Divine Exercises

Skye Arundhati Thomas

Just before midnight on 22 December 1949, sixteen months after the Indian nation-state was formed, three Hindu fundamentalists sneaked into the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The men – an ascetic and his disciples – smuggled in a statue of the god Ram and placed it under the central dome of the mosque. They were members of the Hindu Mahasabha, the group that had assassinated Mahatma Gandhi the year before. The next morning, their allies stormed the mosque. They said the god had manifested himself at the site they believed to be his birthplace in a ‘divine exercise’.

A month later, on 26 January 1950, the Constitution of India was signed. It outlined a nation founded on secular ideals, which would bring an end to the stranglehold of caste and communal violence.

Cases were filed asking that the Babri Masjid be opened up for Hindu prayer. The petitioners argued that the 16th-century mosque had been built on the site of a demolished Hindu temple. A district court in Faizabad ordered the mosque’s inner courtyard to be locked, marking it as disputed territory. In 1951, B.K. Mukherjea delivered a lecture at Calcutta University on The Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trusts. ‘An idol is a juristic person in whom the title of the endowment vests,’ he reasoned, echoing ancient Roman law. The legal dispute over the site continued for decades, until the mosque was pulled down by a Hindu mob in 1992. There were riots across India in which two thousand people died.

The central government took possession of the land. The Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that the mosque was ‘non-essential’ to the practice of Islam; in 2019 it granted the deity, Shri Ram Virajman, the title of the land on which the Babri Masjid once stood, and a perpetual injunction against ‘other parties from interfering in the construction of a new temple at the site’. At the 2020 Dubai Expo, surrounded by flying robots and driverless cars, the Indian pavilion displayed a scale replica of the new Ayodhya temple under construction.

The legally sanctioned myth of Lord Ram has grown fierce. On Ram Navami this year (10 April), the festival celebrating his birth, ‘processions’ of men with loudspeakers and long wooden batons, wearing saffron turbans, roamed through Muslim neighbourhoods. Agitated and restless, making aggressive eye contact with passersby, they affixed saffron flags to mosques and chanted goading slogans. Some carried swords and homemade pistols. In ten states across India, Muslim-owned shops were burned down, stones were thrown, vehicles set on fire. The police responded with tear gas.

‘Ayodhya is a storm that will pass,’ the Supreme Court declared in 1994. Instead, it continues to be the precedent and template for the Hindu nationalist imagination. In 2019, a group of Hindus in Varanasi were caught trying to bury an effigy of Nandi, the bull attendant of Shiva, near the Gyanvapi mosque. It shares a wall with the Kashi temple, a pilgrimage site that attracts millions of Hindus every year, and a central point in Narendra Modi’s Kashi Vishwanath Corridor redevelopment project, which will see the restoration of the Varanasi funeral ghats and the building of a large complex that includes a library, administrative offices and shops. When Modi flew to Varanasi to place the foundation stone for this new Hindu compound, he said it was a ‘liberation day’; for centuries, ‘enemies’ had tried to ‘attack the site’. Ever since, Rapid Action Forces have patrolled the premises in riot gear.

The 1991 Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act decreed that religious sites could not be converted from one religion to another. (The act explicitly mentions, however, that it does not apply to places of worship in Jammu and Kashmir or to the mosque in Ayodhya.) It was supposed to be a sign of commitment to the secularism outlined in the Constitution. The same year, India liberalised its economy and foreign investment flooded in, promising growth. Today, the average middle-class Indian can barely afford the rising price of wheat. The courts’ commitment to secularism is slipping, too. On 26 April, a video survey of the Gyanvapi site was ordered by the Varanasi Civil Court, to locate Hindu symbols. Shiva’s symbol – a lingam – was apparently spotted in the mosque’s wazu khana, where ablutions are performed before prayer. The court ordered the wazu khana to be sealed.

It isn’t only mosques that are being targeted. A petition was filed in an Allahabad court to open sealed rooms in the Taj Mahal to look for Hindu idols (it was rejected). Hindu groups in Delhi want to excavate the area around the Qutub Minar. In late April, bulldozers and trucks, escorted by police, drove into the Jahangirpuri neighbourhood in north-west Delhi and began to knock down Muslim homes and shops. The Supreme Court intervened, ordering the destruction to stop, but it continued for over an hour afterwards.

A few weeks later, a similar battalion of bulldozers entered Shaheen Bagh, where in 2019-20 women held a sit-in for weeks to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Reviewing Ita Mehrotra’s book Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection in the Caravan, Umar Khalid wrote:

Many of us wondered why we live in these ‘ghettos’. Could we not shift to another place that was cleaner and less congested, where we could get sunlight in our homes during the day, and a regular electricity and water connection; where we would have parks to play in and clean air to breathe? We lived here because we were safe here.

That safety is being systematically dismantled by the state. Khalid was arrested in September 2020. He is still being held in pre-trial detention in a maximum-security prison in New Delhi. On an official visit to India in April, Boris Johnson toured the industrial facility that manufactures the bulldozers used in the raids. He climbed into one, smiling, and posed for a photo.