The religious and political symbolism was unmistakable, as the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi led the consecration of a controversial new Hindu temple in Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh state, built on the ruins of a 16th century mosque.
The Babri Masjid was torn down by Hindu nationalist mobs in 1992, sparking riots across the country that killed about 2,000 people, most of them Muslim. In 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled that a temple could be built on the site, a decision that was roundly criticised by India’s Muslim minority.
The festering wounds from this long-running dispute reverberate to this day. The opening ceremony – even before construction of the temple is complete – amounts to a calculated statement by Modi. It marks the latest and most significant step in his mission to transform India from a secular democracy into a Hindu state. It also honours a vow made by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to build a new temple on the disputed Ayodhya site, a pledge that helped pave its way to power. Modi will be hoping that Hindu voters reward him and his party in the general election this year.
The celebrations, dedicated to Lord Ram – one of Hinduism’s most revered deities – were predictably lavish. Modi welcomed some 8,000 dignitaries, including business leaders, Bollywood film stars and prominent cricketers. India’s elites are in thrall to Modi’s political genius, or perhaps too wary to voice much in the way of meaningful dissent. Many Indian schools and colleges declared a public holiday and civil servants were given time off. Even the stock markets closed for the day and television news channels cleared their scheduled to broadcast the proceedings non-stop.
Modi, dressed in a traditional kurta tunic, led the ceremony, as priests chanted hymns inside the temple’s inner sanctum, where a sculpture of Lord Ram had been installed.