In the 2019 general election, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslide victory affirmed the robust dominance of his party in Indian electoral and legislative politics for the next five years. This October, Modi’s administration resurfaced an ancient religious conflict known as the Ayodhya dispute, or the Babri Masjid case, and the century-old controversy instantly reentered headlines. By attacking the ideals of India’s constitution, the Babri Masjid case and Modi’s recent development present a prime case study for the erosion of secularism in India. Modi’s recent actions, however, are far from unanticipated: in fact, the evolution of the Babri Masjid controversy in 2020 can be explained by centuries of history surrounding religious divisiveness, communalism, and the rise of the political far-right in India.

That India is a religiously divided nation is no secret; the history of religious difference dates all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilization. Consisting of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, the schisms between modern religious groups date back to a decentralized India, one ruled by a collection of empires and dynasties, each with a different take on worship. India’s rich history—from the Vedic period to the dissolution of the British Raj to the headlines of 2020—is soiled with religiously-motivated hate crimes, massacres, and political assassinations.

Some attribute the origin of this religious divide in India to the caste system, which is an ethnographic hierarchy of social classes. While the caste system itself can be located in several foundational texts of Hinduism—from Vedas to the Bhagavad Gita—caste violence is a matter of religious interpretation. The controversy and violence surrounding caste constitute a largely intra-Hindu debate, whereas India’s national religious divide is a matter of violent relations between different religious communities. In other words, the notion of caste is tangential to what is otherwise a distinctly interfaith conflict, one which manifests between Hindu and Muslim communities in particular.

India’s national identity and self-image cannot be discussed without the inclusion of religious divisiveness. Hence, the story of Indian independence—arguably the most critical event of modern Indian history—is inextricably intertwined with religious conflict. Some historians believe that India’s religious divide and violence are legacies of the country’s colonial past. Citing Britain’s strategy in conquering India using a tactic known as “divide and rule,” British leaders pitted Muslims and Hindus against each other. The ensuing chaos facilitated an easier transition to colonial rule, and diminished the possibility of a unified uprising against the British Raj administration. Ultimately, this strategy backfired massively for Britain. What began as a series of isolated terrorist incidents devolved over the course of the colonial occupation into full-blown communal rioting. Throughout the mid-twentieth century (notably including protests from 1930-1947), religious conflicts escalated and sowed the seeds for India’s independence and the Partition of India and Pakistan.

While India’s independence marked a triumph over a shared colonial oppressor, many saw the ensuing Partition as a failure. Most famously, Mahatma Gandhi, a vehement opponent of the Partition, wrote the following in 1947: “Probably no one is more distressed than I am over the impending division of India.”

British leaders oversaw the division of territory, which is to say the new border was drawn without much knowledge of the demographic distribution along it. As a result, the Partition displaced between 10 to 15 million people, creating a devastating refugee crisis almost overnight. The death toll is widely disputed amongst historians, but is estimated somewhere between several hundred thousand and two million.

Religious divisiveness is woven delicately throughout the fabric of India’s past in such a way that it simply cannot be separated while preserving historical accuracy. This dark but unavoidable emblem of India’s past manifests itself in a plethora of modern examples including Bollywood, electoral politics, celebrity scandals, economics, literature, and foreign affairs. Above all, however, there is one controversy that stands out from the rest. Known as the Ayodhya dispute or the Babri Masjid demolition case, this centuries-old controversy dates all the way back to sixteenth century India, and it has recently reentered international news headlines as Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes a stand on the issue.

Babri Masjid, translated from Sanskrit and meaning “Mosque of Babur,” is located in the city of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India. This site was originally occupied by a mosque, constructed by commander Mir Baqi of the Mughal Empire. Many Hindus believe the site of the Babri Masjid to be the birthplace of Ram, a Hindu deity. Hindu extremists demolished the mosque in 1992, and now, in 2020, Modi is leading a movement to construct a Hindu mandir (temple), on the same land. The highly-polarized territorial dispute over this land plays into decades of religious communalism and divisiveness. In order to properly understand the significant role of the Ayodhya dispute in Indian culture and politics, one must start from the origin of the mosque.

Though the specific date of construction is unknown, inscriptions discovered on the structure in the 20th century estimate a time around 935 A.H., sometime between 1528 and 1529. The sacred mosque remained vacant for several decades ever since its 1992 demolition. Apart from the fact that both Muslims and Hindus claim entitlement to the land, any construction on top of what was once a place of worship is subject to widespread accusations of insensitivity and outright sacrilege.

The core source of controversy lies with the geographic placement of the temple, which is upon a hill known as Ramkot where Babri Masjid once sat. Muslims claim the land on the grounds of the sheer duration of the mosque’s existence. For Muslims, the Babri Masjid was a relict of the great Islamic Mughal Empire. On the other hand, certain factions of the Hindu community claim that Ramkot marks the birthplace of Rama, incarnation of the god Vishnu. More radical proponents even claim that a structure marking Rama’s birthplace existed before the mosque was constructed. Those who subscribe to this school of thought claim that the Mughals destroyed the Hindu temple which occupied the Ramkot hill prior to the construction of the mosque. There is minimal archaeological or epigraphic evidence to support this claim; the first documented mandir of Rama in Uttar Pradesh was of the late sixteenth century, which would place the mosque’s construction at least some nineteen years prior. Hence, this dispute between Hindus and Muslims is distinctly territorial: Who is entitled to a holy site on the Ramkot land?

Much like any religiously disputed territory in the world, conflict escalated slowly at first, but rapidly intensified.

  • 1859: The British Raj erected a fence along the perimeter of the land, so Hindus could worship at the outer court whilst mosque proceedings occurred inside.

  • 1885: Mahant Raghubir Das, a Hindu seer, filed a plea in a local court seeking permission to build a canopy for Hindu worship outside the fence, which was promptly rejected.

From the mid-twentieth century onward, Hindu antagonism gained footing in popular culture, and the movement gradually became more hostile.

  • 1949: An unknown group of individuals installed idols of Ram Lalla (the infant form of Lord Rama) along the outside of the fence while the area was locked off.

  • 1959: Nirmohi Akhara, a wealthy Hindu sect, filed for ownership of the land.

  • 1961: Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board filed for ownership of the land.

  • 1986: A local court ordered the land be opened to Hindu worshippers.

  • 1989: The Allahabad High Court declared status quo must be upheld for the Babri Masjid site.

Four centuries of tensions finally climaxed on Dec. 6, 1992 when a Hindu nationalist rally gathered some 150,000 protesters, overwhelmed security forces, and tore the ancient mosque to the ground. Of course, the demolition of the mosque was only the beginning of the violence. Immediately following the mosque’s destruction, riots broke out with a force and intensity that spanned three countries. In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, several months of violent protest and hate crimes ensued. More than two thousand civilians were ultimately killed as a result of the communal violence. Though the majority of deaths were Muslim, rioters on both sides of the conflict inflicted deadly force. The rioting also incurred extensive property damage: Mumbai alone paid approximately ₹ 9,000 crore, or $3.6 billion USD, in damages.

The extremists who demolished Babri Masjid were later identified to be members of Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization with an established goal to “organise [and] consolidate the Hindu society and to serve and protect the Hindu Dharma.” V.H.P.’s Hindutva objective, however, is far from outdated in India. In fact, the mission statement of Modi’s party—the Bharatiya Janata Party—is nearly identical.

Hindu nationalism is the belief that India exists as a homeland for Hindus, rather than the secular state that India’s constitution describes. Historians and political scientists alike reference Hindu nationalism as a variant of right-wing extremism and ethnic absolutism. The origin of Hindutva long precedes the unification of India into one nation-state. The existence of Hindu nationalism is as old as religious division across the Indian subcontinent itself, but did not become fully integrated into electoral politics until the collapse of the British Raj. One moment which made official the threat of Hindu nationalism was the assassination of Gandhi by Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse. Gandhi is widely deified in Indian and Western culture alike, so when Godse assassinated him due to his perceived tolerance towards Muslims, the response was passionate. From Gandhi’s death onwards, Hindu nationalism became widely recognized as a tangible encroachment on peace, pluralism, and secularism in India.

Hindu nationalism’s threat to India is far from theoretical. Modi entered office after a landslide election in 2014, with promises to counteract corruption and modernize the economy. During his time in office, Modi’s administration has pursued legislation that has been met with widespread accusations of sectarianism and Islamophobia. Most notable in this category is the recent Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 (C.A.A.), an amendment to India’s sixty-four-year-old citizenship law that effectively makes the naturalization process more difficult for Muslim applicants. An official from the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that “the bill provides expedited consideration for Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities already in India from certain contiguous countries.” Specifically, the amendment allows Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians fleeing religious persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Afghanistan to fast-track their citizenship process. Quite noticeably, the bill includes every major religion from across Southeast Asia with the blatant exception of Islam. The passage of Modi’s C.A.A. ignited massive, nationwide protests. Beginning in Assam, protestors clashed with law enforcement officials, ultimately resulting in over 65 citizen casualties, over 175 injuries, and over 3,000 arrests.

Another key example of Modi’s legislative efforts to attack civil liberties is his National Register of Citizens (N.R.C), a program which registers all those whose citizenship aligns with the Citizenship Act of 1955 and the Citizenship Act of 2003. Modi first implemented the N.R.C. in Assam, a border state with large immigration issues, and plans on expanding to other states in 2021. The program also includes the distribution of national identity cards, the main goal of which is to identify and deport undocumented Bengali immigrants. However, what actually occurred as a result was nearly two million people rendered stateless practically overnight, the vast majority being Muslim. Proving one’s citizenship to meet the standards of the N.R.C. can be excruciatingly difficult given the specific document requirements, many of which are unattainable for residents of rural areas. Unfortunately, the C.A.A. and N.R.C., along with the rest of Modi’s contentious legislative record in office, were hardly a surprise given his platform and political origin story.

Modi’s party, the B.J.P., is highly conservative and right-wing, as well as an opponent of the Indian National Congress political party. The ideological backbone of the B.J.P. is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (R.S.S.), a right-wing paramilitary volunteer organization that facilitated the beginning of Modi’s political career. The R.S.S.’s platform hinges largely on a book written by ideologue M. S. Golwalkar, where he promotes the Hindu nationalist cause, citing Muslims and Christians as “major internal threats” to India. Modi joined the R.S.S. as a student in 1950, and remained an engaged member for over a decade as he entered the sphere of Hindutva politics. Modi’s roots with this organization cannot be overlooked; the R.S.S. and its vast membership characterize Modi’s voter base as he aligns himself with an organization that not only promotes violent Hindu uprising, but overtly opposes the Indian Constitution.

The founders of the Indian constitution had a vision for the nation which prominently featured secularism, a major premise of Indian independence. Contrary to popular belief, the Partition of India did not create two religious homelands with Pakistan for Muslims and India for Hindus. Rather, the key negotiators of India’s independence—men like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru—fought valiantly for a secular, united India with a future of religious coexistence and integration. The intention was for religious pluralism to continue existing in both nations, particularly in states and provinces with divided religious demographics, such as Kashmir or Punjab. The 42nd Amendment to the Indian constitution, enacted in 1976, codified the notion of secularism in the preamble. Thus, any attempt to claim that India’s founders or founding documents present a vision for a decidedly Hindu nation would be factually mistaken. Despite this, Modi continues pushing for a Hindu homeland: his supporters uphold the notion that he is fighting to correct the mistakes of India’s founders.

That Modi and his party stand for the degradation of Indian secularism is hardly a partisan assertion. Further, considering the prominent feature of secularism in India’s Constitution, an attack on secularism can only be equated with an attack on democracy. In 1997, infamous journalist Fareed Zakaria wrote a shockingly prophetic article for Foreign Affairs magazine about the rise of illiberal democracy. In it, he writes that concepts of democracy and liberalism are often conflated. Zakaria cites constraints on speech and assembly, suppression of the press, and widespread attack on civil liberties as major indicators of governments which are technically democratic, but far from liberal or progressive. Modi and his administration have followed Zakaria’s projected downward spiral with near perfect accuracy. Modi continuously maneuvers around the press in an attempt to downplay the repercussions of his legislative moves while in office. The Indian Express found in 2017 that “…Modi is the first Prime Minister in the country’s history who [has] never held a press conference.” Further, the aforementioned C.A.A. is an overt attack on the freedom of religion, which is supposedly guaranteed by Articles 25 through 28 of the Constitution. In other words, Modi’s work to institutionalize Hindu nationalism is part of a larger trend observed in the field of international relations. What follows is censorship, an uptick in corruption and populist electoral politics, and a blitz on civil liberties. In short, Modi and the B.J.P. have already begun taking steps to lead India towards a path of illiberalism and non-secular governance, and there is much at stake for the Indian populace.

After exploring the Vedic origins of Indian casteism and the colonial strategies of the British Empire, we return to 2020. On October 17th, Modi presided over the bhoomi poojan ceremony, officially marking the commencement of construction for a Hindu temple on the Babri Masjid land, and resurfacing an age-old dispute between Hindus and Muslims. For those who believe there is a Hindu claim to the land, this announcement represented a momentous victory. For many Muslims, however, the construction of a temple on the graveyard of one of India’s oldest mosques is not only insensitive, but sacrilegious. Despite this, the Ram Mandir of Ayodhya is in its early stages of construction. This development remains highly controversial and the reactions of Indians across the globe are incredibly polarized. The night of Modi’s announcement, some 1,000 people gathered in Times Square, New York City, to celebrate with bhajans and chant “Jai Shri Ram,” meaning “Glory to Lord Ram.” Similar celebrations occurred in Washington, D.C., and in organized events across temples in Florida, California, Texas, and other states with large Hindu-American populations. For many Muslims, the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu extremists was a devastating tragedy, so Modi’s announcement was far from rousing. Kaleem Kawaja, Executive Director of the Association of Indian Muslims of America in Washington, D.C., condemned Modi’s push forward with the construction of the Ayodhyah temple, claiming the prime minister’s actions “created an anti-Muslim hate frenzy.” Human rights organizations spoke out, including Sunita Viswanath of Hindus for Human Rights of New York, who vehemently “condemned the fact that the holy name of Lord Ram is being exploited and sullied by the B.J.P. party and Prime Minister Modi for political gains.” Evidently, the fight is far from over: Modi’s movement in favor of Hindu claim to the Babri Masjid land will continue to face stark opposition, even as the construction of the Ram Temple plays out.

Though this controversy is an ancient religious conflict, it is hardly an isolated occurrence. The demolition of Babri Masjid is emblematic of India’s entrenched religious divide, and the governmental response speaks to the urgent dangers of a future of illiberalism. Modi’s actions are part of a larger erosion of secularism and an explicit disregard for India’s constitution, putting the validity of India’s democracy on the line. Of course, Modi and his platform are merely one component of a worldwide trend of democratic decay: but India is the world’s largest democracy. It is central to the globalized trade market, and it has the second largest population on the planet. The risks are far from ideological, nor are they confined within India’s borders. So long as the B.J.P. remains in power, the crusade will only progress; Modi and his party will continue to pull at the threads of Indian democracy until there is nothing left.

Kaitlyn Saldanha is a staff writer at CPR and a first-year at Barnard College studying Economics and International Relations.

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