India’s Hindu Nationalists want to build a temple over a mosque

(COMMENTARY) Just five hours. That’s all it took on Dec 6, 1992, for a mob of extreme Hindu right-wingers to dodge a police line and hammer to smithereens the Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque in the temple town of Ayodhya, India. The followers of the Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) not only destroyed a 500-year-old structure – they also crushed the faith that millions of Indians had in the world’s largest religiously pluralistic and multi-faith democracy.

The mosque was built in 1528 by the emperor Babar, who ushered in the mighty Mughal empire in India, and many Hindu nationalists claim the mosque was built on the site of the Hindu Lord Ram’s birthplace.

It’s important to note that, on the 26th anniversary, the Hindu right wing has successfully used the conflict to fuel the growth of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Ayodhya incident wrought nationwide communal violence, killing and displacing many, causing the chasm between Hindus and Muslims to grow wider. Hindus make up 80 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population, while Muslims hover around 13 percent.

The newly empowered juggernaut of the Hindu right wing reflects the global ideological shift that’s taking place, making countries fertile for sowing seeds of a theocratic state.

Although India is secular by its Constitution, religion is its way of life. India has been a safe home to many faiths for centuries. It has birthed religions of Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists. Christians, around 2.3 percent, have also coexisted peacefully. Even persecuted Jews have found a safe refuge.

With India’s general election just a few months away in 2019, religion is in the forefront of India’s politics. Hindu evangelists in the BJP dominate the political discourse. Some even used the Babri masjid anniversary to demand demolition of another mosque, in Delhi.

The BJP is a young political party but in less than four decades since its inception, it has become the most dominant, richest and most geographically widespread party in India. It is the world’s largest political party with 100 million members. Four years after its inception, the BJP contested Indian elections on a non-hardline Hindutva platform, resulting in a dismal show: just two seats in the 545-member Parliament. After recalibrating its political strategy to pitch for hardline Hindutva - a collective Hindu consciousness that found converts among the secular-minded Hindus - the BJP’s numbers continued to grow in successive national polls, registering its largest in 2014 with 282 seats pivoted by the charismatic BJP leader Narendra Modi. The 68-year-old former chief minister of the Western Indian state of Gujarat is now hoping to cross the 300 mark in the 2019 polls. He is social media savvy and a hit among India’s young demographic – India’s youth number nearly 500 million, more than the entire population of the US.

Modi is the most followed world leader on the photo-sharing platform Instagram with 15.4 million followers: Indonesian President Joko Widodo (14 million) and Donald Trump (10.9 million) rounded up the top three. By comparison, Pope Francis had 5.7 million Instagram followers. In a list of the 50 most-followed world leaders on Facebook, Modi has the highest following with 43.2 million people, ahead of Trump with 23.3 million likes. Modi is also the most effective world leader on Facebook: on average, each of his posts saw 99,133 interactions. On Twitter, Modi is the third most followed world leader with 44 million followers—behind President Trump with 56 million and Pope Francis with 47 million.

Modi’s social media outreach has increased his ratings at the grassroots level. In 2014, he projected holograms of himself to speak at rallies around the country simultaneously and dazzle crowds. He will likely use that approach again in 2019.

The BJP has also reaped rich dividends from Modi’s foreign tours and meetings with top political leaders. He admires both Israel and US – both Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump call Modi “my dear friend” – and has consciously worked to up the ante in bilateral trade relations. Israel, 150 times smaller than India in size and population, has sold India weapons worth ten billion dollars so far.

Modi has also stepped up his outreach to the roughly 30 million Indian diasporas around the world – the two million in the US are perhaps the most successful minority group there. Modi also makes it a point to call on Indian CEOs of American majors like Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Sundar Pichai of Google.

BJP supporters and Modi fans have picked up huge tabs to host mega rallies at New York’s Madison Square Garden, London’s Methodist Central Hall and Sydney’s Olympic Park. At the latter, supporters could be heard shouting “Modi Thunder Down Under.”

Not only do these right-wingers have deep pockets, but the BJP mascot, Modi, has helped infuse in them a deeper attachment to their motherland. A popular slogan that he leaves at the end of his discourses is Bharat Mata ke Jai: Victory to Mother India.

As Modi leads the charge for the BJP, his close aides - like Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of the state where Ayodhya and the world-famous Taj Mahal is found - are wasting no time to brush off names that have a Muslim past. Several cities and world-famous icons that bear the imprint of the Muslim rule in India are being replaced with Hindu names by local right-wing political chieftains, whose ultra-nationalist jingoism has lured a majority of the secular-minded Hindus to their brand of Hindutva – the idea of Hindu political consciousness or Hindu nationalism. In their mind, to be Indian is to be Hindu. After Adityanath’s election, the Taj Mahal, the top tourist attraction of India and a Muslim tomb, was left out of a government tourism booklet that included Adityanath’s Hindu temple where he had presided as priest.

Allahabad, home to premier anti-colonial national leaders including India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and socialist leader Ram Mohan Lohia, was renamed Prayagraj. Allahabad became a city of political and administrative importance during the time of Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors of India in the 15th century, who showed religious tolerance and promoted inter-faith dialogues. His grandson, Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal.

A convert to the Modi Hindutva brand argues, “Our leaders have inspired us to fight for a worthy cause. You have Christian nations. Muslim nations. Buddhist nations. Even a Jewish nation. But we don’t have a single country in the world that can be called a Hindu nation. We are 82 percent here, a big majority, and can’t we even fight for what we feel is our rightful due to be called a Hindu nation in the land that gave birth to the world’s oldest religion, Hinduism?”

What does that mean? Muslims and Christians are viewed as interlopers. Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists are somehow accommodated under the umbrella of Hinduism and often intermarry with Hindus without protest.

VHP’s ideological mentor, Veer Savarkar, explained Indian history in terms of Hinduism’s struggle against others. That is, India’s freedom movement against the colonial British rulers was an act of Hindu assertion. Why do Christians and Muslims become interlopers then? From Savarkar’s view, the authentic Indian past is Hindu and all that is not Hindu is not Indian. The temple campaign may be religious in form, but it is political in content. Even the Babri mosque’s demolition was seen as a faith-based revenge against a long-standing symbol of Muslim aggression against Hindus.

Fact and fiction merge in the ongoing political narrative. For example, a prominent BJP leader from Gujarat accused a world-famous Indian food scientist, Varghese Kurien, born a Syrian Christian in the southern Indian state of Kerala, of funding conversions of tribals to Christianity. Kurien learned the rudiments of dairy farming from Michigan State University and returned to India in 1949 to launch a milk revolution from Modi’s home state, Gujarat, in western India, by banding millions of dairy farmers into one of the world’s largest cooperatives. The 1989 World Food Prize winner died a self-professing atheist in 2012, and his birthday (Nov 26) is celebrated as National Milk Day. I had asked Kurien about his religious faith at his head office in Gujarat when I was a reporter with a regional English daily. I remember him telling me that he embraced atheism and his only religion was to work for the welfare of the dairy farmers.

BJP leader Dileep Sanghani alleged that Kurien donated money from milk farmers to fund conversions to Christianity. But Kurien is just a scientist with a Christian name and is more famous for creating a nationwide milk grid linking 10 million milk producers, making India the largest producer of milk and milk products in the world.

A BJP chief minister, Biplab Deb in India’s northeastern state Tripura, claims Indians invented the Internet. Referring to a battle in the Mahabharata, an epic Sanskrit poem dating back to 400 BC, he said the mythological king Dhritarashtra must have used the Internet and satellite technology to communicate at that time. Deb is 46 and a rising BJP star.

Many Hindu right-wingers are educated, dedicated, committed, wealthy, motivated, well-traveled and, most importantly, social media savvy. Right wing troll armies dominate the narrative on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other online platforms, giving Modi and his party a much-needed political heft. In addition, Modi talks to the people through a monthly radio show. He also gets into your email inbox regularly. The prime minister’s presence is ubiquitous. His communication advisors have put to shame master orator and German propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, who helped show a favorable image of the Nazi regime to the German people.

So what does the Ayodhya temple plans for Lord Ram got to do with all this? With several federal governments unable to find a win-win formula to appease Hindu and Muslim groups on the temple-mosque issue, the burning issue is now before India’s Supreme Court. The apex court has not given its ruling on the hot button matter yet.

Hindu seers and senior pontiffs are on a nationwide blitzkrieg – holding public awakening rallies to put pressure on the federal Modi government to circumvent the apex court by issuing a special order – similar to the White House Presidential orders – to pave the way for Hindu groups to build a massive temple at the razed site. One revered pontiff from southern India, Vishveshwa Teertha Swamiji, threatened to launch a hunger agitation to put pressure on the Modi government to issue a special order: “I am 88. I want to see the temple built during my life time. We should not rest till the temple is built.”

Hindu ascetic and yoga megastar, Baba Ramdev - a close friend of Narendra Modi and akin to a Hindu Billy Graham - wants the latter to pass a law to build the Ram temple soon.

“In a democracy, Parliament is the highest temple of justice. And Modi can bring in an ordinance to build the Ram temple.” said Baba Ramdev, who also controls a multibillion-dollar consumer goods company that sells ayurvedic products. He believes Ram is not a matter of politics, but of India’s pride.

December 10 marked India’s Minorities Day. Results from local polls in five states will be out on Tuesday, Dec 11, and - if the BJP scores a big win there -there is a good chance that the 2019 polls will have a high-pitched Ram temple rhetoric.

In any case, the newly empowered juggernaut of the Hindu right wing reflects the global ideological shift that’s taking place, making countries fertile for sowing seeds of a theocratic state. The run up to the 2019 polls, and the bricks being trucked to the Ayodhya temple site, will give the world an indication whether India will shift gears to a Hindu theocracy soon.

Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun.