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Modi’s consecration of controversial Hindu temple caps years-long campaign

The destruction of a mosque on the site in Ayodhya, India, triggered deadly religious riots

Workers on Sunday decorate a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, India, ahead of its grand opening. (Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)
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AYODHYA, India — When Hindu radicals stormed a 16th-century mosque in this Indian river town and tore it to the ground in 1992, the demolition mortified India’s leaders, ignited religious riots that killed 2,000 people across the country and spurred leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused of inciting the mobs, to issue anguished apologies.

Thirty-two years later, a grand Hindu temple is taking shape on the hilltop where the mosque once stood — a different hall of worship rising in a much different India.

On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will preside over a religious ceremony to consecrate the new $300 million temple to Lord Ram on the site of the razed mosque, marking not just a personal political victory but a triumph of his Hindu nationalist ideology over the secular, multicultural vision espoused by India’s founding fathers.

With a soaring dome 160 feet high and grounds encompassing 71 acres, the lavish temple project, built on the contested hill that many Hindus believe to be the birthplace of the deity Lord Ram, has been anticipated by weeks of wall-to-wall coverage on pro-government television channels and in ebullient speeches by BJP politicians, who have called it a symbol of a new India proudly steeped in Hinduism, the faith of 80 percent of the population.

Intersections in New Delhi have been blanketed by the saffron flag of Lord Ram. Schoolchildren have participated in organized prayers to the god. Shops selling meat, frowned upon in modern Hinduism, have been closed in some states. Government offices and hospitals have been ordered shut for a half-day on Monday morning to watch the “Pran Pratishtha” consecration ceremony — the infusion of the soul into the temple’s body — that Modi will personally oversee.

Raghavan Jagannathan, a right-wing commentator, said the temple inauguration represents a triumphant moment when India’s Hindus can proudly assert their identity after centuries of Muslim and British rule and decades of “self-loathing” under its secular post-independence leaders.

After Indian independence, “Hindus got the short end of the stick with secularism, where minorities could celebrate their religious identity but majority Hindus had to suppress theirs,” said Jagannathan, author of “Dharmic Nation,” a book about India’s religious national character. “That’s why you’re seeing a widespread celebration right now. This temple is a coming-out party for Hindus who say: I can finally be a Hindu without fear.”

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But others say the religious festivities backed by the state show just how far India under Modi has diverged from the vision of those who struggled for freedom like Mohandas K. Gandhi, a defender of minority rights who often pleaded for the safety of his Muslim compatriots when Hindu-Muslim riots erupted.

In recent days, Modi has prepared for the inauguration by praying at more than a dozen Hindu holy sites, draping himself in robes of pure white and, according to his press office, sleeping on the floor and drinking only coconut water in accordance with rules governing Hindu rituals.

The temple consecration and blanket media coverage are widely expected to give Modi a boost ahead of the national elections expected in April, in which he is heavily favored to win a third term. Several opposition parties said they would boycott Monday’s event, and some prominent Hindu theologians known as the Shankaracharyas have rebuked the prime minister for politicizing religion — and consecrating a temple that is not yet finished in violation of Hindu traditions.

But Modi, who has become the most powerful and popular Indian leader in decades partly by leaning on his credentials as a devout Hindu nationalist, said he was backed by an even higher authority.

“God has made me the representative of the people of India during the ceremony,” Modi told the country in a video this month that garnered 4.2 million views on social media. “I seek blessings from all of you.”

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Modi biographer, said Monday’s event will mark “an era when the prime minister is the high priest of Hinduism, blurring all lines between religion and politics on the one hand, and between religion and the Indian state on the other.”

“We are on our way to becoming a de facto theocratic state with Hinduism becoming the official religion,” Mukhopadhyay added. “It will be very difficult for the country and its religious minorities to return to what was experienced before 2014.”

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In some ways, the story of the controversial Ram Temple traces the rise of the Hindu nationalist movement, its most prominent political wing, the BJP, and their effort to make India into a religious state.

As a fringe political party in the 1980s, the BJP gained national traction by making the temple a mainstream issue that consolidated the Hindu vote, Jagannathan said. Many Hindu nationalists claimed that a Hindu temple had existed at the site long before it was torn down by Muslim invaders in the 16th century to make way for a mosque built in the name of Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire.

After BJP leaders raised awareness for the project during a 1990 cross-country rally partly organized by Modi — a young party worker at the time — a mob on Dec. 6, 1992, razed the Babri mosque, drawing international condemnation and apologies from BJP leaders, who expressed remorse.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a BJP leader who later became prime minister, said he felt “regrets, agony, anguish” and considered resigning from the party’s leadership. Lal Krishna Advani, the hard-line BJP president who led the cross-country rallies demanding a Ram temple, called the mosque’s demolition the “saddest day of my life” in a later memoir.

But that sense of contrition faded in the ensuing decades as the BJP’s Hindu-first politics came to dominate Indian politics. In 2019, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that a Hindu temple could be built on the hilltop. Modi, reelected resoundingly that year after a stridently Hindu nationalist campaign, laid the foundation stone at the construction site in 2020 as work began.

The success of the Ram Temple project has given fresh impetus to Hindu nationalists, who say other mosques across the country should be demolished and replaced by temples to settle historical grievances. In recent weeks, Hindu activists in Uttar Pradesh, the state that includes Ayodhya, have renewed calls to examine whether the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah mosque in Mathura were built on top of older Hindu temples razed by Muslim invaders.

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Other leaders on the Indian right wing set their sights further afield. This week, the BJP’s chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state, Mohan Yadav, said the Ram Temple project gave hope to those who believed in reviving an Indian civilization that stretched from modern Pakistan to Bangladesh, a revanchist idea known as “Akhand Bharat,” or Greater India.

“It is God’s will that the construction of Lord Ram’s temple should definitely be a big step towards Akhand Bharat,” Yadav said Saturday. “If not today, then tomorrow.”