Bengaluru: The Ayodhya dispute has held the attention of the nation for a long, long time. We had yet to be born in 1992, the year the Babri Masjid was demolished, but we were around on August 5, 2020 – the date of the bhoomi pujan ceremony for the Ram temple at Ayodhya – to feel the tension in the air.
On the surface it seemed like the conflict – between the site of a temple and a mosque – had been resolved. However, we wanted a deeper understanding of how and why people had been affected by the issue at such a scale.
The Ram Mandir issue has always been crucial to understand people’s views – not just on religious identity, but on family, justice, power, history and so on. Why have some been so passionately in favour of building a temple while others just as passionately against it? What in their respective upbringings led to their supporting this or that viewpoint? How did their attitudes towards the temple fit with their overall understanding of themselves and their moral beliefs?
Altogether, we interviewed ten people on these themes. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we weren’t able to conduct physical interviews and took to phone conversations and video conferencing. However, we were able to ensure some diversity in terms of age groups, professions, religions and gender of the people we interviewed – who were mostly people we already knew.
Even though we typically started with a certain fixed sets of questions, inevitably during the course of the interview, the conversations strayed far and wide. Some interviews lasted 45 minutes, some an hour and a half. The interviews were conducted in English, Hindi, Kannada and Dakhini.
One thing we noticed while conducting the interviews was that the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’, words that were central to the conversation, weren’t clearly defined. What do we mean by them? Does going to temples and performing certain rituals or going to a mosque and praying five times a day define someone’s religion? Some other questions that came up were – to what extent does religion influence our politics? Does history change based on how you look at it? How intertwined are our identities with history and politics?
An older woman who sees herself as a Muslim, and who extends support to the building of the temple, says “As long as there is no fighting and there is ahimsa (non-violence), everything will be fine. Both need a place for ibaadat (prayer) right? As Muslims already have a pilgrimage site (Mecca), so let the Hindus have this. There is space in Ayodhya for both sites, so let it be.”
A young Hindu man, on the other hand, says, “We feel like in an effort to make the minorities feel uplifted or equal, there has been a clear neglect of Hindu interests. For example the Kashi,-Mathura temple row, reservation for specific castes etc. Every time, you know, there is a move to support the Hindus, people say, ‘Why are we only supporting the majority and ignoring the minorities or not giving them their due attention’. And as there isn’t one major site for Hindu worship in India, this move could be really good not only for the Hindus but also for tourism and jobs in Ayodhya. It would bring in a lot of income as well.”
Another man, a middle-aged statistician, argues, “The Mughals and British came into a ‘Hindu-heartland’, changed our education systems, degraded the Indian mindset and employed a divide-and-rule policy by creating differences between Hindus. Hence, Hindus must reunite through support for the Ram Mandir, and survive.”
He continues, “Our history was hidden from us and that made us weak, allowing them to rule us, and we forgot our beliefs. But now we must come together to take back what was ours. Because if we don’t know our history, how will we know ourselves?”
Some interviewees didn’t fall into either category – of supporting or being against the construction of the temple – and couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. “I don’t know about this ‘support’ business. What’s the big deal? They make so many temples, this is just another one. I’m more or less neutral. If they are making it, I have no problem. ‘I must support it’ or ‘I will go pray there’… These things I will not say and don’t have anything to do with [sic].”
Of all the people we interviewed, a few reasoned against the construction of the temple. “This temple has nothing to do with the birth or beliefs of Ram, it only serves the egos of the Hindus and hurts the Muslims – it’s a cycle of hatred,” says one 40-year-old female psychologist brought up in a middle-class Hindu household.
In the same vein, another middle-aged Hindu man asked, “How can anyone prove that Ram was born there? All that happened in the past, and anyway how far back in history do you decide to go? People who visit the temple now might feel they have taught Muslims a lesson, and that isn’t a reason to go to a place of worship. Also, the idea of ‘India for Hindus’ doesn’t make sense because there are so many types of Hinduisms. Which ‘Hindu’ are you talking about?”
Only a few thought to ask what role an avowedly secular democratic State can play in a religious conflict. A young woman brought up in a Hindu household cited the dangers of the intertwining of government and religion in India, highlighting possible conflicts. “The government has a history of being notorious [sic]. If the government wasn’t such an active participant in the building of the temple, factors like: would the stakeholders or the trusts be non-partisan? What would their relationship be with the government? If they don’t meet this neutrality criteria, then I would have a problem.”
Patterns we observed
Despite having a very small sample size, we still managed to notice some correlations between our participants’ responses and their upbringing, religious backgrounds, media influences and peer groups. One of the interviewees, who was from a family of Hindutva supporters, strongly supported the construction, saying “Hindus must reunite once again through support for the Ram Mandir”, while another reminded us that all her opinions were borrowed from a recent conversation she had with a friend, and didn’t seem to hold her opinions very strongly.
On the other hand, among our older interviewees, we found that they considered history to be a very strong argument while either arguing against or for the temple, unlike our younger sample, that set aside history as an inconsequential aspect of the debate. Another trend we noticed was how our male interviewees were more inclined to brush aside the violent acts committed as a consequence of the conflict, while our female interviewees were more hesitant to simply ignore them, giving them a greater importance. “Innocent people died, children were orphaned – for what reason?” said an older woman.
From our conversations, it seemed that faith was tied to a material (in the form of a place of worship or an idol). The belief was that if each faith kept to its defined geographical area, there would be no conflict. But is that actually true?
Another topic of discussion was the idea of secularism. Is secularism being indifferent to the fact that a group of people may identify with a religion, or is it the ability to be aware that differences may exist and the acceptance of those? Often, countries come up with rules to make their societies more secular – for example, France banned niqabs in public areas to ensure, as one French politician put it, that “people were not being religiously provocative” and thus “secular”.
In addition, a key belief seemed to be that the interests of the majority should prevail over those of any minority, simply based upon the idea of ensuring that most people remain happy. One of our interviewees said, “These people [BJP] have won the elections on what you call ‘Hindu promises’, so is it then wrong to fulfil those same promises? Does being secular translate into not following one’s own religion, if any? The idea of following your religion within the confines of your home, but outside you must cover yourself with this veil of secularism… That seems rather stupid. He has just practiced his own religion. A slant cannot be done away with… It must be acknowledged.”
When a government favours a community – in this case the majority – the behaviour of society changes. Take for example, crime. If a person knows that the government is in line with their strong viewpoints, in other words is looking out for them, even dubious actions are viewed as being alright. They aren’t morally, or even in some cases legally, held accountable for their actions. Statistics show a substantial correlation between the prevalence of right-wing majoritarian governments and rising religious hate crimes.
A third person noted that, politically, the decision [PM Modi attending the bhoomi pujan] was acceptable but the decision-maker had to morally answer for his actions.
“It was Modi’s political move for the next elections. If the BJP wants to return to power, then such a move would be very beneficial. For example, Pakistan’s PM would have to show support to the mosques there… If Imran Khan was to say, ‘No, let’s also open some temples here…’, he would be hurt, politically speaking. The Congress often won seats on the basis of better treatment for minorities in India, in areas where they were the majority (Muslims in J&K, Dalits in Bihar)… any political party must serve the interests of the majority. It becomes a requirement of the PM’s office in order to be reelected. Therefore what they are doing is correct for a politician.”
Along the same lines, shouldn’t the people who have fallen for this political propaganda be held equally responsible? In the case of the Ram Mandir, the conversation is always divided between Hindu and Muslim, so it seems to have become a political tool to gain votes, like any other division in society. An interviewee’s argument is that the government is only using the already existing rivalry for different purposes, such as more support for their party.
Another interviewee said, “Yeah, he does have a right to do it [attend the pooja], but given the political situation of the country, your personal act doesn’t end at you only. If you are the prime minister, any of your acts are a larger political statement, impacting millions of people.”
Upon analysing the discussions, it was clear that the dispute was much larger than the 2.77 acres of land involved, and delved into deep psychological and sociological processes that we as individuals and as a larger society hold. This dispute has raised questions about justice, religious identity, cultural conditioning and power distribution.
We are also indebted to Anthropologist Dr. Sonali Sathaye, who actively led us through our research and analysis; and deeply grateful to those who let us interview them.
Sidh Kavedia, 18, is a student from Bangalore, India. He is studying economics, sociology and math. Besides that, he enjoys languages, baking/food, travel and films; and loves being around people.
Asba Zainab Shareef, 18, is studying psychology, sociology and geography in Bangalore, India. She is enthusiastic about different dance forms, poetry, music and films. She is most happy when she is surrounded by her friends and family, while pampering her dogs.
Usha Basavaiah, 17, is a student from Bangalore. She enjoys contemporary dance, fitness, playing cricket and reading. She is studying science, sociology and economics. She loves to travel, learn new languages and spend hours playing board games.
Featured image credit: Reuters