The emboldened gamesmanship of Hindu nationalists is part of a global phenomenon
Only the leadership of the BJP knows for sure if there’s astrological significance to August 5, but everyone is now aware it’s when Narendra Modi chooses to rewrite history.
Last year on that date, his government abrogated Article 370, revoked special status for Jammu and Kashmir, and downgraded the country’s only Muslim-majority state into two Union Territories, while imposing an astonishingly effective telecommunications blockade that eventually became the longest ever imposed in democracy.
Earlier this week, another milestone moment for Hindu nationalism, when the mask-clad prime minister inaugurated the building of a new temple where Ayodhya’s 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque was demolished by a mob in 1992. Last November, the Supreme Court of India handed the site over to Hindu litigants, even while confirming the destruction was criminal (that case continues).
Modi said: “Centuries of struggle are coming to an end today. I’m sure hundreds of people can barely believe that they are alive to see this day. The Ram Mandir will become the modern symbol of our traditions. It’ll become a symbol of our devotion, our national sentiment.”
Other Indians read the triumphalism differently. In an anguished and prayerful open letter to the deity -- “the radiant and intimate presence in my life” -- the distinguished scholar-academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote: “It will be said, secretly, this is restoring wholeness to a broken culture. But I know I will not find you there. This is because what is being consecrated is a monument to a violent, collective narcissism.”
With searing power, Mehta pleaded: “Look at the men, both political and spiritual, who speak in your name, and the blood, power and intimidation they have on their hands. Your name will be used to shore up the coarsest forms of personalised power; the entire liturgy is a display of the most corrupt of monarchical power, in a democratic garb. I understand that so many of my fellow Hindus will experience this as a great catharsis, as the weight of history being lifted. But deep down we need to ask: How did we become so insecure that we need a cowardly victory of razing down a monument to satiate our collective narcissism?”
He concluded: “This temple is the first real colonization of Hinduism by political power. I feel chained like never before.”
Those are facts. India is enduring an unmistakable “Triumph of the Will” moment. The politics of aggrievement and rancour are at their most potent ascendance. Almost the entire opposition has folded in capitulation (the Communists of Kerala are one noteworthy exception).
Just one example -- by no means the most craven -- is that of senior Congress leader Kamal Nath, who sent 11 silver bricks to Ayodhya, claimed “the temple is coming up with the consent of every Indian” and complained that he should have been invited to Modi’s ceremony, because “if it had been done, the whole world would have seen that the entire India is standing united.”
This is an echo of last year’s egregious endorsement of the BJP’s policy changes by the chief minister of New Delhi (and staunch opponent of most Modi policies), Arvind Kejriwal, who declared: “We support the government on its decisions on Jammu and Kashmir. We hope this will bring peace and development in the state.”
The emboldened gamesmanship of Hindu nationalists is part of a global phenomenon: Erdogan’s ploy of reconverting the Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque, Xi’s gambit to seize total control in Hong Kong, even Trump’s peremptory block on H-1B worker visas. Each is exploiting pandemic times to push their extremist ideologies.
But here, the law of unintended consequences comes into play. One year after August 5, 2019, it’s clear that Modi’s moves in Kashmir upset the fine balance on the country’s borders. The aggressive territorialism that resulted has set Indo-Chinese relations back decades.
In the future, what will we think of August 5, 2020? There are clues in the classic Bengali poem shared widely in her own translation by Banojyotsna Lahiri, who wrote: “Is this a coincidence that exactly 120 years ago, on this very day, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem ‘Deeno Daan’? It was about a temple. Read it and get awestruck by the prophetic words of a visionary.”
“There is no god in that temple,” said the Saint.
The King was enraged;
“No God? Oh Saint, aren’t you speaking like an atheist?
On the throne studded with priceless gems, beams the golden idol,
And yet, you proclaim that’s empty?”
“It’s not empty; It’s rather full of the Royal pride.
You have bestowed yourself, oh King, not the God of this world”,
Remarked the saint.
The King frowned, “2 million golden coins
Were showered on that grand structure that kisses the sky,
I offered it to the Gods after performing all the necessary rituals,
And you dare claim that in such a grand temple,
There is no presence of God?”
The Saint calmly replied, “in the very year in which, twenty million of your subjects were struck by a terrible drought;
The pauperized masses without any food or shelter,
came begging at your door crying for help, only to be turned away,
they were forced to take refuge in forests, caves, camping under roadside foliages, derelict old temples;
and in that very year
when you spent 2 million gold to build that grand temple of your’s,
that was the day when God pronounced:
“My eternal home is lit by everlasting lamps,
In the midst of an azure sky,
In my home the foundations are built with the values:
Of Truth, Peace, Compassion and Love.
The poverty stricken puny miser,
Who could not provide shelter to his own homeless subjects,
Does he really fancy of giving me a home?”
That is the day God left that Temple of yours.
And joined the poor beside the roads, under the trees.
Like emptiness of the froth in the vast seas,
Your mundane temple is as hollow.
It’s just a bubble of wealth and pride.”
The enraged King howled,
“Oh you sham cretin of a person,
Leave my kingdom this instant.”
The Saint replied calmly,
“The very place where you have exiled the Divine,
Kindly banish the devout too.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.