AUG 5 will mark a year since India’s annexation of Jammu and Kashmir was carried out with stealth and speed that left the opposition gaping at their shoestrings. It is also the date announced for next week’s groundbreaking ceremony — bhumi pujan — for the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is among 200 invitees.
Why the fusion of dates between Kashmir and Ayodhya? In Hindutva’s calendar one event overrides the other. Thereby hangs a tale. For example, the Good Governance Day coined by Modi overshadows Christmas Day, whose nationwide celebration has shored up India’s secularism.
Also, Buddhists and Dalits have celebrated Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s death anniversary on Dec 6. This memory was bludgeoned with the destruction of the Babri mosque on Dec 6, 1992. So what is behind holding a temple ritual in the middle of an unchecked pandemic that too on a day that marks the annexation of Jammu and Kashmir?
The easier explanation, though not necessarily the right one, is that the blending of religion and politics has always been the toxic elixir of Hindutva. In this explanation Kashmir represents the political and Ayodhya epitomises the religious.
Is Modi’s date with Ayodhya his way of shifting the media’s focus from the Kashmir anniversary?
There’s a problem in mixing Kashmir with Ayodhya, however. While the two may work as force multipliers for Hindutva, funnelling their separate energies into one calendar date could be tantamount to overkill. The temple movement on its own has shown the ability to blend cynical politics and religious hysteria that it whipped up on a massive scale. It took 28 years to deliver unalloyed power to the BJP, but deliver it did. The Turkish president’s recent conversion of the sixth-century Hagia Sophia church turned museum into a mosque offers a handy insight into the wider use of religion with a political objective. Ayodhya has done wonders for Mr Modi’s rise to power, and Mr Erdogan was watching the results keenly.
With the mosque move, Erdogan has undermined Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular purpose in adopting the ancient monument as a grand museum. Don’t forget here the curious irony that the secular Ataturk was the hero of Jinnah, and the restoration of the Ottoman sultanate was the pious quest of Gandhiji who claimed to represent India’s Muslims in the endeavour, supported pre-eminently by Maulana Azad.
The museum-mosque dispute reveals a naked power game between competing religious and secular entities, not dissimilar to the way Nehru’s liberal vision for India is being dismantled brick by brick, ironically with the help of democratic institutions he founded.
We know of Modi’s gratitude to the razed Babri mosque for he shared the game-changing journey from Somnath to Ayodhya with L.K. Advani. Hindutva has worked wonders for him and it is very likely that the ritual of ground worship in Ayodhya would be a key talking point in the prime ministerial address from the Red Fort on Aug 15, India’s Independence Day.
Still, why could the bhumi pujan not be held before or after the important date that signals the inauguration of Modi’s pet project of assimilating Jammu and Kashmir? A possible answer may lie not in India, but in Beijing or Brussels. Is Modi under pressure from foreign players since forcibly assimilating and breaking up Jammu and Kashmir last year?
Much could be gleaned from the prime minister’s words or attitude, should he want to reflect on the stand-off on the Sino-Indian border. Anything less than studied caution could adversely impact the negotiations currently underway with Beijing on the military de-escalation. It seems from his recent silences, interrupted only by cryptic comments, that Modi wants to keep a low profile on the troubled ties with China. His comments so far have prompted officials to ‘clarify’ what he actually meant.
The Chinese have made it known that India’s annexation of Ladakh, a part of the erstwhile disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir until Aug 5, had altered the basis of future Sino-Indian border talks. Is Modi’s date with Ayodhya his way of shifting the media’s focus from the Kashmir anniversary, an event that has not gone down well with many of India’s friends, including the European Union? Picture the scenario at Ayodhya instead, with TV cameras bringing colourful images to the drawing rooms. Ayodhya should also help mask a lack of cogent policy on Covid-19, plus other catastrophic challenges dogging millions.
And what is a triumph that cannot be celebrated? The 11 months of lockdown in the region has not only resulted in an “across-the-board violation of human rights”, says a report by the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, it also led to the “denial of the right to bail and fair and speedy trial, coupled with misuse of draconian legislation, such as the Public Safety Act (PSA) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), to stifle dissent”.
The report prepared by a group of former government officials, including jurists, military officers, civil servants and academics speaks of “frequent closures, harassment at barricades and checkpoints, and restrictions on mobile telephony and internet connectivity”, which enormously impacted public health, and caused trauma and stress amongst the people.
Along with the report — The Impact of the Lockdowns on Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, August 2019-July 2020 — there are other reasons to keep low on Kashmir. Happenings in Ayodhya and Srinagar have negated Nehru’s rationale for retaining Jammu and Kashmir with India.
Challenging Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir in the Journal of Indo-Japanese Association, July-November 1957, Nehru says: “One justification Pakistan has put forth is that the majority of the people in Kashmir are Muslims. Now, that is a very odd argument. Once we admit that states are formed on the basis of religion, we go back to the Middle Ages in Europe or elsewhere. It is an impossible argument.” Will Modi’s idea of a Hindu rashtra prove Nehru wrong, and, by implication, Pakistan right?
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2020