January 22 versus January 26: The battle for the future of India's republic
First published at Liberation.
BJP governments across India and the dominant media, especially the Hindi newspapers and TV channels, have unleashed a veritable publicity blitzkrieg ahead of the inauguration or consecration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on 22 January. The Sangh brigade too has announced a major mass outreach programme to generate a countrywide frenzy. Seldom in a non-theocratic country has the world witnessed such calculated and orchestrated political utilisation of the religious sentiments of the majority community, that too just ahead of a general election. Thirty-one years ago the Sangh brigade had defied the state to demolish the Babri Masjid in broad daylight, today it is using the same state to the hilt to launch the Ram temple.
Viewed in the immediate context, the Ram Mandir inauguration will of course be the biggest talking point for the Sangh brigade in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. But the symbolism of the Ram Mandir goes far beyond for the Sangh-BJP establishment. For them this is the biggest emblem of Hindu Rashtra and India's 'Hindu identity'. Sangh ideologues have been describing it as a moment of greater importance than the attainment of independence. For them 1947 only signified political independence whereas the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya epitomises 'cultural freedom'. Hence the call to light five lamps to signify the wait for five hundred years and the campaign theme 'Sab ke Ram' or 'everybody's Ram'.
This narrative is evidently being constructed to serve the Hindutva ideology and has no roots in history. The Ramayana has of course been India's most popular epic for centuries but it has diverse interpretations in diverse cultures and regions. The issue of a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya never really came up during India's anti-colonial social and political churning - the protracted and multilayered, multidimensional history of the quest for modern India commonly known as India's freedom movement. In fact, Ayodhya was actually one of the epicentres of the 1857 uprising marked by the highest expressions of Hindu-Muslim unity and harmony. It was only by the surreptitious installation of a Ram idol in the Babri Masjid facilitated by the complicity of sections of the state that the dispute was manufactured and sustained in the wake of independence. The claim of the Babri Masjid having been built by demolishing a temple has also not been substantiated by any archeological excavation and research.
The temple construction in Ayodhya now derives its 'legitimacy' from the 2019 Supreme Court judgement. The apex court had held the act of demolition to be an egregious violation of the Constitution of India and yet awarded the title suit of the land to the temple trust with the hope of ending all disputes over places of worship for ever. This 'exceptionalism' had also informed the 1991 Act that guaranteed stability to every place of worship as on 15 August 1947 except Babri Masjid which was treated as a legally disputed structure. But this exceptional exemption has only emboldened the Sangh brigade to contemplate repealing the 1991 Act in order to lay claim to every site it deems sacred.
The Sangh brigade has all along been allergic to the word secular. Since the explicit insertion of the word in the Preamble to the Constitution happened through an amendment during the Emergency, the Sangh brigade thinks it can legitimately do away with the secular character of the Indian polity and the Constitution. Secularism in the sense of separation of religion and politics and keeping state power from intervening in religious matters and religious authorities from interfering with state affairs is central to the very idea of a modern republic. It is all the more fundamental to democracy in a multi-religious and culturally diverse country like India. The Modi government is using the Ram Mandir to undermine the secular character of India's polity in every possible way, contrary to separation of religion and politics we are now witnessing a veritable amalgamation of religion and politics.
This amalgamation is not taking India towards the cherished 'Ramrajya' of Ayodhya where Ram was known for his standards of commitment to truth and the people, it is pushing India into the Manusmriti mode of governance where citizens with rights are reduced to disempowered subjects and every cruelty and injustice perpetrated by the state and society is justified by religion. When an elected prime minister accountable to Parliament and the people is packaged as a high priest consecrating a Ram temple, the people are actually encouraged to accept everything as divinely ordained and submit to the age-old Brahminical order of bigotry and injustice. This is antithetical not just to secularism but to the very idea of a modern republic deriving its power from the people.
While the regime now seeks to impose itself on the people as a divine blessing, to the outside world it claims to have brought India to the 'cusp of a take-off' as Modi recently told the Financial Times after the BJP's recent Assembly election victories in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In the same interview, Modi rubbishes any concern about the state of India's democracy as an insult to the intelligence of the Indian people; uses the Parsees, the community of the Tata group, as an advertisement for India's minorities; and showcases Indian origin CEOs of global software giants like Google and Microsoft when asked about the continuing 'brain drain' from India. And the issue of the growing assault on civil liberties in India is answered with a long and derisive laugh and dismissed as 'allegations' hurled at the regime by opponents 'using the freedom available in India'.
In the BBC documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’, Modi as Gujarat CM is heard saying that his only regret concerning the 2002 Gujarat carnage is that he could not handle the media well. If he had the kind of media control in 2002 that his regime now has, much of the truth about Gujarat would have never seen the light of the day. Likewise there is clearly a sense of regret in his answer over 'the freedom available in India' today to his critics and opponents. The new legal architecture unleashed in December 2023 complete with a desi penal code, evidence act and new media regulations extending to websites and digital platforms makes it very clear that the days of that residual freedom are quite numbered. In the name of doing away with the colonial era sedition law, which the Modi government was invoking indiscriminately till 2022 before the Supreme Court stalled its use, the government has expanded the definition of terrorism to incriminate every potential form or expression of dissent.
For the Sangh brigade, January 22 will mark a veritable new republic day when the state will be celebrating the brazen violation of the values and goals enshrined in the Constitution of India that came into force on the 26th of January, 1950. The Republic Day has long been reduced to a celebration of India's military might rather than the resilience of the constitutional foundation of India’s parliamentary democracy. But the challenge of reclaiming the constitutional moorings of modern India could not be any starker than on this coming Republic Day of 2024. Republican India can only survive as a secular democracy, and we the people of India whose predecessors heralded the birth of our free republic on 26 January 1950 will have to summon all our strength, courage and determination to nurture that dream.