The Bhoomi Pujan ceremony at Ayodhya was all about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Supreme Court verdict of 9 November 2019 ensured that the boisterous affirmation of the ‘temple for mosque’ agitation –– mandir waheen banayenge (We shall build the temple at that spot), was fulfilled by awarding the entire land to the Hindu parties. Today's ceremony indelibly ensured that Modi walked away with all kudos as the individual to formally launch the construction.
Dressed for the occasion in dhoti and gold-coloured silk full-sleeves kurta, stitched in his hallmark style, the prime minister was the cynosure of all eyes from the time his helicopter landed in the temple town. Others sitting around the puja pit, or those who sat through the speeches, were mere props for him to mark his stamp on the agitation which eluded his participation in its heydays.
‘Bharat Mata’ Chants Underscored Key Objective of Religio-Cultural Nationalism
It had not been previously disclosed that he would personally perform the elaborate Bhoomi Pujan in its entirety, and others would merely pay obeisance or mark their presence at the event. The ceremony marked the complete disappearance of the line of separation between religion and the State –– PM Modi performed puja not as a Ram temple movement veteran, but as prime minister.
The ceremony also blurred the remaining lines between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and State power. Mohan Bhagwat was invited to be among the top four bigwigs at the religious ritual –– Uttar Pradesh Governor Anandiben Patel, and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, were the other two –– despite the fact that the agitation that caused much divisions and social conflict in India, was begun as an RSS initiative.
As organisational chief, Bhagwat was the only one who recalled in his speech that several who were instrumental in carrying the movement to its crescendo, were unable to see this day for one reason or the other.
The decision to include chants reverencing Bharat Mata, a 20th century Hindu Goddess symbolising the nation, in mantras that were claimed as ‘traditional’, underscored the primary objective of religio-cultural nationalism, the ideology that drives the Sangh Parivar. However, it was the 35-minutes-long speech by Modi, multi-layered in character and communicative to the core –– except that his primary audience was unclear –– that merits attention.
- The ceremony marked the complete disappearance of the line of separation between religion and the State –– PM Modi performed puja not as a Ram temple movement veteran, but as prime minister.
- The decision to include chants reverencing Bharat Mata, underscored the primary objective of religio-cultural nationalism, the ideology that drives the Sangh Parivar.
- It must be noted however, that the mounting of the ceremonial characterised that of a victorious side’s public celebration.
- Noticeably, Modi did not ask the audience to chant Jai Shri Ram after him, but went back to the old usage of Jai Siya Ram.
PM Modi’s Use of the Biblical Imagery of Resurrection
There were perplexing facets to PM Modi’s speech –– his words often contradicted or contrasted with the messaging and thrust of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation in the most intense years. This underscored again, the double-speak of the Sangh Parivar’s leaders –– as said in Hindi, ‘kathni aur karni mein farq hota hai’ (There is always a difference between words and actions).
It must be noted however, that the mounting of the ceremonial characterised that of a victorious side’s public celebration.
Yet, the prime minister said, Hindus did not jubilate on the day the apex court delivered its judgment. He claimed that this was evidence that the majority community was eager to leave acrimony behind and forge a collective future. But no doubts were left, that this would depend on Lord Ram's ‘acceptance’ by ‘all’ –– as the epitome of the Indian national character.
Prime Minister Modi used the Biblical imagery of Resurrection, by stating that the history of the site is one of demolition and reconstruction –– “tootna aur phir uthke khare hona”. With that in the past now, it is time for building a ‘bhawya mandiri’(resplendent temple). By repeatedly using words and phrases like mukti, tyaag-balidaan, sangharsh, vyatikram (liberation, sacrifice, struggle and obstacle or violation) and centuries of hardships, Modi served a constant reminder of the contested past of the Ram Mandir site –– hardly a strategy deployed by a leader wishing to actually break from his past polarising image.
‘Ram is Enthroned In Our Minds’: The Sentiment That Remains Firm in Modi's Articulation
Several years ago, when Modi was Gujarat Chief Minister and I interviewed him while writing his biography, we discussed his perspective on Hindutva, and he explained that because there were multiple faiths in India, ‘puja path adi’ (prayer rituals) could be different, but usse desh alag nahi hota hai, paramparayein to alag nahin hoti (the country does not become different, traditions do not become dissimilar).
Sensing that ‘tradition’ was a grey zone, I further probed: “During the Ayodhya agitation the main argument of the agitators was that Muslims must also accept Lord Ram as the symbol of national identity?”
Chief Minister Modi’s reply was forthright then, and it is of special need to recall now, when he ostensibly measured his words and sent a message of restraint to his flock: “Yes, that was the basic argument, the main philosophy – that Bhagwan Ram was also one of the Mahapurush (revered personality or ideal being) of this country. And that everyone in this country should believe in this – those who led this agitation campaigned for this.”
This sentiment remains firm in Modi's articulation: “Ram is enthroned in our minds, “humare bheetar ghulmil gaye hain” (has got entwined within our body organism), and that, before beginning any new project, “toh prerna ke liye, hum Bhagwan Ram ki ore hi dekhte hain” (for inspiration we always turn to Lord Ram).
Modi’s Talk Of The ‘Many Ramayans’: A New Chapter In Indian Politics?
This formulation remains contentious in a multi-faith country because the definition of ‘culture’ in the Sangh Parivar vocabulary overlaps with ‘religion’ due to the overarching meaning of the notion of ‘dharma’. To people of ‘non-Indic’ religions, this formulation sounds like a majoritarian assertion.
Noticeably, Modi did not ask the audience to chant Jai Shri Ram after him, but went back to the old usage of Jai Siya Ram (Glory to Ram and Sita).
The Sanskritisation of the traditional Hindi expression and daily greeting underscored its conversion into a battle cry. Is this an oblique hint to his own to alter tone and tenor? If so, it will be tough, as old habits die hard –– for CM Adityanath stuck to the confrontationist rendering.
For a change, Modi talked of the ‘many Ramayans’ –– in Indian languages and abroad. But without allowing people to accept either of the myriad interpretations of the epic hero, it will end as just a message to Muslims in India to start following Ram because Indonesians too hold him in high esteem.
Always looking for opportunity to link his policies and politics with the Ram tradition, Modi reeled off with what all Lord Ram was committed to –– from samajik samrastra (social harmony and equity) to being duty-bound to take care of the poor, empathise with all, and much more.
But, in a ceremony with basis in conflict and confrontation, with the intention of establishing correctness of ‘my way-my tradition’, will such words have meaning or remain rhetorical, and be used on a special occasion, because the world was watching?
A new chapter in Indian politics undoubtedly begins; its character will depend on whether or not Modi's words were for ‘effect’ or for ‘consumption’ in his ranks.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)