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The Guardian, Saturday, April 06, 2002
Holy lies (part one)

A holy site in the small Indian town of Ayodhya has become the focus of communal strife between Hindu nationalists and Muslims - hundreds have been killed in the past two months. At stake is the plan, backed by rabble-rousing politicians, to build a temple in place of a ruined mosque. Behind it, Pankaj Mishra uncovers a saga of falsified history, opportunistic abbots and a spurious legacy of the British Raj

Pankaj Mishra

Ayodhya is the city of Ram, the most virtuous and austere of Hindu gods. To travel there from Benares - across a wintry north Indian landscape of mustard-bright fields, hectic roadside bazaars and lonely columns of smoke - is to move between two very different Hindu myths, or visions of life. Shiva, the god of perpetual destruction and creation, rules Benares, where temple compounds conceal internet cafes and children fly kites next to open funeral pyres by the river. But the city's aggressive affluence and chaos feel far away in Ayodhya, which is small and drab, its alleys full of the dust of the surrounding fields. The peasants carrying unwieldy bundles bring to mind the pilgrims of medieval Indian miniature paintings; and, sitting by the Saryu river at dusk, as the devout tenderly set afloat tiny lamps in the slow-moving water, one feels the endurance and continuity of Hindu India.

After this vision of eternal Hinduism, the mosques and Moghul buildings of Ayodhya come as a surprise. Most are in ruins - especially the older ones built during the 16th and 17th centuries, when Ayodhya was the administrative centre of one of the Moghul empire's major provinces, Awadh. All but two were destroyed as recently as December 6 1992, the day, epochal now in India's history, when a crowd led by politicians from the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), or Indian People's Party, demolished a mosque they claimed the 16th-century Moghul emperor Babur had built as an act of contempt on the site of the god Ram's birthplace.

Memories of that demolition, and the subsequent anti-Muslim pogroms, have been reawakened in the past two months after a Muslim crowd in Gujarat burned alive 58 Hindu activists on a train. The activists were returning from Ayodhya, where they had participated in preliminary rituals for building a new Ram temple, which BJP leaders, who now run the government in Delhi, had vowed to build on the site of Babur's mosque. Hindu militants in Gujarat retaliated by killing more than 600 Muslims. With Hindu passions so aroused, the construction of the new temple seems more, not less, likely. As for the mosques destroyed in 1992, they are unlikely ever to be restored. The Muslim presence in the town seems at an end for the first time in eight centuries.

That was the impression I got even in January, a full month before the anti-Muslim rage exploded, when I visited Digambar Akhara, the straw-littered compound of the militant Sadhu sect presided over by Ramchandra Paramhans, who in 1949 initiated the legal battle to reclaim Babur's mosque, or Babri Masjid, for the Hindu community. The sect, Paramhans told me, was established four centuries ago to fight Muslim invaders who had ravaged India since the 10th century, and erected mosques over temples in the holy cities of Ayodhya, Benares and Mathura. It had been involved, he said, in 76 wars for possession of the site of the Ayodhya mosque, during which more than 200,000 Hindus had been martyred.

Paramhans, who is now more than 90 years old, exuberantly directed the demolition squad in 1992, and now heads the trust in charge of the temple's construction. When we spoke, he expected up to a million Hindu volunteers to reach Ayodhya by March 15, defy a Supreme Court ban on construction at the site, and present a fait accompli to the world in the form of a semi-constructed temple.

Two bodyguards watched nervously as he told me of his plans; other armed men stood around the wall of the compound. The security seemed excessive in this exclusively Hindu environment but, as Paramhans said, caressing the tufts of white hair on the tip of his nose, the year before he'd been attacked by home-made bombs delivered by what he called "Muslim terrorists". "Before we take on Pakistani terrorists," he added, "we have to take care of the offspring Babur left behind in India - these 130 million Muslims of India have to be shown their place."

This message was briskly conveyed to the Muslims of Gujarat by Paramhans' associates, leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council, a sister organisation of the BJP. According to reports from Gujarat, Hindu militants incited, and in some cases organised, the killing of more than 600 Muslims during four hectic days in late February and early March. The chief minister of Gujarat, a hardline BJP leader, quoted the English scientist Newton while defending his government's inability or unwillingness to stop the massacres: "Every action," he said, "has an equal and opposite reaction."

The reaction wasn't equal, though - the final tally of Muslim dead may exceed 1,000 - but it did display a high degree of administrative efficiency, as was also evident during the anti-Muslim pogroms in Bombay in 1992-93, when members of the Hindu extremist group, the Shiv Sena, went around mixed localities with electoral lists of Muslim homes. In Gujarat's cities last month, middle-class Hindu men drove up in new Japanese cars - the emblems of India's globalised economy - to cart off the loot from Muslim shops and businesses. These rich young Hindus in Benetton T-shirts and Nike sneakers seemed unlikely combatants in what Paramhans told me was a holy war against the traitorous 12% of India's population - both wealth and education separated them from the unemployed, listless young small-town Hindus I met in Ayodhya, one of whom is a local convenor of the Bajrang Dal, the stormtroopers of the Hindu nationalists.

What they shared, however, was a particular worldview, outlined most clearly by students at Saraswati Shishu Mandir, a primary school in Benares, one of 15,000 such institutions run by the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS), or Association of National Volunteers, the parent group of Hindu nationalism from which have emerged almost all the leaders of the BJP, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. The themes of morning assembly were manliness and patriotism. In the gloomy hall, portraits of militant Hindu freedom fighters mingled with such signboarded exhortations as, "Give me blood and I'll give you freedom", and "Say with pride that you are a Hindu". For an hour, boys and girls marched in front of a stage, where a plaster of Paris statue of Mother India stood astride a map of south Asia, chanting about the perfidy of Pakistan, of Muslim invaders and of the gloriousness of India's past.

Most of the students came from middle-class areas of Benares. Their bare, thin limbs shook with their passion and efforts to memorise arcane Sanskrit words. The principal watched serenely. He told me that Joshi-ji, the education minister, was making sure that new history textbooks carried to every school in the country the message of Hindu pride and Muslim cruelty. It is a message that resonates at a level of caste and class privilege, flourishing in a society where deprivation is always close at hand. An out of work upper-caste advertising executive I met in Benares seemed to be speaking of his own insecurities when he said, after some talk of the latest iMac, "Man, I am scared of these Mozzies. We are a secular, modern nation, but we let them run these madrasas [religious schools], we let them breed like rabbits and one day they are going to outstrip the Hindu population, and will they then treat us as well as we treat them?"

The Muslims, of course, have a different view of how they've been treated. In Madanpura, Benares's Muslim district, I met Najam, a scholar of Urdu and Persian literature. He is in his 30s, and grew up during some of the worst anti-Muslim violence of post-independence India - in the 1992 slaughter, he saw Hindu policemen beat his doctor to death with rifle butts. "I don't think the Muslims are angry any more," he said. "There is no point. The people who demolished the mosque at Ayodhya are now senior ministers. We know we will always be suspected of disloyalty, no matter what we say or do. Our madrasas will always be seen as producing fanatics and terrorists. There is no one ready to listen to us, and so we keep silent. We expect nothing from the government and political parties. We now depend on the goodwill of the Hindus we live with, and all that we hope for is survival with a bit of dignity."

Hindu devotees throng the Viswanath temple in Benares, but few, if any, Muslims dare negotiate a way through the armed police and sandbagged positions to the adjacent Gyanvapi mosque, one of two that the Hindu nationalists have threatened to destroy. It is not easy for an outsider to grasp the Muslim's sense of isolation here. There was little in my own background that could have prepared me to understand the complicated history behind it - being Brahmins with little money, we saw the Muslims as another threat to our aspirations for security and dignity. My sisters attended a RSS-run primary school, where pupils were indoctrinated into disfiguring images of Muslim rulers in their textbooks. At my English medium school, we were encouraged to think of ourselves as secular, modern citizens of India, and regard religion as something one outgrew. So when, in the 1970s and 1980s, I heard about Hindu-Muslim riots, or the insurgencies in Punjab and Kashmir, it seemed to me that religion-based identities were the cause of most conflict and violence in India. The word used in newspapers and academic analyses was "communalism", which was described as the antithesis of the kind of secularism advocated by the founding fathers of India, Gandhi and Nehru, and also of Hinduism itself, which was held to be innately tolerant and secular.

I spent several months in Benares in the late 1980s, unaware that this ancient pilgrimage centre of Hindus was also a holy city for Muslims - unaware, too, of the 17th-century Sufi shrine just behind the tea shack where I often spent my mornings. It was one of many in the city that both Hindus and Muslims visited, a legacy of the flowering of Sufi culture in medieval north India. Only this year I discovered from Najam that one of the great Shia philosophers of Persia had sought refuge at the court of a Hindu ruler of Benares in the 18th century. And it was after returning from my trip to Ayodhya that I read that Ram's primacy in this pilgrimage centre was relatively recent - for much of the medieval period, Ayodhya was the home of the much older sect of Shaivites, or Shiva-worshippers (Ram is one of many incarnations of Vishnu, one of the gods in the Hindu trinity, in which Shiva is the most important); that many of Ayodhya's temples and sects devoted to Ram had actually emerged under the patronage of the Shia Muslims who ruled Awadh in the early 18th century.

Paramhans had been quick to offer me a history full of temple-destroying Muslims and brave Hindu nationalists. But his own militant sect had been originally formed to fight not Muslims but Shiva-worshipping Hindus; and it had been favoured in that long and bloody conflict by the Muslim Nawabs. The Nawabs, whose administration and army were staffed by Hindus, kept a careful distance from Hindu-Muslim conflicts. One of the first such conflicts in Ayodhya came in 1855, when some Muslims accused Hindus of illegally constructing a temple over a mosque and militant Hindu sadhus (mendicants) massacred 75 Muslims. The then Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, a distinguished poet and composer, refused to support the Muslim claim, explaining, "We are devoted to love; do not know of religion. So what if it is Kaaba or a house of idols?"

Wajid Ali Shah, who was denounced as effeminate and inept and deposed a year later by British imperialists, was the last great exponent of the Indo-Persian culture that emerged in Awadh towards the end of the Moghul empire. India was then one of the great centres of the Islamic world, along with the Ottoman and Safavid empires. In India, Islam had lost some of its Arabian and Persian distinctiveness, and had blended with older cultures. Its legacy is still preserved - amid the squalor of a hundred small Indian towns, in the grace and elegance of Najam's Urdu, in numerous songs and dances that accompany festivals, in the subtle cuisines of north India - but one could continue to think of it, as I did, as something without a history or tradition. The Indo-Islamic is an embarrassment to the idea of India maintained by the modernising Hindu elite for the past 50 years.

That idea first emerged in the early 19th century, as the British consolidated their hold over India and found new allies among upper-caste Hindus. As elsewhere in their empire, the British encountered the stiffest resistance from Muslim rulers. So they tended to demonise the Muslims as fanatics and tyrants, and presented the British conquest as at least partly a humanitarian intervention on behalf of a once-great Hindu nation. Most of these British views of India were useful fictions at best - the Turks, Afghans, central Asians and Persians, who together with upper-caste Hindu elites had ruled a variety of Indian states for more than eight centuries, were more than plunderers and zealots. The bewildering diversity of people who inhabited India before the arrival of the Muslims in the 11th century hardly formed a community, much less a nation; and the word "Hinduism" barely hinted at the almost infinite number of folk and elite cultures, religious sects and philosophical traditions found in India.

But these novel British ideas were received well by upper-caste Hindus, who had previously worked with Muslim rulers and began to see opportunities in the new imperial order. British discoveries of India's classical sculpture, painting and literature had given them a fresh, invigorating sense of the pre-Islamic past; they found flattering and useful British Orientalist notions of India that identified Brahmanical scriptures and principles of tolerance as the core of Hinduism. In this view, practices such as widow-burning became proof of the degradation Hinduism had suffered under Muslim rule, and the cruelties of caste became an unfortunate consequence of their tyranny.

A wide range of Hindu thinkers, social reformers and politicians began to see imperial rule, with all its social reforms and scientific advances, as a preparation for self-rule. Some denounced British imperialism as exploitative, but even they welcomed the redeeming modernity it brought and, above all, the European idea of nation - of a cohesive community with a common history, culture, values and sense of purpose - that for many other colonised peoples appeared a way of duplicating the success of the all-conquering west. Muslim leaders, on the other hand, were slow to participate in the civilising mission of imperialism; they saw little place for themselves in the nation envisaged by the Hindu elite. British imperialists followed their own strategies of divide and rule: the decision to partition Bengal in 1905 and to have separate electorates for Muslims reinforced the sense among upwardly mobile Indians that they belonged to distinct communities defined by religion.

It is true that Gandhi and Nehru worked hard to attract low-caste Hindus and Muslims - they wanted to give a mass base and wider legitimacy to the political movement for self-rule under the leadership of the Congress party - but Gandhi's use of popular Hindu symbols, which made him a Mahatma, or sage, among Hindu masses, caused many Muslims to distrust him. Also, many Congress leaders shared the views of such upper-caste ideologues as Veer Savarkar and Guru Golwalkar. These men saw India as essentially the sacred indigenous nation of Hindus which had been divided and emasculated by Muslim invaders, and that could only be revived by uniting its diverse population, recovering ancient Hindu traditions, and weeding out corrupting influences from central Asia and Arabia. This meant forcing Muslims to give up their traditional allegiances and embrace the so-called "Hindu ethos", or Hindutva, of India - an ethos that was, ironically, imagined into being with the help of British Orientalist discoveries of India's past.

The idea of Hindutva included an admiration for Mussolini's fascism and Hitler's Germany, which, as Guru Golwalkar wrote in the Hindu nationalist bible, We or Our Nationhood Defined (1938), expressed "race pride at its highest" by purging the Jews. It inspired the Brahmin founders of the RSS in 1925, and comforted many upper-caste Hindus who felt threatened by Gandhi's emphasis on a federal, socially egalitarian India. It was the rise of the Hindu dominated nation that Gandhi was accused of obstructing by his assassin, a Brahmin member of the RSS.

By the 1940s, the feudal and professional Muslim elite had grown extremely wary of the Hindu nationalist strain within the Congress. After many failed attempts at political rapprochement, they finally arrived at the demand for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. The demand expressed the Muslim fear of being reduced to a perpetual minority in a Hindu majority state, and was, initially, a desire for a more federal polity for post-colonial India. But the Congress leaders chose to partition off the Muslim-majority provinces in the west and east, rather than share the centralised power of the colonial state that was their great inheritance from the British.

This led to the violent transfer of millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims across hastily-drawn, artificial borders. Massacres, rapes and kidnappings further hardened sectarian feelings: the RSS, which was temporarily banned after Gandhi's assassination, found its most dedicated workers among middle-class Hindu refugees from Pakistan, among them the current home minister, Lal Krishna Advani, who was born in Karachi and joined the RSS as early as 1942. The RSS floated a new party and entered electoral politics in independent India in 1951 with the renewed promise of a Hindu nation; and although it worked for much of the next three decades under the gigantic shadow of the Congress party, its sudden popularity in the 1980s now seems part of the great disaster of the Partition, which locked the new nation states of India and Pakistan into stances of mutual hostility.

 

The Guardian, Saturday, April 06, 2002
Holy lies (part two)

A holy site in the small Indian town of Ayodhya has become the focus of communal strife between Hindu nationalists and Muslims - hundreds have been killed in the past two months. At stake is the plan, backed by rabble-rousing politicians, to build a temple in place of a ruined mosque. Behind it, Pankaj Mishra uncovers a saga of falsified history, opportunistic abbots and a spurious legacy of the British Raj

Pankaj Mishra

In Pakistan, a shared faith failed to reconfigure the diverse regional and linguistic communities into a new nation. This was proved when the Bengali-speaking population of East Pakistan seceded, with Indian help, to form Bangladesh in 1971. The ideology of secularism, backed by the prestige and example of Nehru, seems to have had a more successful run in India, which after Partition had, among its vast population, almost as many Muslims as Pakistan. In reality, India's Muslims lost much of their educated elite to Pakistan, and since 1947 they have been a depressed minority. They continue to lack effective spokespersons, despite, or perhaps because of, a tokenist presence at the highest levels of government. Politically, they are significant only at election time, when they form a solid vote for Hindu politicians who promise to protect them from discrimination and violence. Urdu, the language the Muslim presence in India had created - which is barely distinguishable from spoken Hindi - was an early victim of attempts to institute a Sanskritised Hindi as the national language.

Secularism, the separation of religion from politics, was always going to be difficult to impose on a country where religion has long shaped political and cultural identities. But it was a useful basis upon which the Delhi government could, in the name of modernity and progress, establish its authority over a poor, chaotically fractious country. However, when Sikh and Muslim minorities in Punjab and Kashmir challenged the great arbitrary power of the government, Nehru's heirs - his daughter, Indira, and grandson, Rajiv - were quick to discard even the rhetoric of secularism and to turn Hindu majoritarianism into the official ideology of the Congress-run administration.

The uprisings in Punjab and then in Kashmir were represented by the government and the middle-class media as fundamentalist and terrorist assaults on a secular, democratic state. In fact, although tainted by association with Pakistan and religious fanaticism, the Sikhs and Kashmiri Muslims were expressing a long-simmering discontent with an anti-federalist state: a state that had retained most of the power of the old colonial dispensation, and often used it more brutally than the British ever had. The uprisings were part of a larger crisis common in post-colonial states: the failure of a corrupt, self-serving political and bureaucratic elite to ensure social and economic justice for those it had claimed to represent in its anti-colonial battles.

By the 1980s, the Congress party was in decline. It kept raising the bogey of national unity and external enemies, but the disturbances in Kashmir and Punjab only gave more substance to the Hindu nationalist allegation that the Congress had turned India into a "soft state" where Kashmiri Muslims could blithely conspire with Pakistan against Mother India. And, with the pseudo-socialist economy close to bankruptcy, the nationalists saw a chance to find new voters among upper-caste Hindus. Like the National Socialists in Germany in the early 1930s, they offered not so much clear economic policies as fantasies of national rebirth and power. In 1984, the VHP announced a national campaign to rebuild the grand temple at Ayodhya that they claimed the first Moghul emperor Babur had destroyed. The mosque that replaced it, they said, was a symbol of national shame; removing it and rebuilding the temple was a matter of national honour.

Both history and archaeology were travestied in this account of the fall and rise of the eternal Hindu nation. There was no evidence that Babur had ever been to Ayodhya, or that this restless, melancholic conqueror from Samarkand, a connoisseur of architecture, could have built an ugly mosque over an existing Ram temple. Ram himself isn't known to recorded history - the cult of Ram-worship arrived in north India as late as the 10th century AD, and no persuasive evidence exists that a Ram temple ever stood on the site. But the myths were useful in shoring up the narrative of Muslim cruelty and contempt. They found their keenest audience at first among wealthy expatriate Hindus in the UK and US, who bankrolled a movement that, in upholding a strong, self-assertive Hinduism, seemed to allay their sense of inferiority induced by western images of India as miserably poor. In India itself, deeper anxieties made many upper-caste Hindus turn to the BJP.

In 1990, the government, which was then headed by defectors from the Congress party, decided to implement a longstanding proposal to reserve government jobs for poor, "backward-caste" Hindus. Upper-caste Hindus were enraged. The BJP saw the plan for affirmative action as potentially destructive of its old plan of persuading lower-caste groups to accept a paternalistic, upper-caste leadership in a united Hindu front against Muslims. Later that year, the leader of the BJP, LK Advani, decided to lead a ritual procession on a faux-chariot - actually a Chevrolet - from Gujarat to Ayodhya, where he intended to start the construction of the Ram temple.

The previous year, the BJP had passed an official resolution demanding that the temple be built on the exact spot where Babur's mosque now stood. Advani had then said, "I am sure it will translate into votes." Appropriately, he began his journey to Ayodhya from the temple in Somnath, Gujarat, which was looted by a Turk conqueror in the 11th century AD and which had been lavishly rebuilt in the early 1950s. Rapturous Hindu activists waited by the roadside to apply ritual marks of blood on his forehead. This was not just play-acting: more than 500 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in the rioting that accompanied Advani's progress across India. Hindu policemen were indifferent, as they were last month in Gujarat, and sometimes even joined in.

It is strange to look back now and see how little known the controversy in Ayodhya was only two decades ago. Local Hindus first staked a claim on the mosque in the mid-19th century, and were allowed by British officials to worship on a platform outside the building. In 1949, two years after independence, a Hindu civil servant working together with local abbots surreptitiously placed idols of Ram inside the mosque. The story that Lord Ram himself had appeared to install the idols inside the mosque quickly spread. Local Muslims protested. Nehru sensed that nothing less than India's secular identity was threatened. He ordered the mosque to be locked and sacked the district official, who promptly joined the Hindu nationalists. But the idols were not removed, and Muslims gradually gave up offering namaz, or prayers, at the mosque. In the following three decades, the courts were clogged with Hindu and Muslim claims on the site. In 1984, the VHP began a campaign to unlock the mosque. In 1986, a local judge allowed the Hindus to worship inside. A year later, Muslims held their largest protest demonstration since independence in Delhi.

Before then, Babur's mosque had primarily been of concern to a small circle of litigious, property-hungry abbots in Ayodhya. Religion was always a fiercely competitive business here: the abbots fought hard for a share of the donations from the millions of poor pilgrims, and, more recently, from wealthy Indians in the US and UK; they were also notorious for murder and pillage - the bomb attack on Paramhans, which he blamed on Muslim terrorists, was probably the work of rival abbots. But as the movement to build the temple intensified, entrepreneurs of religiosity such as Paramhans were repackaged by nationalist politicians as sages and saints, while Ram himself evolved from the benign, almost feminine, calendar-art divinity of my childhood to the vengeful Rambo of Hindu nationalist posters.

The myths multiplied when, in October 1990, Advani's procession was stopped and police in Ayodhya fired upon a crowd of Hindus attempting to assault the mosque. The largest circulation Hindi paper in north India spoke of "indiscriminate police firing" and "hundreds of dead devotees", and then reduced the death toll the next day to 32. These rumours and exaggerations, part of a slick propaganda campaign, helped the BJP win the elections in four north Indian states in 1991. The mosque seemed doomed - then, in December 1992, a crowd of mostly upper-caste Hindus armed with shovels, crowbars, pickaxes, sometimes only bare hands, demolished Babur's mosque, and the police simply watched from a distance. One of the more vocal Hindu nationalist politicians, Uma Bharati, who is now a senior minister in the central Indian government, urged on the crowd, shouting, "Give one more push and break the Babri Masjid." The president of the VHP announced the dawn of a "Hindu rebellion".

That evening, a crowd rampaged through the town, killing 13 Muslims, including children, and destroying scores of mosques, shrines and Muslim-owned shops and homes. Protests and riots erupted across India. Altogether 2,000 people, most of them Muslim, were killed. Three months after the massacres, Muslim gangsters retaliated with bomb attacks that killed more than 300 civilians.

In Delhi, the elderly Congress prime minister, Narasimha Rao, napped through the demolition. The next day he dismissed the BJP governments, banned the RSS and its sister organisations, and promised to rebuild the mosque. The leaders of the BJP tried to distance themselves from the demolition, saying it was a spontaneous act of frustration, provoked by the government's anti-Hindu policies. But the Central Bureau of Investigation concluded that senior BJP leaders had planned the demolition well in advance. As for the anti-Muslim violence, Advani claimed in an article in The Times of India that it would not have taken place had Muslims identified themselves with Hindutva: a sentiment echoed after the recent riots in Gujarat.

Six years after the demolition, the BJP, benefiting from India's first-past-the-post electoral system, became the dominant party in the ruling National Democratic Alliance in Delhi. Despite being forced to share power with more secular parties, BJP's ideological fervour seems undiminished, if as yet unfulfilled. Responding to a question about the Ram temple two years ago, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told expatriate Indians in New York that he needed a clear two-thirds majority in parliament in order to "build the India of our dreams". Certainly, the Hindu nationalists have tried hard to whip up Hindu passions. In their first few months in power, they conducted nuclear tests, explicitly aiming them against Pakistan, which responded with its own tests.

The VHP and Bajrang Dal, which distributed radioactive earth from the nuclear tests site as sacred offerings, were responsible for an unprecedented series of mob attacks on Christians across India. About half of these occurred in Gujarat, but Advani claimed that there was "no law and order problem in Gujarat", and shared the dais at a meeting of Hindu nationalists with the new chief of the RSS, KS Sudarshan, who asked Christians and Muslims to return to their "Hindu roots". Sudarshan also attacked secular intellectuals as "that class of bastards which tries to implant an alien culture in their land" and spoke of "an epic war between Hindus and anti-Hindus". Barely a week after the VHP's plans to start construction of the Ram temple caused some of the worst violence in India since independence, the BJP-led government asked the Supreme Court to allow VHP leaders to perform rituals at the site of the mosque on March 15 - an appeal wisely rejected.

Even so, the temple in Ayodhya seems inevitable. You reach Ramjanmabhoomi (Ram's birthplace), as it is now called, through a maze of narrow, barricaded paths. Armed men loom up abruptly with metal detectors and perform brisk body-searches. These are members of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), notorious for its pogroms of Muslims in north Indian towns. The men look mean for the cameras. Pictures of the site have not been allowed by the government for the past decade.

A canvas canopy protects a platform built above the rubble of the mosque, on which stand the idols draped in garlands and sequinned cloth. A priest sits below the platform, briskly dispensing prasad - tiny sugary balls - and squirreling away the soiled and wrinkled rupee notes tentatively offered by peasant pilgrims.

As I groped for small change, a PAC inspector wandered over, asked if I was a journalist from Delhi, and attempted a little history. He told me that Lord Ram had placed the idols inside the mosque in 1949; it was his wish that a temple be built on his birthplace. My companion, a resident of Benares, challenged this account, saying that the idols had been placed there by the then district official. The inspector did not defend his story; he only smiled and replied that this proved that the official was a true Hindu.

Many such "true Hindus" looked the other way while the temple was slowly prefabricated. In a vast shed near the Ramjanmabhoomi lie stacks of carved stone pillars. Here, you can buy promotional liter-ature - The Blood-Soaked History Of Ayodhya and Ayodhya: An Answer To Terrorism And Fundamentalism are the bestselling titles - and admire a miniature glass-cased model of the temple.

The labour is cheap - 2 a day for craftsmen - but the temple, whose architect previously designed the Swaminarayan temple in Neasden, north London, seems to have come out of a garish fantasy of marble and gold.

The impatience of abbots such as Paramhans is understandable. Offerings at the temple are likely to run into millions of dollars annually; much has already arrived from donors in India and abroad. No one knows where most of it has gone - rumours point to new buildings in Ayodhya and elsewhere, including some owned by Paramhans, who is moved to rage if you raise the possibility of Muslim opposition to the temple. "There are only two places Muslims can go to," he shouted, echoing a popular slogan of the early 1990s, "Pakistan or Kabristan [graveyard]."

As for the mosque - which appears now in memory as a melancholy symbol of a besieged secularism - there seems little doubt that it will never be rebuilt. It has fallen victim not just to the ideologues but to less perceptible changes in India's general mood in the past decade. The talk of social justice, the official culture of frugality, the appeal, however rhetorical, to traditions of tolerance and dialogue - all these seem to belong to the past, to the early decades of idealism and delusion. A decade of pro-globalisation policies has created a new, aggressive middle class whose concerns now dominate public life. This aspiring class replaced expatriate Indians as the BJP's primary constituency - referring to them in a recent cover story, India Today spoke of the "return of the militant Hindu".

This powerful Hindu minority supports the insidious campaign against madrasas, and the more brutal assertion of state power in Kashmir. It demands a nuclear attack on Pakistan; aspires to superpower status, and fervently courts the US as a political, economic and military ally. It is of this new India that Gujarat provided a glimpse last month, as young Hindus carted off looted digital cameras and DVD players in their new Japanese cars. It is of this India that Ayodhya presents both a miniature image and a sinister portent, with its syncretic past now irrevocably falsified, its mosques destroyed, its minorities suppressed: an Ayodhya where well-placed local abbots helped by politicians wait for lucrative connections to the global economy, and prove, along with much else, the profound modernity of religious nationalism.

Pankaj Mishra is author of The Romantics (Picador).

 

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