NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated on Monday a grand new Hindu temple built on the ruins of a historic mosque in the town of Ayodhya, in a religious spectacle taking place ahead of elections in the country.
The temple, built at an estimated cost of $217 million, lies atop the debris of the 16th-century Babri Mosque, which was torn down in 1992 by Hindu mobs who believed it was built on temple ruins marking the birthplace of Hinduism’s Lord Ram.
The site has long been a religious flashpoint for the two communities, with the mosque’s demolition sparking communal violence throughout India that left 2,000 people dead, most of them Muslims.
The construction of the temple is a central promise of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the opening has turned into a massive national event attended by more than 7,000 special guests and watched by millions across the country in various live screenings planned by the government.
“This is the temple of India’s vision, India’s philosophy, India’s direction. This is the temple of national consciousness in the form of Ram,” Modi said in a speech.
“The construction of this temple of Lord Ram is also a symbol of peace, patience, mutual harmony, and coordination of Indian society. We are seeing that this construction is not giving birth to any fire, but to energy.”
Though the temple is still under construction, Monday’s ceremony was widely seen as Modi delivering on a crucial Hindu nationalist pledge and was expected to increase his chances of clinching a record third successive term by drawing on the religious sentiment of Hindus, who make up 80 percent of India’s 1.4 billion population, as the nation heads to elections between April and May this year.
The Ram temple has also sparked concerns over the future of secularism in India.
“We have lost the constitutional way of life. We have by all practical purposes declared that we are no longer a secular state and that means the end of rule of law, that also means the end of democracy because Modi has been behaving more in monarchical fashion,” Apoorvanand Jha, a professor of Hindi at the University of Delhi, told Arab News.
India, with Modi as its head, was “no longer a secular state,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote the book on the Lord Ram temple project titled “The Demolition, The Verdict, and The Temple.”
“The construction of Ram temple cannot be a moment of glory for Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs. It’s meant for Hindus, and the BJP will go to Hindus and ask for rewards and the rewards are votes.
“The temple is not complete, yet he (Modi) has inaugurated it. It means that he has the upcoming general elections in mind,” Mukhopadhyay told Arab News.
“For the first time in India we saw a political speech made from the temple. It was made from inside the temple. The BJP always used to accuse Muslim priests for making political speech from inside mosques. Now they have also started doing the same.”
Pinarayi Vijayan, chief minister of Kerala, said in a video statement that government officials “could not be promoting one religion above all other or demean one religion beneath every other.”
“However, of late that line that demarcates religion and state seems to be getting thinner and thinner. This is a major departure from the times when our office bearers have been cautious in taking part in religious events as it would cast aspersion on our credentials as a secular state,” he said.
“Now we have come to a point in time when the inauguration of a religious place in the country is being celebrated as a state event.”