464 years was demolished in 1992 to make way for the temple — a serious crime according to the Supreme Court order last year that handed over the site to the Hindus. The proponents of the temple must consider this an occasion to seek conciliation over conquest, dialogue over diatribe, and tranquility over triumphalism.
The ceremony itself manifested multiple possibilities for the country’s future. In symbolism and rhetoric, the line of separation between state and religion was ominously crossed, notably by the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in it. In his speech, however, he cited Lord Ram’s adherence to justice, fairness and empathy for the vulnerable. He emphasised the importance of these values for the present. But while outlining a road map for an inclusive future, his interpretation of the past echoed familiar tropes of sectarian politics. Relitigating historical wrongs has rarely been the foundation for a harmonious and prosperous future. In India’s case, many of them are an outcome of its unpleasant encounter with British colonialism. Recent path-breaking studies in genetics have unearthed India’s past of being a melting pot of populations and cultures over millennia. India must put the acrimonious political mobilisations over religious issues behind it, and look forward to modern, secular governance. The construction of the temple is the logical result of the Supreme Court judgment; it should mark the end of an older, bitter phase of India, and the beginning of a new, harmonious phase.