The celebration and controversy over India’s new Ram temple

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Semafor Signals

Insights from Newslaundry, The Wire, Religion News Service, and The Economic Times

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir — a temple devoted to the Hindu deity Lord Ram — in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya on Monday. The government and several states declared Jan. 22 a holiday to celebrate the temple’s consecration as banks and the national stock exchange were closed, and cinemas live-streamed the event.

“After centuries of unprecedented patience, countless sacrifices, renunciations, and penances, our Lord Ram has arrived,” Modi said before thousands of visitors, including Bollywood celebrities and famous Indian sportspersons.

While the consecration of the temple — built at the site of a 16th century mosque that was torn down by a mob in 1992 — is being celebrated across the Hindu diaspora and hailed as a crowning achievement for Modi’s Hindu nationalist campaign, critics argued that it’s a sign of India’s eroding multiculturalism and secularism and marks a moment of heightening tensions between the country’s Hindu majority and Muslims ahead of this year’s elections.


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Critics say politicization of temple erodes India’s diversity and stifles religious debate

Sources: The Wire India, Newslaundry, Dawn

India was imagined as a country where “difference was the unifier,” but the politicization of the Ram temple “has blown a hole through this imagination a very long time ago,” author Revati Laul wrote for The Wire India. That the Ayodhya district administration has instructed the city to close all meat and liquor shops on the day of the temple’s inauguration is “not just the homogenizing of Hindu-ness over an Indian-ness,” Laul opined, but the “homogenizing [of] an upper-caste Hindu-ness over a nation of mostly meat-eating, alcohol consuming castes, tribes, genders and religions.”

Critics also pointed to the stifling of religious and political discourse by the Indian media and government. Any criticism of the ruling nationalist government is “directly linked” to criticism of the Hindu religion, argued journalist Raj Shekhar Sen for Indian media watchdog site Newslaundry. “Religious arguments being used as a weapon to justify state policy can become a ‘conversation stopper,’’’ he wrote, detailing how one of his secular friends donated to the temple’s construction out of concern that his community “might single him out for future repercussions.”

An Islamabad-based writer drew comparisons to Pakistani politics where “religion is the weapon of choice for demolishing opponents.” The message from Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda to India’s secular opposition party is to “change your discourse from secular to religious” or risk being seen as “anti-Hindu,” Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.

Diaspora celebrates temple as a revival of Hindu civilization

Sources: Business Line, Religion News

In the United States, both temples and iconic landmarks like New York City’s Time Square broadcasted the inauguration, with many in the global Hindu diaspora seeing the temple “as a chance to put Hindu Americans on the map” and to “strengthen ties between Hindus,” Religion News Service wrote. Some religious leaders saw the temple as a testament of Hindu resilience and a revival of Hindu civilization, with one Californian telling the outlet, “On a global level, we’re in an age now that we’re trying to reclaim indigenous rights.”

Questions surge over temple's price tag and government's economic priorities

Sources: The Economic Times, Al Jazeera, Frontline

With an estimated cost of nearly $217 million USD, the temple is one of India’s most expensive public monuments in recent years, according to The Economic Times. Donations covered most of the construction, but the central and local governments chipped in a significant amount, the paper reported. The government pitched the temple and redevelopment around the site as a significant investment for the state of Uttar Pradesh, expected to generate some $48 billion in tourism revenue this year. Real estate in Ayodhya has also become a lucrative business in recent years, with developers paying for land “costlier than the gold“ to build hotels and other new businesses. However, the revamp led to thousands of shops and homes reportedly being broken down or displaced, at the cost of small business owners and local residents, the Wire reported. Modi’s critics have argued that the government neglected funding more crucial services, with India’s leftist Frontline Magazine blaming the “seductive narcotic“ of a temple in a country with the world’s highest rate of childhood malnutrition and one of the highest poverty rates in South Asia.