At the end of the three-day Diwali celebrations at Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath announced that Faizabad district will be renamed Ayodhya, confirmed that a grand statue of Lord Ram was to be built at state expense, and that the newly-renamed district was to have an airport and a government medical college named after Lord Ram and his father, Dasharatha, respectively. There is something troubling about this spate of announcements by the UP CM.
The naming and re-naming of public spaces and landmarks has been a politically fraught exercise for much of independent India’s history and admittedly the Nehru-Gandhi family has more than its fair share of roads and buildings named after its members — at the expense of, it can be argued, other public figures. But both the timing and context of the flurry of announcements by Adityanath raise disquieting questions about the UP government’s motives. Following the renaming of Faizabad, as Allahabad is rechristened Prayagraj, the new nomenclatures, it is clear, are not merely an attempt to counter the erstwhile political dominance of a particular party and family. They point to a new form of censorship: To downplay, if not erase, the role of Islam and its followers in the history and cultural fabric of India. Moreover, as parties gear up for the general elections due in 2019, the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute is being irresponsibly raked up once again for electoral gain. Senior leaders of the Sangh Parivar as well as at least one Union minister have questioned the Supreme Court’s “delay” in delivering a verdict on the Ram temple, and issued barely-disguised warnings about the “religious sentiments” of Hindus.
The BJP won its impressive mandate in the 2017 UP Assembly elections without declaring a CM candidate. The choice of Adityanath — a hardliner on minority rights and freedoms even within the saffron party — was a controversial interpretation of that mandate. Yet it was hoped that he would grow into the constitutional office that he was selected for. Or that the state’s many developmental needs would take precedence over a politics of identity and chauvinism. But whether through the formation of “anti-Romeo squads” or boldly claiming credit for several “encounter” killings in the state, that hope is being belied. The moves now towards making Ram and religion not only the central pole of politics, but also governance, only confirm a dismal trend. Adityanath must rise to his office, rather than being seen to mire it in controversy.