Why a half-finished temple is the symbol of Modi’s Hindu nationalist India 

Shougat Dasgupta


On January 22, the city of Ayodhya, in the huge northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, will host a ceremony to mark the opening of a still unfinished temple. It is difficult to understate the significance of this day as the culmination of a 30-year project that has made Hindu nationalism the dominant political and ideological force in India. And from a personal point of view, the narrative around the events on January 22 represents the capture of the mainstream Indian media by the government, the collective choice to toe the party line rather than inform the public. But first, some background.

In 1992, thousands of activists from a number of Hindu supremacist groups tore down the Babri Masjid, a mosque that had stood in Ayodhya since the 16th century. Its demolition was the product of campaigning that began to gain momentum around 1989. The Hindu groups claimed that the mosque had been built over a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama, hero of the Ramayana, one of the two great Hindu epics. Many Hindus celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, as the day Rama returned to Ayodhya after 14 years in exile, having rescued his wife Sita and defeated her abductor, the 10-headed demon king Ravana. Rama, in Hindu tradition, embodies righteousness — his victory over Ravana is the victory of good over evil.

The campaign thrust the Bharatiya Janata Party into the national consciousness as a viable political force. In 1984, the BJP had only two seats in India’s 543-seat lower house of parliament. By 1991, on the back of the campaign to restore the supposed site of Rama’s birth to Hindus, the BJP — the political expression of Hindu supremacy — won 120 seats. And by 1999, the BJP had enough seats to form government, though it was voted out of power five years later. 

Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP now controls 303 seats and has governed India for the last decade. This is an election year in India and it is widely expected that Modi will win a third consecutive five-year term in May. The new Rama temple, even if only half built, is symbolic of the BJP’s hold over Indian politics, both electoral and cultural. And such is the strength of Modi’s self-possession that it is possibly also symbolic of Modi’s triumph over all opposition.

Just months after Modi was re-elected for a second term in 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the demolition of the mosque in 1992 violated Indian law. Nevertheless, the court still turned the site over to a trust to be formed by the government to build a Rama temple where the mosque once stood, arguing that the Hindu belief that the site was the birthplace of Rama could not be disputed. An alternative site, the court said, should be provided by the government to build another mosque in Ayodhya. The verdict was a victory of “faith over facts,” said prominent opposition politician Asaduddin Owaisi, one of the vanishingly few Muslim representatives in India’s parliament, even though Muslims make up over 15% of the country’s population. 

Not surprisingly — given that the campaign that led to the 1992 destruction of the mosque put the BJP on India’s electoral map — Modi has spun the inauguration of the temple on January 22 as one of the many gifts given by the Modi-led BJP to the nation. He has publicized that he is undertaking an 11-day training regime, which includes fasting and religious study, to prepare himself to preside over the rituals that will mark the opening of the temple. 

Hindu nationalists, including those in the BJP, believe that India should not be a secular nation but a Hindu one. And on January 22, Modi will effectively abdicate prime ministerial duties to take on priestly ones, as is befitting the leader of a supposedly Hindu nation. Plans have also apparently been made to screen the ceremonies in Indian embassies across the world and even in Times Square in New York City. 

What is being omitted from the official narrative is the years of rioting between Hindus and Muslims that have resulted in thousands of deaths and can be directly linked to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. What is being omitted is that by forcefully and illegally destroying a mosque and replacing it with a temple, the Modi government is doing what it accuses India’s Muslim rulers in the 16th century of doing — that is, destroying a temple to make way for a mosque. What is being omitted is that the cry of “jai Shri Ram” (victory to Lord Rama) is increasingly associated with violence and hate crimes against Muslims. 

Hate speech and disinformation have been at the core of the successful campaign to convince a significant majority of Indians that the illegal destruction of a centuries-old mosque is actually, as a major Hindu nationalist leader put it, a liberation from slavery. India is celebrating a temple built through brute majoritarianism, as a symbol not of the country’s fading constitutional secularism but of its growing confidence as a newly assertive global power.

India’s media is participating in the fiction that this is a moment of cultural celebration and pride for India. But as every schoolchild knows, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Climate denial turns personal

Attacking the messenger is perhaps the oldest trick in the propagandist’s book. Why bother to take on arguments, or counter reason with reason, when you can demonize your opponents instead? The Center for Countering Digital Hate notes in a new report that there has been a noticeable change in the tactics used by climate change deniers to spread disinformation. Rather than attack the idea of climate change itself, critics have cast doubt on the research behind it, how that research is being interpreted and the researchers themselves.

Imran Ahmed, the CEO of CCDH, writes in his introduction to the report that it is “vital that those advocating for action to avert climate disaster take note of this substantial shift from denial of anthropogenic climate change to undermining trust in both solutions and science itself, and shift our focus, our resources and our counternarratives accordingly.”

The “Old Denial” as characterized by CCDH might be something as straightforward as claiming global warming is a fiction. The “New Denial” is a slightly more subtle tactic of arguing that global warming is not necessarily man-made or that the impacts of global warming are beneficial or that the solutions being proposed to mitigate the impact of global warming won’t work. 

According to CCDH’s research, some 70% of climate change denial on platforms such as YouTube take the form of “New Denial,” particularly assertions that proposed solutions cannot work. The report also quotes media figures such as the American conservative commentator Glenn Beck, who has spread online conspiracy theories to the nearly 2 million followers of his Blaze TV channel on YouTube. “They know that climate change is not going to kill millions around the world,” intones Beck over ominous music. “No, this is all about gaining power and control over you.”

The report adds ballast to survey results from a poll published by Global Witness in April last year, in which 39% of the climate scientists surveyed reported experiencing online harrasment and abuse. The number went up to 49% if the scientists had published more than 10 papers and far more dramatically to about 75% if they had appeared regularly in the media.

It all adds up to the same gloomy picture — that online discussion is now effectively an oxymoron.

What we’re reading:

This piece in Foreign Policy warns against the kind of moral panic displayed in the sentence above. In this bumper election year, with some 65 countries including India and the United States, going to the polls, it is perhaps too easy to put the blame entirely at the feet of tech barons. “Anxieties abound that social media, further weaponized with artificial intelligence, will play a destructive role in these elections,” notes the writer of the article, Princeton University professor Jan-Werner Müller. But, he argues, “social media is not inherently populist.” Instead democracies have failed to strategize effectively to counter the harms done by platforms, whether it’s through the capriciousness of owners, like Elon Musk, or the control exercised by increasingly autocratic governments, such as Narendra Modi’s in India. But if social media is not inherently populist, it does seem inherently unable to cope with nuance, equivocation and doubt. It’s a medium that rewards certainty — and that’s more worrying than Müller is willing to concede.