New Delhi – Last week, an Indian prime minister, dressed like a priest-king in a saffron scarf, a silver crown and a lockdown-lengthened beard, performed a sacred ritual in the ancient capital of Ayodhya. Narendra Modi thus founded a new Hindu temple on a site where, for hundreds of years, a mosque had stood.
After decades of legal warfare and mob violence, Hindu nationalists have now effectively reclaimed the land where they believe the god Rama was born. The state-sponsored pageantry of the moment, however, proclaimed their greater victory: the transformation of India from a secular-nationalist republic into an ethno-nationalist state.
No mere democratic election could match the elation of this moment, as far as the Hindu revivalists were concerned; theirs was a victory not over politicians but over history itself. In their story of India, centuries of “Muslim oppression” persisted as long as mosques still stood on disputed land and as long as India’s flawed secular leadership sought to include Muslims in a broad governing coalition. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party effectively ended both, soundly defeating a government led by a Sikh prime minister and a Christian party president. Modi’s two emphatic election victories, the nationalists believe, have shown India that its Muslims can be safely ignored.
Twenty, even 10 years ago, there would have been agonizing in the media and in public over an Indian prime minister presiding over such a religious-political spectacle. Certainly, when the mosque that once stood in Ayodhya was demolished by a mob, general revulsion was great enough for Modi’s predecessors to claim they were ashamed. Now, Hindu nationalism’s capture of the soul of India is so complete that television anchors broke into devotional song and newspaper front pages looked more like religious calendars than broadsheets.
Modi, and India, are not alone. The most ambitious and effective of today’s populist-nationalists match themselves against the broad sweep of history and seek to reverse it. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turns the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, he wants to erase not just the legacy of Ataturk but of Ottoman Turkey’s “humiliation” at the hands of the West after World War I. It’s no coincidence that the first prayers at Hagia Sophia were timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne that the defeated Ottomans were forced to sign.
Viktor Orban’s Hungary mourns its “dismemberment” in the Treaty of Trianon a century ago — most spectacularly through a new monument in the center of Budapest. As for Vladimir Putin, it is not clear which Russia he wants to celebrate — the Soviet Union that he once served, or the vast Orthodox empire it replaced. Regardless, there’s no doubt that he, too, wishes to turn the clock back.
Yet not one of this unprecedented crop of leaders has reversed the tide of history as successfully as Modi has in India — ending, he claimed in his first speech as prime minister, “1,200 years of slavery.” Certainly, none of the others, not even Orban, lead a country that seems as convinced of its leader’s crusade as India does.
Of course, many Hindus do feel estranged from their co-religionists. In a heartfelt column, the prominent public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote: “This temple is the first real colonization of Hinduism by political power. I feel chained like never before.”
But those Indians who disapprove of their country’s new orientation have been indisputably beaten in two national elections. And many of them are exhausted by the number of defeats they have suffered — on migration policy, on judicial independence, on Kashmir, on state-sanctioned Islamophobia. They remind themselves that the Ayodhya temple is but a symbol of the humiliation of Muslims and liberals and that they had better save whatever energy they have left for the additional persecution that may follow.
Sadly, this colonization of religion, the reduction of what is sacred into what Mehta calls a “banal and nasty … symbol of ethnic nationalism” has been a long time coming. A few weeks before Modi’s first election victory, six years ago, I visited Ayodhya. I walked through barbed-wire corridors reminiscent of a concentration camp, and was hustled past the small area, covered with a makeshift blue tarp, that was the sanctum sanctorum.
That glimpse seemed insufficient for many in the crowd of pilgrims. The real moment to savor came afterwards as they walked through the bizarre revivalist mall that Ayodhya had become, buying DVDs of the mosque’s demolition and mob violence set to hymns about peace and tranquillity. They represented, I had always been told, the hate-filled “fringe,” not India’s tolerant mainstream. Give hate enough oxygen, though, and it will inexorably spread.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.
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