In the last few years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has successfully secured a near-national ‘consensus’ on the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, with substantial assistance from various pillars of the State, including members of the judiciary.
Not willing to rest on this accomplishment, is he now aiming for a likewise ‘universal agreement’ on the Hindutva project of Kashi Vishwanath temple, by synchronising the inauguration of his flagship scheme in Varanasi – the 50-feet-wide corridor connecting the temple to the famed Ganga ghats of the city – with a sombre national commemorative event?
A Larger Ethical Question & Political 'Appropriateness'
It is imperative to flag this question after the announcement that Modi would inaugurate the Rs 800 crore Kashi Vishwanath Dham project, which includes linking the Lalita Ghat on the banks of the river, to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, on 13 December.
The day is also the 20th anniversary of the December 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament, in which many security personnel were killed. The day is marked by a sombre ceremony at the Parliament House, wherein tributes are paid to the deceased. The Prime Minister, presiding officers of the two Houses, and a host of political leaders from across parties – COVID-19 regulations permitting – gather to pay homage to those martyred while protecting the citadel of Indian democracy.
While there is no formal impropriety in the Prime Minister on 13 December also presiding over a ceremony that is certain to be projected as this regime’s ‘achievement’ and a ‘joyous milestone’, there is a larger ethical dimension and political appropriateness to scheduling the inaugural on the day when the martyrdom of our some of our own is remembered solemnly.
The need for synchronising the two events thus needs to be examined. After all, if there were feasibility issues over scheduling the function a couple of days before 13 December, either due to the Prime Minister’s prior commitments or because last-minute finishing touches to the corridor remained, could it not be delayed by a few days?
It appears that the Hindu calendar was the impediment to the inauguration ceremony being scheduled a few days after 13 December, because the ‘inauspicious period’, or Kharmaas, begins from the next day, 14 December. This phase continues till Sankranti on 14 January, and during this, no ‘shubh’ or auspicious ceremonies and fresh beginnings are carried out by Hindus.
Eyes on 2022 Assembly Elections
So, could not the inaugural be held after a month in the second half of January?
Obviously not, because the completion of this project is being announced at the earliest given Assembly elections in five states are round the corner and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is banking on its Hindutva card to revive seemingly falling fortunes.
This is borne out by several accommodative decisions, including the government backtracking on the three farm laws.
The anxiety in the BJP camp is evident from the urgency to revive the temple-mosque narrative. Senior BJP leaders ranging from Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and one of his deputies, Keshav Prasad Maurya, have made several provocative assertions in recent weeks. These were made with the intention to polarise the electorate on communal lines.
If the Kharmaas deadline was not beaten, it would have been possible to inaugurate the Varanasi temple corridor only after Assembly polls because the Model Code of Conduct is likely to become effective from first week of January.
It needs to be mentioned that in 2017, polls in the five states – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur – were called on 4 January, and the Election Commission is expected to announce the polls on or around the same date this time, too.
But, the Prime Minister has obviously chosen to convert this awkward time-frame to his favour by synchronising the temple corridor inaugural with a commemorative event, on which there is national consensus.
The underlying message being conveyed is that just as only the “unpatriotic” would object to an event to memorialise security personnel killed in the December 2001 terrorist strike, “facilitating” pilgrims at one of the most revered temples can only be criticised by those against India’s “cultural ethos”.
Modi Will Not Let the 'Opportunity' Pass
Modi, in his likely post-ritual public speech, will get an opportunity to remind people, in his inimitable style, of the terrorist attack on Parliament. This would provide not just another opportunity to drum up support for his hyper-nationalistic agenda, but also conjoin this with the Hindutva campaign of ‘restoration’ of Islamic shrines to Hindus.
It is yet not known how he connects the two disparate events, but he is unlikely to let this opportunity pass.
Importantly, Modi personally performed the religious ceremonies at milestone events – the Ayodhya Bhoomi Pujan and the foundation laying ceremony for the new Parliament House, being among the important instances. Although details of the inaugural are yet unknown, it is likely that in Varanasi, he would be part of puja-archana.
This will help project an image of a leader who personally leads commemorative homage functions for the nation’s martyrs, as well as for projects that ‘restore’ the dignity of Hindus.
Although this message is never broadcast overtly, the tone and tenor of Modi’s speeches – despite the absence of blatant communal-speak – leaves no doubt about the unstated, as in Ayodhya in August 2020, when he recalled ‘centuries of struggle’ by Hindus.
By being both ‘yajman’ (one who performs religious rituals) and one who leads commemorative events, Modi tactically blurs the line between religion and State.
Shahi Idgah May Be Undermined in Spirit
The grandiose corridor to be unveiled on the day when the most brazen terrorist strike was made on our democracy will not merely adhere to Modi’s penchant for gigantic architectural signatures (Sardar Patel statue, Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad, and Central Vista for instance), but also project his personal authority, and, in this instance, will coalesce with religion and the ultra-nationalistic narrative too.
While the immediate reason for the haste with which the inaugural is being mounted is due to the forthcoming Assembly election, the cult of the individual will also be furthered by this ceremony.
In line with the Fuehrer Principle, propounded despite fatal risk by the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the inaugural of the temple corridor project will once again convey that there is only one leader who conceptualises and delivers mammoth projects.
While the opening of the temple corridor to devotees may not electorally benefit the BJP in the short run, in the multi-layered politics of the times, it will help in furthering Modi’s personal ‘aura’ among supporters.
Although the project does not immediately endanger the Gyanvapi Mosque, adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath temple and on the Sangh Parivar’s ‘list’ of shrines that require ‘restoration’ to Hindus, the corridor will undeniably restrict access of Muslims to the mosque.
The Varanasi mosque and Mathura’s Shahi Idgah, along with innumerable shrines that the VHP staked claim to, are protected by the Places of Worship Act, 1991.
While this law will not be violated in letter by the Kashi Vishwanath Dham development project and its politically charged inaugural on 13 December, it certainly shall be sullied in spirit by the event.
(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
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