Twenty-three years after Hindu zealots pulled down the Babri masjid in Ayodhya sparking widespread violence and revenge terror attacks, there are disturbing signs that a wound that never healed is set to bleed again. Reports from Ayodhya suggest that truckloads of bricks have arrived there, raw material for the building of a temple. The Ram temple has for long been a BJP poll promise but few expected it to act, even with the landslide mandate it now has in hand. The notion that something may actually come to pass, with or without the party’s blessing, is worrying.
The Union culture minister, Mahesh Sharma, has added fuel to the fire by affirming that his government is committed to building the temple, even if it would wait for a Supreme Court verdict or arrive at a “mutual understanding” on its construction. He added for good measure that “the people of the country want that the Ram temple should be established”. There are several problems with these assertions. First, there was no need for it: The matter is with the apex court, which has said it might need 10 years to study the case files. Second, the chances of a ‘mutual understanding’ are minimal and are likely to wholly disappear in the face of such public utterances. Third, there is no evidence to suggest that all the people of the country want a temple, or indeed any other religious shrine, on the problematic plots of land.
The masjid issue was the original vote-catcher for the BJP. Revenge terror attacks in Mumbai and the horrors of Godhra, where pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were killed in a train fire, sparking a pogrom of Gujarati Muslims, suggest that the issue retained its malevolent hold on people long after the demolition. There is a very real risk that it will be viewed as a trump card that can be brandished when the party is desperate: The Uttar Pradesh elections in 2017, where it faces a tough fight from Mulayam Singh and Mayawati could be that occasion. The BJP needs to stamp out any vigilante action; it would be well served by throwing all its weight behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s development focus and leave Ayodhya firmly on the backburner. Its lower echelons need to realise that the hearts of Indians could also be won by better power, better roads and better rule of law — things that take the country forward and not back.