Prayer and politics: New temple brings Modi praise, but critics see it as election gambit | CBC News

The religious chants echoed through loudspeakers, and some of the thousands of devotees who have descended on the holy city of Ayodhya chimed in, even as the frenzy of construction around India’s largest Hindu temple droned on nearby.

The long-anticipated and extravagant temple, Ram Mandir, is slowly taking shape on controversial ground where a 16th-century mosque once stood, in a city that’s been a flashpoint for communal violence. Much of the sprawling complex is still a mess of dust and bulldozers, with two floors not yet completed.

But despite being only half-finished, the temple will open Monday, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading the consecration of the site alongside Hindu priests and placing an idol of Lord Ram, one of Hinduism’s most important deities, in the temple’s inner sanctum.

The inauguration will fulfil a decades-old Hindu nationalist pledge, spearheaded by Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that is expected to energize voters ahead of a national election this spring.

At Ayodhya’s central bus station, where hundreds of out-of-town devotees arrive and are greeted with a hot meal made by volunteers, the fervour was apparent.

Ram Mandir, which is still under construction, stands on the site that many Hindus believe is the birthplace of the god Ram. It’s also the spot where a mosque stood for hundreds of years before a Hindu mob destroyed it in 1992. (Deepak Sharma/The Associated Press)

“In my life, this is the biggest day ever,” said Sushil Seth, 64, who travelled more than 800 kilometres to get to the temple inauguration.

Seth gives full credit to Modi for making the temple a reality.

“We have faith in Modi,” he said. “He’s not even a prime minister…. He’s like a god.”

Temple sits on contested land

Ram Mandir is built on the site that many Hindus believe is the birthplace of the god Ram. But the fight over the land has been contentious for decades. It’s also the spot where a mosque, Babri Masjid, stood for hundreds of years before a Hindu mob destroyed it in 1992, sparking communal riots across India that left 2,000 people dead, most of them Muslims.

In 2019, after years of legal disputes, India’s Supreme Court awarded the site to Hindu groups so that the temple could be built.

It was a major victory for Modi and his nationalist BJP, which had long promised it would return the land to Hindus.

The Indian government’s dedication to building the Hindu temple and championing one side in a decades-long fight is seen by many as an example of India’s shift away from the secular ideals that are enshrined in its constitution.

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The prime minister has also been very public about his own religious practices ahead of the temple’s consecration, following a special ritual in which, according to local media, Modi is sleeping on the floor and drinking only coconut water.

India’s main opposition leaders are skipping the inauguration of Ram Mandir, calling it a political stunt and a ploy for votes, particularly with the temple nowhere near being finished.

A handful of Hindu head priests are also avoiding the event, saying that consecrating an unfinished temple goes against what’s in Hindu scriptures.

But dozens of private jets have been booked for VIPs — including industrialists and Bollywood stars — to fly in and attend the inauguration ceremony, and schools are closed across the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is located. Live screenings of the ceremony will be held across India and at some of the country’s embassies around the world.

“We’ve been waiting for this day for a long time … 500 years,” Paryag Garg told CBC News.

The 62-year old has set up camp in Ayodhya, far from his home state of Haryana, and plans to stay for two months to feed other devotees at the bus station.

He called the temple a “dream come true” for all Indians.

Two men in orange scarves stand next to a food service line.
Paryag Garg, left, and Binder Sharma serve food to other devotees arriving in Ayodhya on Saturday. Garg called the temple a ‘dream come true’ for all Indians. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Not so for the members of Ayodhya’s Muslim community, many of whom are quietly resigned to feeling sidelined in a city where their families have lived for generations.

Khaliq Ahmad Khan, 76,  is an Ayodhya-based paralegal who followed the 2019 court case closely and meticulously documented the violence in his city after the Babri Mosque was razed.

He told CBC News that he and his fellow Muslims have accepted the ruling, even though he believes it was “unfair and unconstitutional.”

“The entire land was given to the Hindus,” Khan said.

The ruling also specified that a replacement mosque should be built in a “prominent” location on “suitable” land near the contested site. Instead, the allotted plot is barren and quiet, 25 kilometres away from the city centre and far from where most Muslim worshippers live.

“The mosque is not in the hands of the Muslim community,” Khan said.

“It’s controlled by a semi-government body. And Yogi runs the state government,” he added, referring to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk known for his hardline views.

“So the masjid looks unlikely to happen. And even if something happens, Yogi’s bulldozers are ready.”

A man wearing glasses poses for a portrait.
Khaliq Ahmad Khan says Muslims in Ayodhya are feeling uneasy as thousands of Hindu devotees flock to the holy city. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Khan said a sense of unease is permeating the Muslim community, whose members are trying to keep their heads down as thousands of Hindu devotees flock to Ayodhya from all over India.

“We fear that violence will happen after January 22nd,” he said, when all the dignitaries leave town.

The community is most worried about “the impression that the government is behind the Hindus,” Khan added. “Muslims are helpless.”

‘The Hindu nationalism plank’

For many experts, the Ram temple is a potent visual reminder of the power of the Hindu-first narrative disseminated by the BJP.

“It’s the imprint of the Hindu nationalism plank,” said Delhi-based political analyst Arati Jerath, who also points to the timing of the ceremony.

“Inaugurating this temple on the eve of the elections kind of gives Modi a huge kick-start to the campaign,” which has already unofficially begun, she said.

A woman wearing glasses sitting outdoors.
Delhi-based political analyst Arati Jerath says inaugurating the temple ahead of the upcoming Indian elections is a political ploy by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Modi is gunning for a third straight term, and many observers see a win as highly likely.

“[The temple ceremony] sends a very strong message down to the Hindu voter that this is a party and a government that protects and furthers Hindu interests,” Jerath said.

That message has been heard loud and clear by many of the devotees flocking to Ayodhya.

“[Modi has] made us proud,” said Binder Sharma, 45, from Haryana state. He voted for the BJP in 2019 and is determined to do so again this year.

“There’s pride in India and pride in being Hindu,” he said. “We will never forget this.”

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