India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the foundation-laying ceremony of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, August 5 2020. Picture: INDIA PRESS OFFICE HANDOOUT/ REUTERS
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the foundation-laying ceremony of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, August 5 2020. Picture: INDIA PRESS OFFICE HANDOOUT/ REUTERS

New Delhi — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone on Wednesday for a Hindu temple on a contentious site where a 16th-century mosque once stood, a historic move that meets a decades-long political promise as the pandemic slams the economy.

Modi offered prayers at a nearby temple before laying a symbolic silver brick in the ground and taking part in a religious ceremony at the spot devotees believe is the birthplace of the god Ram in the northern riverside town of Ayodhya.

India’s supreme court in November handed over ownership of the area to Hindus after decades of bitter dispute highlighted by deadly riots in the 1990s. Walls and buildings along roads in the town have been decorated with popular stories and legends related to the god.

“Today all of India is emotional. Centuries of waiting is ending today,” Modi said in a speech after the ceremony. “Millions of people cannot perhaps believe that they are seeing this auspicious day in their lifetimes.”

Organisers said the date of the event, which only included a few hundred people in light of the pandemic, was chosen for its astrological significance for Hindus. But it also marks a year since Modi revoked seven decades of autonomy in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir, another landmark decision in what critics see as an attempt to transform India from a secular to a Hindu nation.

While the prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment, his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s members have hailed the temple project. “For us it was never a political issue,” Ram Madhav, the BJP’s national general secretary said in a television interview on Sunday. “For us Ayodhya always signified a great unifying value or unifying symbol. From that perspective we see the gradual progress in the construction of the temple as a very heartening thing.”

The ceremony on Wednesday completes a full political circle for Modi, who in 1990 was one of the organisers of a nationwide push to build a Hindu temple to replace a mosque on the site — a campaign that marked the emergence of his party as a national electoral force. The mosque’s destruction by a Hindu mob two years later sparked riots that killed 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. Several top BJP leaders continue to faces charges for their alleged role in the events.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, a group that protects religious law and was one of the parties to the legal dispute over the site, said in a tweet Tuesday the “usurpation of the land by an unjust, oppressive, shameful and majority appeasing judgment can’t change it’s status” as a mosque.

The celebration is taking place when coronavirus cases in India are growing at the fastest pace in the world, with well over 50,000 daily infections. Modi’s right-hand man, home minister Amit Shah, has been hospitalised with the virus, while a senior priest and 14 policemen on duty near the site have also tested positive.

“With the pandemic yet to subside, high unemployment, and a stalling economy, Modi once again is leaning into the religious symbolism,” said Akhil Bery, South Asia analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

Consolidating votes

The temple construction comes as India’s economy, hammered by a prolonged and strict lockdown, is heading for its first contraction in more than four decades. Elections are also due in the politically crucial state of Bihar later in 2020.

While the party’s manifesto promises a grand Ram temple, Modi himself has never made a publicised visit to the once-disputed site before Wednesday’s ceremony and has largely avoided mentioning the issue — leaving that task, with its divisive political overtones, to other party leaders including Shah. But his presence at the event risks further emboldening Hindu hardliners and increasing the marginalisation of Muslims, who make up 14% of India’s 1.3-billion people.

“Modi’s presence at the event will boost his majoritarian politics and help consolidating Hindu votes,” said Satish Misra, a political analyst. “It will help his party in coming assembly elections and will create a narrative ahead of 2024 general elections.”

In August 2019, while revoking Kashmir’s autonomy, Modi’s government implemented a harsh security and communication crackdown that saw political rivals placed in detention. His administration also brought in a new religion-based citizenship law and is pushing to extend nationwide a citizens registry that threatens to render stateless close to 2-million Indians in the eastern state of Assam, many of them Muslims.

The moves have hurt India’s relations with its neighbours: Pakistan and China have protested against the change of status quo in Kashmir, and violent disputes along the border have flared this year. Traditional friends such as Nepal and Bangladesh have also expressed opposition to the citizenship law.

Modi’s Ayodhya visit will draw comparisons with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s move in July to convert the Hagia Sophia to a mosque in an erosion of his country’s secular roots, according to Ian Hall, professor in international relations at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, and author of Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy.

“Internationally, the move to build the Ram temple will be taken as a sign of Modi and the BJP’s commitment to remake India along Hindu nationalist lines,” he said.

Bloomberg

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