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India's Ram Mandir Controversy Gains New Relevance. What Are the Stakes?

 
 

One of the most contentious issues in modern India is whether the “Ram Mandir” or the “Ram Janmabhoomi (Birthplace) Temple” should be built in the city of Ayodhya, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Now that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come into power in that state, led by the Hindu-nationalist Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, many hope that the building of the temple will soon commence, after a wait of more than two decades.

The history behind the Ram Mandir is particularly contentious. Hindus believe that the deity Rama was born in the city of Ayodhya several thousands of years ago. Yet, despite the pan-Indian importance of Rama, one of Hinduism’s most popular gods, and the hero of the Ramayana epic, no great temple to him exists in Ayodhya.

The reason for that, according to several sources, is because the original temple was demolished by one Mir Baqi, a general of the first Mughal Emperor Babur, in 1527; subsequently, a mosque, the Babri Masjid (Mosque of Babur) was built there in 1528. Hindus, especially the Hindu right-wing, have long claimed the site, seeing the construction of a new Ram Mandir as the one of the most important tasks of a resurgent Hindu nationalism. In 1992, a mob, instigated by several nationalist Hindu organizations including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and possibly the BJP demolished the mosque, leading to riots across India. A temple has yet to be built on the site due to the charged nature of the dispute and the controversial manner in which the mosque was destroyed.

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While it is unclear if a great temple dedicated to the birthplace of Rama lay where the Babri Masjid was, archaeological evidence did indicate that a Hindu temple lay beneath it the mosque’s foundation. Moreover, no other great temple to Rama exists elsewhere in Ayodhya, so the original temple, which probably existed, must have gone somewhere. Several accounts by Muslims and Europeans claim that a mosque was built on the ruins of a previous temple or fort associated with Rama. For example, an Arabic work, Jannah al-Mashriq wa Matla ‘an-Nur al-Mashriq by Maulana Hakim Sayyid Abd al-Hayy stated:

[There is the] great mosque that was built by the Timurid king Babar in the sacred city of Ayodhya. It is believed that Rama Chandra considered to be the manifestation of God, was born here. There is a long story about his wife Sita. There was a big temple for them in this city. At a certain place Sita used to sit and cook food for her consort. Well, the said king Babar demolished it and built a mosque at that very place with chiseled stone in 923 AH.

Regardless of the historicity of the original Ram Mandir and whether or not it was replaced by a mosque, it is now widely believed that the site of the Babri Masjid was the birthplace of Rama. It is entirely reasonable that a Hindu temple should be built in Ayodhya, as it is one of Hinduism’s holiest sites. The generally liberal author Chetan Bhagat wrote, justifying this position:

Thousands of mosques stand on erstwhile temples in India, courtesy Mughal rulers. Nobody is asking to restore those. But this is Lord Rama’s birthplace, replaced by simply one more mosque. That mosque can be shifted. The holy site of Lord Rama’s birthplace is a matter of centuries of faith. We can’t shift that. The mosque can, and a grander one can be made nearby, or even right next door. Why wouldn’t the Muslim community accommodate such a reasonable appeal? Is it because some of their self-styled leaders are politically instigated not to do so? I am sure the general Muslim population of this country will approve of such a request. We just need to approach them directly. In the age of social media, we can.

Moreover, the argument can be framed in cultural, rather than religious terms: a new temple in Ayodhya can represent India’s ancient cultural traditions and be designed in particular to build understanding different communities in India. Bhagat goes on to note that:

Restoring one temple because of the unique nature of the site and shifting a mosque to a nearby location (and making it grander) does not tarnish the glory of Islam in any manner. In fact, the surge in tourism it will create in Ayodhya when this project is complete will bring jobs for both Hindus and Muslims.

The construction of a temple in Ayodhya would also have the benefit of ending the continued exploitation of the issue for political ends; if the Hindu right no longer has this issue to push, it would reduce communal tensions and force parties to focus more on economic issues.

Similar logic of building temples only on the most holy of spots was used to justify the construction of a Hindu temple at Somnath, in Gujarat, which had also been replaced by a mosque after being destroyed at least three times in the 1000-1700 CE period. In 1950, after India became independent, a grand temple was built at Somnath, while the local mosque that replaced it was moved away, and compensated (legally). This, is in fact, the model that should have been followed in Ayodhya.

While there should be a clear limit on where Hindu temples can be build on spots occupied by mosques, this list should include the holiest three or four Hindu sites that were deliberately appropriated by mosques, for it would be equally unacceptable for churches or temples to occupy Islam’s holiest sites in Medina and Mecca. These sites include Mathura, birthplace of Krishna, and Varanasi, generally considered the holiest Hindu city. The original Krishna temple was demolished by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1669 (previous temples at Mathura were demolished by Muslim raiders, including Mahmud of Ghazni), and replaced by a mosque, with a new Krishna temple built adjacent to the mosque. In Varanasi, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple was also demolished by Aurangzeb in 1669, and replaced by the Gyanvapi mosque, although a smaller temple was reconstructed nearby later.

The focus going forward should also be on restoring a few important temples rather than getting bogged down in the debate over why the temples were demolished in the first place. This feeds into an endless debate over whether Islamic chauvinism or political reasons were behind the destruction of Hindu temples. For example, Catherine B. Asher and Cynthia Talbot argue in India Before Europe, that the “temples were [in general] destroyed in retaliation for serious discord… for example, the …temple in Mathura… was destroyed in reaction to some serious riots in Mathura.” While this may be true, it is also true that destroying one of Hinduism’s holiest temples in reaction to a riot is an excessive move, and one wonders if Aurangzeb would have done the same to a mosque. Furthermore, the riots in Mathura were partially caused by the Emperor Aurangzeb’s policy (his Mughal ancestors rejected this policy) of taxing Hindus at a greater rate than Muslims. Regardless of the reason, a great temple was demolished.

But for any of the temples in Ayodhya, Mathura, and Varanasi to be restored, the Ayodhya dispute must first be resolved amicably, so that there will be future models and conventions on which to build on for the transfer of land from mosques to temples. The only thing that must be emphasized is that the movement of mosques and the reconstruction of temples must be done through legal means, and not by illegal and thuggish mobs; the action that brought down the mosque in Ayodhya was illegal and its perpetrators should be arrested, to be clear. The best path would be to follow the Somnath model and make sure every step of the process occurs legally and respectfully.

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