The 12th century poet-philosopher Basava writes:

The rich
will make a temple for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
My legs are pillars,
the body a shrine,
the head a cupola
of gold…

Centuries later, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore writes of another temple. Built by a king, this temple “pierces the sky” and houses a “bejewelled idol on a bejewelled throne”.

But a widely revered hermit rejects the temple and instead sings to god beneath a tree by the road. Crowds surround him. The temple lies empty.

The king is furious. The hermit then reminds him of the time when fires raged rendering 20,000 of his subjects homeless and destitute. They came to his door with pleas for help. But instead of giving homes to his homeless subjects, the king thought it fit to build a gold-encrusted home for a deity.


To the king, the hermit says,

“There is no god in that temple….You have consecrated yourself, not the god of the world.”

And the god declares,

My eternal home is lit
with countless lamps
In the blue, infinite sky;
its everlasting foundations
Are truth, peace, compassion, love…

On January 22, in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh head Mohan Bhagwat, a 51-inch statue in black stone of Ram as a five-year-old child will be installed and consecrated in the partly constructed Ram Temple in Ayodhya. This temple is being constructed at the site where a medieval mosque was demolished by a fevered mob in 1992.


Spread over nearly three hectares in a complex of 28 hectares, the temple is being built with red sandstone, white marble and granite. Forty-two of its doors will be encrusted with 100 kilograms of gold. The project is estimated to cost Rs 1,800 crore The makeover of this once-sleepy pilgrimage town on the banks of the river Saryu has cost the exchequer an estimated Rs 57,000 crore.

Modi says he has “no words” to express his joy and that the lord has chosen him to represent all Indians in the consecration ceremony. He calls on all Indians to light lamps outside their homes on the day of the consecration, in the way that people lit lamps on the moonless night when Ram had returned with Sita from his 14-year exile.

Volunteers with folded hands are tirelessly moving from door to door in cities and villages across India, calling upon people to gather on the day of the consecration of the temple in Ayodhya: for prayers at any temple near their homes, to sing bhajans, blow conch shells and ring temple bells to celebrate this historic consecration. Marketplaces everywhere are festooned with saffron flags. Cavalcades of young men on motorcycles with saffron bandanas and flags are driving down highways raising lusty, belligerent slogans for Ram.

I recall the words of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, when the Saurashtra government allotted Rs 5 lakh for the reconstruction of the Somnath temple in the years just after freedom. “This seems to me completely improper for any Government to do and I have written to that Government accordingly,” said Nehru.


He said:

  “At any time, this would have been undesirable, but at the present juncture, when starvation stalks the land and every kind of national economy and austerity are preached by us, this expenditure by a Government appears to me to be almost shocking. We have stopped expenditure on education, on health and many beneficent services because we say that we cannot afford it. And yet, a State Government can spend a large sum of money on just the installation ceremony of a temple.”  

The Somnath Temple stands at Prabhas Patan on the coastline of Saurashtra. It was plundered and damaged by invader Mahmud Ghazni in 1026 and several times in the centuries that followed. After Independence, Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel ordered the reconstruction of this temple. After he died in 1950, this task was carried forward by Congress leader KM Munshi with the blessings of Rajendra Prasad, who was president then.

The Somnath temple. Credit: Vinayaraj, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

However, Nehru opposed the involvement of a secular state in a religious project, state funding for the reconstruction of the religious shrine, and the presence of senior officials including the President at the time of the temple’s inauguration in 1951. He did not support anything that could be seen as the state preferentially treating one religion, contrary to constitutional principles.


To Munshi, who took charge of the Somnath temple’s reconstruction, Nehru described it as an attempt at “Hindu revivalism”. He also conveyed his dissent courteously to Prasad, saying, “I confess that I do not like the idea of your associating yourself with the spectacular opening of the Somnath Temple. This is not merely visiting a temple, which can certainly be done by you or anyone else, but rather participating in a significant function which unfortunately has some implications.”

But decades later, Modi was acerbic about Nehru’s insistence that a secular state must distance itself from the tasks of temple building. “This land of brave people”, Modi declared, “will not forgive those who have acted against the Somnath temple”.

The construction of a grand temple to Ram at the site in Ayodhya at which for 460 years a mosque stood was elevated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party to its paramount agenda, along with rescinding the special protections under Article 370 of the Constitution in India’s only Muslim-majority state Jammu and Kashmir and establishing a Uniform Civil Code. It is for this reason that the installation and consecration of the statue of Ram at the site of the Bari Masjid is a moment of triumphalism for the saffron combine.


However, as I have written earlier, this was not simply a title dispute over a tiny piece of land about the size of two football fields in a dusty small town in Uttar Pradesh. It was not even a contest between a medieval mosque, now razed, with a grand temple that was imagined. It was a dispute about what kind of country this is and will be in the future, to who does it belong, and on what terms must people of different identities and beliefs live together in this vast and teeming land.

There is one idea of India – one for which Mohandas Gandhi willingly laid down his life and which was written into the Constitution by BR Ambedkar. It was of an India that would belong equally in every respect to people of every faith and identity. the idea that India’s Muslim citizens could confidently and legitimately lay the same and equal claims to the land of their birth and their choice as could India’s Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and indeed Paris and Christians. The assurance that there would be no hierarchy of faiths, beliefs and sentiments, no obligation for one set of people to be willing to forego their claims in deference to the claims of people of the powerful and majority faith.

Credit: Ministry of Communications (GODL-India), GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons

Pitted resolutely against this idea is another imagination of India, of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha. It is of a nation that belonged to its (upper-caste) Hindu people. It includes also people of Sikh, Jain and Buddhist identities because their religions also rose from Indian soil. But it deems Islam and Christianity to be “foreign” alien faiths. Their adherents, in this alternate imagination for India, will be “allowed” by the (upper-caste) Hindu majority to live in India but only on the condition that they subordinate their faith to the sentiments and beliefs of the majority religion and culture.


The entire campaign for the construction of the Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid claims to speak for all Hindus. But the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a militant Hindutva outfit that was the main litigant, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha, represent the sentiments of many Hindus but are by no means supported by all Hindus.

Even the Supreme Court judgement that allotted the land to the Hindu litigants affirms that there is no evidence that a Hindu temple to Ram was actually demolished to build the mosque in the 16th century. But as I asked after the judgement of the highest court, even if it could have been established that there was indeed a Hindu temple at the site at which the mosque was built, are there sound legal and constitutional grounds to try to correct the possible wrongs of history in the 21st century, as the entire movement for building the Ram temple at the site of the mosque led by BJP leader LK Advani sought to do?

LK Advani during an election campaign in Ahmedabad in April 2014. Credit: Reuters.

If there is, who will decide where this will end? Will these “correctives” apply to other disputed places of worship? And further, how far in history should we go? Why stop at 500 years of history? Why not a 1,000, or 1,500, or 2,000 years, or longer? There are historical records that establish that large parts of India were Buddhist until the ninth century and that Buddhism was crushed and almost wiped out of India often by brutal force by Brahmanical Hinduism. Many temples were built by demolishing Buddhist stupas.


So, should we now advocate the restoration of Buddhist places of worship at sites where Hindu temples stand? And indeed, what about the sites of worship of India’s many tribal communities, which were forced to give way through millennia to Hindu places of worship? Who will decide how far back in history should we go and why we should select some histories and not others to rectify? Even more importantly, what in our Constitution and law justifies these choices?

Many Hindus believe that Ram was born in Ayodhya, but there is a diversity of beliefs if the Ayodhya of his birth is in fact present-day Ayodhya. Even within present-day Ayodhya, there are multiple sites which residents claim to be where Ram was born. What were the grounds for the Supreme Court to privilege one “faith and belief” that Ram was born under the domes of the demolished mosque over the “faith and belief” of innumerable other Hindus that Ram was born elsewhere?

What is most worrying is the moral, spiritual and legal legitimacy that not just the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh but large sections of the political spectrum are according to the grand new Ram temple. There were three criminal acts that resulted in the de facto conversion of the mosque into a temple. The first criminal act that interrupted the worship in the mosque was the surreptitious and illegal introduction of a Ram idol in the mosque in 1949.


The second was the celebratory demolition of the mosque in 1992 by a fevered mob, cheered on by leaders like Advani. Vice President KR Narayanan called it the saddest day for the country after Gandhi’s assassination. The movement and demolition sparked gruesome rioting across the country from 1989 to early 1993, taking thousands of lives, and its unhealed wounds continue to tear apart the country decades later.

The third was the violation of court orders prohibiting any alteration of the status quo of the site, by building a makeshift Ram temple where the demolished mosque stood, during the 36 hours that followed the demolition of the mosque. The judgement that handed over the site for the building of the Ram temple in effect rewarded those who broke the law three times over, defied the orders of the Supreme Court, and dishonoured the guarantees of India’s Constitution and its central pledge of the equality of all religions.

Credit: Samuel Bourne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

My thoughts return over and over again these troubled days to Gandhi’s last fast, which Gandhiji himself described aptly as his greatest fast. This was only a little over two weeks before he was assassinated.


Historian Vinay Lal describes India in the last days of Gandhi’s life as “a cauldron of seething fury, hatred and communal carnage…Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs found themselves enmeshed in what appeared to be a fight to the finish”.

Delhi was overrun with tens of thousands of refugees who had been uprooted by horrific violence in their homelands in what was now Pakistan that they had been forced to leave behind forever. The Delhi refugee camps were also filling up with Muslim residents who had left or been driven out of their homes by the clashes and attacks that continued. Many mosques and dargahs had been converted into makeshift “temples” by planting idols of Hindu gods in these; or into residences for the refugees.

Gandhi was profoundly saddened by all of this. He observed that no true place of worship can be created based on the desecration of the shrine of another religion, and therefore demanded that the mosques and dargahs should be returned respectfully to our Muslim brothers and sisters.


By this same measure today, I wonder if he would accept the grand temple in Ayodhya to be a true place of worship since it is built by the demolishing of a mosque by a violent mob.

On January 17, freedom fighter Maulana Azad announced Gandhi’s demands for him to end his fast to a large assembled crowd. These included “voluntary evacuation of all mosques in the city which were being used for residential purposes or which had been converted into temples”. Other demands were for ensuring free movement of Muslims in areas which they occupied before the disturbances, their full safety as they travelled in trains, their freedom to return to their old homes in Delhi and no economic boycott of Muslims.

The next day representatives of more than a hundred organisations, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha, met at the home of Rajendra Prasad and signed this undertaking: “We wish to announce that it is our heartfelt desire that the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and members of other communities should once again live in Delhi like brothers and in perfect amity and we take the pledge that we shall protect the life, property and faith of Muslims and the incidents that have happened in Delhi will not happen again”.


Their other undertakings they made were that “We shall not object to the return to Delhi of Muslims who have migrated from here if they choose to come back and Muslims shall be able to carry on their business as before”.

And, significantly, “The mosques… which are now in the possession of Hindus and Sikhs will be returned”.

This was 12 days before Gandhi was assassinated.

From left, Nathuram Godse, Narayan Apte and Vishnu Karkare during the trial in Gandhi's assassination case. Credit: Photo Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the 16th century, the great poet Tulsidas retold the story of Ram of Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana in Awadhi, the language of ordinary people. His Ramcharitmanas is among the greatest epics of world literature.


But because he wrote in the language of working people and not the sacred language of Sanskrit, the Brahmins were enraged. In response to their attacks, Tulsidas composed a doha, which began with the words:

Mangi ke khaibo, maseet mein soibo – I will beg for my food, and I will sleep in a mosque.

It is significant that the mosque in his times was a place where homeless and destitute people of every faith would find shelter.

History confirms that Tulsidas spent large parts of his life in Varanasi and Ayodhya. It also confirms that the Babri Masjid was erected in Ayodhya when Tulsidas was a teenager.


I like to imagine that Tulsidas, the writer of the epic poem of Ram’s life, when he was attacked for writing the story of Ram in the language of the working people, actually slept in the Babri Masjid.

These are days when every Indian is compelled to think of Ram in their own way.
What I wonder is –
In the long arc of history, which Ram will prevail?
The Ram whose name was on Gandhi’s lips when Nathuram Godse killed him?
Or the Ram in whose name Nathuram Godse killed Gandhi?

Harsh Mander is a human rights activist, peace worker, writer, and teacher. He works with survivors of mass violence and hunger, and homeless persons and street children.