Global Currents article

The Ram Temple in Ayodhya, India: A Complex Intersection of Religion, Politics, and Society

Pran Pratishtha ceremony of Shree Ram Janmaboomi Temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh on January 22, 2024. Prime Minister Modi presided over the occasion. Via Wikimedia Commons

In February 2024, the people of India witnessed a celebration hosted by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the governing political party of the country, that was intended to remind people of the historical narratives of wars and wins of Hindus over their rivals during ancient and medieval times. These reminiscences celebrated the BJP as a conqueror who had both demolished the Babri Mosque and constructed the Ram Temple on its ruins. There is scant evidence—archaeological, historical, or scientific—to support their contention that the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya was built by the Mughal emperor Babar in sixteenth-century India on the ancient site of Ram’s birthplace. Yet, a section of Hindus, beginning especially in the mid-twentieth century, have believed that the mosque stands on the site of Lord Ram’s birthplace. This is in spite of the fact that during the Mughal period, the poet Tulsi Das, who was the author of the Ramcharitramanas (which is based on the Ramayana), does not mention the existence of Lord Ram’s birthplace in any of his compositions. Who constructed the mosque in the sixteenth century is also not clearly established, though it is often attributed to either Babar or one of his army officers, Mir Baqi. However, irrespective of the builder, the narrative that the mosque was constructed over Lord Ram’s birthplace became widespread during the twentieth century. This belief has been massively popularized by the BJP since the 1980s through a movement called Rath Yatra (holy chariot procession), which operated under the leadership of Lal Krishna Advani, the former Minister of Home Affairs, who was awarded the highest citizenship award, Bharat Ratna (literally, Diamond of India) in February 2024.

The Ram Temple was finally consecrated on January 22, 2024, on the ruins of the Babri Masjid. This marks the culmination of events that began with the discreet placement of the Ram idol under the main dome of the mosque in 1949 and the consequent stoppage of namaz prayers, followed by the demolition of Babri Mosque in December 1992. In 2019, a surprising Supreme Court verdict awarded the entirety of the disputed 2.77 acres that made up the site of Babari Masjid to the Hindu groups involved in the 1992 demolition; a legal and judicial mystery indeed. The construction of Ram Temple, its consecration, and the associated mega celebrations, were presided over not by the “holy priests,” but by Prime Minister Modi himself, along with the chief of the RSS and in the presence of carefully selected chief ministers, federal ministers, federal bureaucrats, movie stars, and known business tycoons. These celebrations featured symbols of medieval and ancient kingdoms. They indicate a political contrast with India’s modern-day constitutional democracy, and its socialist undertones, which has been in place for the last seven and a half decades.

There are four important points about this consecration. First, among the BJP and its supporters, one hears the claim that even modern secular democratic states can follow medieval and ancient rules of governance. This has the effect of basically foisting majoritarian perspectives and narratives relating to rules and laws onto the entire public. Second, while history remains a contested territory between myth and reality, in this environment it has become possible to propagate unsubstantiated beliefs even when the hard facts of documented history argue against them. Third, India remains a deeply religious society. The state can carry out processes and operations in accordance with religious beliefs, especially those of the majority, even if that requires moving away from constitutional imperatives. Fourth, there has been an attempt to so-called “decolonize”[1] Hindu art, history, society, and culture and create a “pure” version of it, despite such artifacts being the product of multiple syncretic processes of various religions, especially Islam. Importantly, this approach by some on the Hindu Right implies the compromise of the educational and governance system of the nation, which will have profound consequences on the freedom of religion, citizenship, and even the survival of religious minorities (who comprise about 20 percent of the country’s population). At risk in this instance are also the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and many “Backward communities,” which make up over one-half of the total population.

[These celebrations] indicate a political contrast with India’s modern-day constitutional democracy, and its socialist undertones, which has been in place for the last seven and a half decades.

The coexistence of different religious institutions and structures over the years has not been by accident but by design. As an example, we can look at the way multiculturalism evolved during the medieval period in India. The arrival of Islam into a land of multiple and disparate paganistic Hindu religious institutions, many of which were abandoned, led to the creation of mosques and shrines on those ruins. There are no historical records or examples of ethnographic documentation that point to the destruction of temples and other Hindu religious structures by the Muslim rulers in India. Further, the rising existential philosophy of Sufism and the Bhakti movement, as well as camaraderie between the ruling classes, led to the construction of temples and mosques in proximity to one another. These serve as models of civic and religious coexistence. Now, the proximity of these structures is being interpreted with hostility, as a sign of Muslim aggression and occupation of Hindu religious structures. But if this interpretation were true, why do the most significant Hindu structures still stand? And why are there no significant written records of the destruction of the temples and mosques? Even Marathas (Hindus) attacked Hindu temples, including the famous Tirupati temple in 1759 and Shringeri Math in Karnataka, the latter of which was restored by Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan. This shows that historically, the attacks were more about political strategy rather than religion. Otherwise, how can one explain the large number and proximity of so-called rival religious structures that remain untouched and the fact that kings supported the structures of religions different from their own as signs of co-existence and mutual respect?

Attacks on rival religious structures in India have been the exception rather than the rule. However, it is now rare for people to acknowledge this fact, and today’s tamed media and political class are engaged in presenting Hindus and Muslims—including even the proximity of their religious structures to one another—in an antagonistic manner to gain material and political benefits. The Babri Mosque, as such, became a victim of this profit and politics. In fact, the Muslims of India deeply honor and respect Lord Ram and Sita, as they do Lord Krishna. The Muslims’ contention in the case of the dispute over the land of the Babri Mosque was that the mosque was not built on the birthplace of Lord Ram (as there is no evidence of the same) or, for that matter, on any destroyed structure of a Hindu temple (even as the Supreme Court of India awarded the land to Hindus). The respect of Muslims for Lord Rama can be understood from Sir Mohammad Iqbal’s verses, a well-known Muslim Urdu poet, who in the reverence of Lord Rama wrote,

Hai raam ke vajood pe hindostaan ko naaz

[India is proud of the existence of Ram]

Ahal-e-nazar samajhate hain is ko imaam-e-Hind

[Wise people regard him as the leader/guide of India]

British colonialism did massive damage to Indian economy and politics. In addition, its orientalism created new knowledge within the middle and upper classes that divided them along religious lines and promoted “divide and rule” policies. The Hindu and Muslim middle and upper classes of that time,[2] who had coexisted for centuries, slowly became enemies of each other with the consumption of this new knowledge. W. W. Hunter’s (1871) book The Indian Musselmans highlights the deprivation and exclusion of Muslims that was a result of British discrimination in employing Muslims after India’s first War of Independence in 1857, led mainly by the Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Jafar. Hindu-Muslim communal riots started emerging because of the encouragement of competitive religious politics by the British. Such riots became ubiquitous in northern India around the 1940s. The two communities who had been interwoven for centuries then started perceiving each other as enemies, leading to the partition of the country. Even after the adoption of the secular constitution, the nation of India could not stop religious and political extremism from penetrating state structures. The destruction of the Babri Mosque during the 1980s and early 1990s played a major role in this exclusionary political maneuver. The construction of the Ram Temple in 2024 and its celebration as an example of the “decolonization” of the Hindu religion (and by extension the Hindu people) has deepened the divide across the country along religious lines.

Muslim Response

The Supreme Court verdict of 2019 concerning the construction of the Ram Temple over the spot where the mosque once existed was generally accepted and considered a non-issue by many Muslims. Yet, high-pitch celebrations and majoritarian assertions and overtones supported by the state apparatus have since massively dismayed Muslims. They are largely disempowered and excluded from most public spaces, state programs, and political institutions. Now they are more vulnerable to physical violence both at the individual and community levels and under constant threat of majoritarian security threats. Even the secular leaders and personalities who used to be a hope for syncretism and support participated in the celebrations, tending to ignore the plight of vulnerable Muslim. As such, this consecration event has become a source of worry as it supports solidifying majoritarianism and a disregard for constitutional obligations and guidelines.

Further, the ferocity of majoritarian hate is being injected through political discourses, policy misinterpretations, judicial vagueness, and the media. This new politics of hate, mostly coming from radical Hindu political activists, has turned to policing and monitoring Muslims’ everyday lives. This, in turn, has led to the spatial and socioeconomic incarceration of Muslims. Therefore, Muslim dress, language, food, sociality, occupations, and politics have come under the critical gaze of the majority, and many aspects of these have been criminalized. The mass surveillance and policing of Muslims as well as muscular propaganda have turned into career-building exercises for Hindu youths in politics. The movement that started in the 1980s for the Ram Temple has increased hate against, and exclusion of, Muslims, leading to increased desperation across the social, regional, and economic classes of Muslims. Many Muslims now are desperately looking to migrate to perceived safer locations such as the states in southern parts of India where the intensity of daily and routine religious hate is low. Some have even considered migrating internationally.

Structural Issues with Effects Across India

The Ram Temple building and its state-led celebrations heralded a new chapter in India’s social and political life. Religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, are finding themselves increasingly constrained by the apparent failure of constitutional governance, rising of majoritarianism, the surrender of state bureaucracy, the justice system, and electronic and print media. Institutional failure abounds. Yet it is essential to note that demographically just over 200 million Muslims constituting about 15 percent of the total population are distributed widely across most parts of India. They are highly visible due to their unique dress, food, and culture in their residences around mosques. Occupationally, Muslims are artisanal and self-employed and traditionally intertwined into the rural as well as urban economic and social space. Although such interdependence has been reduced due to the interventions of a number of modern technologically enabled supply chains, their supply of labor force generates higher levels of value added, which is clear evidence of demographic dividends that the country is benefiting from.

This consecration event has become a source of worry as it supports solidifying majoritarianism and a disregard for constitutional obligations and guidelines.

The actual impact of the majoritarian onslaught is vast and diverse both in its intensity and expanse. Further, the social, political, and economic outcomes of (a) the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992 was violent and broad-based; while (b) the construction of Ram Mandir at the same spot in February 2024 was strategically somber, festive, grand, and mostly concentrated in the state of Uttar Pradesh with streaks of celebrations at localized Ram temples across the country.

The public and street-level display of religious processions, “Melas and Julu” (Carnivals and Processions) are the hot spots that create a sense of insecurity amongst those who believe in ideologies different than what is reflected in such displays. The Ram Mandir construction processions in February 2024, however, were strategically planned to ensure lower violent tensions between the revellers and the minorities, especially the Muslims. Politically, this is the result of direction from the top leadership, none other than the prime minister himself. This strategy was necessary to ensure support for the boisterous claim of India (or, rather, its prime minister) to be the Vishva (World) Guru is sustained. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) groups distributed a small measure of rice dipped in saffron as a sign of invitation to celebrate the consecration of the Ram Mandir, even to the Muslim communities. The insecure feeling amongst the Muslims was much less common at the time of construction and exactly the opposite of what happened at the time of demolition when radical militant Hindu groups (like VHP and RSS) were violent and belligerent. But at the time of construction, a sense of piousness and sublimeness was created and intended structurally not to promote and facilitate violence.

Thus, the aftermath on the minority communities is wide-ranging and contains a great deal of regional variation and diversity. The impact also changes at the local level because of residential patterns, such as separate enclaves and ghettos (underserved types of living spaces), where the majority of Muslims reside. Adverse events in such spots often leads to the whole country getting a feeling of fearfulness, panic, and dreadfulness.

It is also evident that, historically, social tensions arise around religious lands (Muslim burial grounds, waqf properties) and structures (mosques) and that these tensions often lead to physical violence. Yet an analysis of the recorded communal riots suggests that politicians and political parties facilitate violent events to polarize votes towards the Hindu-Right ideology.

The greatest risk for Muslims across India is the impact of marginalization and exclusion from public spaces on the tender and formative minds of children and the youth, especially girls and women. A few data-oriented studies suggest a steep decline in female school enrolment rates and continuation rates. The odds that Muslim youth drop out after a few years of schooling is the highest among other groups in the country and rising. There are also measurable reports as to the elimination and dismissal of Muslims from the mainstream labor markets. It is essential for socio-psychological and pedagogic studies to be undertaken to better understand the future course of living and survival for Muslims in India.

An analysis of the recorded communal riots suggests that politicians and political parties facilitate violent events to polarize votes towards the Hindu-Right ideology.

The Indian constitution provides for several safeguards to protect and promote minority religions in the form of personal laws. Such laws are now being repealed and modified to reduce or fully eliminate such provisions. However, the majoritarian Hindu-radical ideology that overwhelms current governance at the national and many state levels should be legally and intellectually confronted. There is an urgent need to establish “Equal Opportunity Institutions” at the level of national government, state governments, and institutions, such as universities, hospitals, financial institutions, corporate houses, and legal establishments.  One still sees a ray of hope that over 200 million Muslims can live and prosper in India, albeit with the support of independent and autonomous democratic institutions, and the institutionalization of a few new constitutional safeguards. In this context there is an urgent need to legally establish “equal opportunity institutions,” such as equal opportunity commissions at federal and state levels, and at universities, industrial units, corporate bodies, and so on.

[1] Generally, in academic and historic literature, colonization refers to the duration of British rule in India. Yet the recent purely political discourses by the ruling BJP rhetorically contextualize “thousand years of colonization” which includes ancient and medieval Islamic rule of India.  Using a similar pitch, BJP discourses routinely refer to Indian Independence as having occurred in 2014 instead of 1947.

[2] The British Parliament ruled the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947, and was also known as British Raj. However, the onset of British presence in governance in India came into being through the rule of the East India Company since the beginning of 1600.


Abusaleh Shariff
Abusaleh Shariff is Chief Scholar at the US-India Policy Institute in Washington DC (since 2012) and President, Centre for Research and Debates in Development Policy, New Delhi. He was a Chief Economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi (1994–2012). He also worked as Senior Research Fellow at the Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC between 2008–2010. He was advisor (under a committee setting) to the Indian Prime Minister from 2004-2006 and the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India from 2010–2011 in the areas of inter-state relations and inclusive development policy reforms. He was nominated to the 13th (Indian) Finance Commission by the Finance Ministry, Government of India.
Shariff holds a Ph.D in Demography from Australian National University, Canberra (1986); and an MA degree in Economics (1993) from Bangalore University, India. He undertook post-doctoral research in the areas of household economics, labor markets, and demographic dividends at the Yale Economic Growth Center, New Haven, USA (1991–92).  He has published articles in refereed journals and over a dozen books published mostly by Oxford University Press. His latest book is is titled Institutionalizing Constitutional Rights in India (Oxford, 2016).
Shariff was selected as one of the India Today Magazine “faces of millennium (Economist)” in its January 2000 issue and one of the 25 identified in Outlook Magazine’s Alternative Power List (April 23, 2007 issue) as a recognition of his ability to influence public policy in India.

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