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In Ayodhya will unfold a project of building, and erasure

It would be a mistake to see the Ayodhya ceremony as a mere diversionary tactic in the midst of a pandemic and a sinking economy. For the architects of the Hindu Rashtra, it is a day to blow the conch shells and rejoice.

Written by Saba Naqvi | Updated: August 4, 2020 1:52:24 pm
A couple takes a selfie in front of a decorated gate of Ayodhya city ahead of the groundbreaking ceremony of the temple (AP)

The August 5 ceremony that will take place in Ayodhya is the inauguration of the first significant monument of the Hindu nation. The BJP and Sangh Parivar are determined to create their own history and monuments. All the ideologues of the Hindu right have written reams about Abrahamic religions holding the national imagination hostage because of the chicanery of Nehruvian secularism. They have expounded on the need for new symbols, changes in historical perception, indeed a new nation. The most significant exposition has been that of V D Savarkar, who first came up with the term Hindutva as the title of an essay and would write that it was the “Prince of Ayodhya” who established the Hindu nation. “The day when the Horse of Victory returned to Ayodhya unchallenged and unchallengeable… that day was the real birth-day of our Hindu people,” he wrote.

It would, therefore, be a mistake to see the Ayodhya ceremony as a mere diversionary tactic in the midst of a pandemic and a sinking economy. For the architects of the Hindu Rashtra, it is a day to blow the conch shells and rejoice. The fact that this will happen on August 5 that marks the anniversary of the abolition of Article 370, that they have viewed as an abomination, is a matter of celebration and not a cause of concern for them. It was again Savarkar who would say that a Hindu was someone for whom India was both the pitrabhumi (land of ancestors) and punya bhumi (holy land), by which definition Muslims and Christians were excluded.

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The fact is that till now in independent India, the August 15 prime ministerial speech is made from the ramparts of the Red Fort, a Mughal monument, and the business of government and Parliament continued in British-built structures. This does not appeal to adherents of an ideology seeking to create a muscular new Hindu identity after what they view as centuries of subjugation at the hands of Muslims and then, Christians. British architect Edward Lutyens designed that historic zone and his last name is now routinely used as an insult meant to put down an old elite. The central vista project announced last year to redevelop this zone in Delhi must also be seen in this light: There is an ideological underpinning to it, beyond being a mere vanity project for a prime minister.

But to return to Ayodhya, it lies in the region once known for a cultural effervescence often described as Ganga-Jumni tehzeeb, that sounds like an outdated cliché today. For one, more rivers run through the region besides the Ganga and Yamuna. There is the Saryu along which Ayodhya stands and the Gomti that cuts through Lucknow. Faizabad, the town to which Ayodhya is attached, was the first capital of the Nawabs of Awadh, who patronised music, the arts, the dance form of kathak, and made donations to many temples. Ayodhya’s pre-eminent temple to date has been the Hanumangarhi, whose construction was supported with several revenue land grants by the nawabs.

My first trip to Ayodhya was made in November 1992, weeks before the Babri mosque was brought down. In the backdrop of the Ram janmabhoomi movement, I began my reporting career travelling across India searching for the survival or death of syncretic traditions and a composite culture. The series, titled “In Good Faith”, was being published in The Indian Express. I would see fragile traditions vanish in the face of rising Hindu assertion and as the counterpoint, a growing Muslim conservatism. Equally, many survived.

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There was a large police presence in Ayodhya that year and it seemed that an apocalyptic event was round the corner. Between sadhus, kar sevaks, politicians and policemen, I met Ansar Hussain, then 87, a devout Muslim who had for 45 years been caretaker of the Sunder Bhawan, one of the many Sita Ram temples in Ayodhya. He was certain he would be safe; why, he said, when he had fallen sick some years ago, two sadhus of the Hanumangarhi temple had donated blood for him! I would return to Ayodhya four days after the demolition and find a big lock on his door and learn that the family had fled. A young boy wearing a saffron scarf would say that it is good the old fool has gone as he was polluting the Gods. But again, visiting Ayodhya some years later, I would learn that Ansar Hussain had returned and continued looking after his Sita-Ram mandir till his death in his mid-90s.

The Awadh region has birthed many cultures and contesting memories, from a nawab who would compose a dance drama called Radha Kanhaiyya ka Kissa, to the great singer of thumris and ghazals named Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, whom we know as Begum Akhtar.

Now the metaphorical Prince of Ayodhya returns and a grand symbol of the recast Hindu nation shall dominate the skyline.

This article first appeared in the print edition on August 4, 2020 under the title ‘Hindu nation and its symbols’. Naqvi, a senior journalist, is the author of Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi

Express in Ayodhya | Ayodhya is a town in waiting, along with Iqbal Ansari and Gayatri Devi

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