2018: India’s Year of Turmoil

    Mohammed Ayoob

    Security, Asia

    India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs yoga with others to mark the International Day of Yoga, in New Delhi, India, June 21, 2015. Modi led tens of thousands of people in the yoga session in the centre of the capital on Sunday to showcase the country's signature cultural export, which has prompted criticism of fomenting social divisions at home. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

    A long-simmering dispute over a religious site may have another turn in the spotlight.

    I am currently visiting India, and the political atmosphere in the country today reminds me of that prevalent in 1990. In that year the BJP, now the ruling party but then in opposition, began agitating for building the Ram temple in Ayodhya on the site of the 470-year-old mosque known as the Babri Masjid. Agitation over the Ram Mandir (temple) has soured the communal atmosphere in India as no other incident had since the partition of British India in 1947.

    In September 1990, the senior BJP leader L. K. Advani began his famous Rath Yatra (Chariot March) to mobilize India’s Hindu majority to build the Ram temple at the spot where many Hindus believe that the Hindu deity Ram was born. However, this could not be achieved without demolishing the Babri mosque, built during the reign of the first Moghul emperor Babur in the 1520s.

    The Hindu nationalist BJP seized upon this emotive issue to reverse its dwindling electoral fortunes by galvanizing Hindu religious fervor on its behalf. Additionally, upper-caste BJP leaders, afraid that lower-caste political mobilization, which was happening rapidly at this time, would render them irrelevant to Indian politics, latched on to this issue with great zeal.

    Since upper-caste Hindus numbered less than one-fifth of the Hindu population, the BJP top brass needed a plank that could bind the entire Hindu community into a monolith. The construction of such a monolith was essential for them to continue to enjoy their caste privileges, as well as dominating leadership of the Hindu majority, threatened by lower-caste political parties, especially in the large northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. However, in order for this strategy to succeed, they needed to manufacture an “other” that could be portrayed as challenging the power and privilege of the Hindu majority. Muslims, the principal religious minority in a country already suffering from the stigma of partition, were conveniently at hand.

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