Prashant Panjiar, one of India’s foremost photojournalists, had written an enlightening piece on ThePrint.in last year presenting a “photographic portrait” of India’s most important temple town, Ayodhya. He highlighted how the Hindutva movement had completely erased the spiritual, benevolent image of Lord Rama with that of a muscular, warrior-king with deep political undertones. This involved new visual representations and a trumpeting of religious slogans, almost in the form of a battle cry.
Now Ayodhya is set to become the center national attention again with the beginning of the construction of the grand Ram Temple in the town.
On August 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will preside over the ceremony for the laying of the foundation stone for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. He will be accompanied by roughly 200 guests comprising of saints who led the Ram Janmabhoomi (Ram’s birthplace) movement, leaders from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its affiliates, political leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and administrative officers, among others. These developments follow the historic judgment of the Supreme Court of India in November 2019 in the civil dispute for rights over the land where the Babri Mosque stood over the last four centuries.
Although the apex court deemed the installation of idols in the mosque in December 1949 and the demolition of the mosque on December 6, 1992 illegal, the title case was “awarded in favor of the deity of Lord Rama” and the disputed land was given to the Hindu litigants. The Supreme Court ruled that the disputed 2.77 acres will be handed over by the central government to a trust established for the construction of the temple within three months while the Muslims will be given five acres to build a mosque in the adjoining 67 acres of the government acquired land in the area or any other prominent place in Ayodhya. The central government established the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teertha Kshetra Trust in February this year with K. Parasaran, the lead counsel for the Hindu litigants in the title case, as the first trustee of the Ram Temple trust.
The event is representative of much more than just the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. It is a testament to the Sangh Parivar’s, which includes the RSS, BJP and its multiple affiliates, total dominance of society and politics in India. The construction of the temple is less of an ode to the principles of faith and more the celebration of three of the most significant features of the Sangh Parivar: ideological virility, ability to deliver on core promises, and the quest to redefine national imagination.
Undoubtedly, the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya is a result of the mobilization drive by the RSS and its affiliates such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) around the issue for the last three decades. Moreover, leaders such as Lal Krishna Advani of the BJP led the infamous Rath Yatra from the Somnath Temple in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh (UP) in a bid to raise national fervor for the project. While the BJP was labeled untouchable for its communal politics, the RSS was banned in the 1990s. However, despite the cost, the RSS-BJP have not compromised on their core ideological principles. The Sangh’s ideological purity has helped it garner more support and ultimately emerge as the driving force of contemporary India’s political and social ecosystem. That is extremely significant because the Sangh stands out in contrast to political opponents who have lost credibility among the voters for their dubious stand on ideology for political expediency. As the temple construction begins, none of the current opponents of the Sangh Parivar, political or cultural, can mount a genuine ideological challenge to the saffron brigade anymore.
Second, Ayodhya is the political and cultural center of the Sangh Parivar’s existence. The entire saffron brigade owes its rise to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the late 1980s and 1990s. The mobilization drive by the BJP and the VHP against a “symbol of shame” helped galvanize a base of dedicated upper caste voters for the party. The Sangh also received support from several communities from the backward classes and Dalits. However, the Hindutva project lost to the caste-based Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in UP in the 1990s. Since the rise of Modi, large numbers of non-Yadav backward classes and non-Jatav Dalits have shifted to the BJP in the state. The party owes its success to several factors such as the promise of good governance, Modi’s personal charisma, and the Sangh’s organizational superiority. However, a crucial adhesive that keeps the Sangh’s fortress together is its success in fulfilling core promises. The successful beginning of the construction of the temple in Ayodhya will solidify and may further expand its mass support in the Hindi heartland.
Lastly, the crowning glory in Ayodhya upholds the Sangh’s ability to reinterpret India’s national imagination. In the July 28 edition of the Organiser, the mouthpiece of the RSS, Prafulla Ketkar wrote in a piece titled “Reconstruction for Rejuvenation”: “The entire struggle for the liberation of the Ram Janmabhoomi was not a religious one. Whether the continuous social efforts on the ground or the legal battle that took place since 1949, it was all about the restoration of the national pride.” As we have seen on several occasions in the last few years, national pride and identity have become increasingly synonymous with the majority’s exhortation of the self. Therefore, the construction of the temple is proof of the Sangh’s continued struggle for the interests of the majority and its ultimate success in portraying India as a Hindu Rashtra or a country for Hindus.
With the construction of the Ram Temple, newer representations and symbols will adorn the temple town, further changing its spatial imagination as documented by people like Panjiar. The Sangh’s status will be amplified manifold as the guardian of majoritarian interests and civilizational pride and it will continue to champion the causes of the community. And while many in the Sangh will try to uphold the benevolent faith of Lord Rama at Hinduism’s greatest holy site, it must be remembered that the group contributed to the valorization of a majoritarian political agenda.
Avishek Jha is an independent researcher working on the Sangh Parivar and its affiliates in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India.