How the Ramjanmabhoomi movement fuelled BJP’s rise and reshaped India’s political landscape

It is also the story of the decline of the Congress, and the Muslim community’s silent struggles as India grapples with its secular identity.

Published : Jan 22, 2024 15:19 IST - 10 MINS READ

BJP cadres celebrating the inauguration of the Ayodhya Ram temple with a rally in Ahmedabad on January 19. The BJP is maximising the project’s visibility for electoral gains.

BJP cadres celebrating the inauguration of the Ayodhya Ram temple with a rally in Ahmedabad on January 19. The BJP is maximising the project’s visibility for electoral gains. | Photo Credit: AJIT SOLANKI/AP

It all began on a cold December night in 1949 when a group of around 50 people broke the locks of the gate of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and placed an idol of Ram inside the premises, which had been locked since 1934 because of continuous disputes.

The District Magistrate, K.K. Nayar, going against the advice of the Chief Secretary, refused to remove the idol, arguing that it would hurt Hindu sentiments. Nayar would go on to join the Jan Sangh, the precursor of the BJP, and rise to become an MP. As Krishna Jha and Dhirendra K. Jha write in Ayodhya: The Dark Night: “The night of December 22-23, 1949, set in motion a chain of events which were to give rise to one of the most contentious issues in independent India.”

Those were the early years of Independence. While the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi controversy occupied the nation’s mind intermittently until the mid-1980s, it took centre stage after February 1986, when the Rajiv Gandhi government opened the locks to enable Hindus to offer prayers. On November 9, 1989, the shilanyas (foundation-laying) ceremony of the proposed temple was performed outside the disputed area.

Also Read | Ayodhya’s new avatar

In 1990, BJP leader L.K. Advani led a “rath yatra” from Somnath to Ayodhya to garner support to build a Ram temple at the site of the mosque, which he claimed was the birthplace of Lord Ram. The Ram temple movement was also an attempt to counter the Mandal movement, which saw the rise of the OBCs, and consolidate the dominant Hindu vote.

Ram Sevaks near the Babri Masjid in July 1992. The mosque was demolished six months later.

Ram Sevaks near the Babri Masjid in July 1992. The mosque was demolished six months later. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Demolition of the mosque

Advani’s career registered a meteoric rise after his leading role in the Ram temple agitation. In 1992, it was in his presence, along with Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, and others, that the mosque was demolished. Advani would go on to become Deputy Prime Minister a few years later. The BJP, which won just two seats in the 1984 general election, would grow steadily until it topped its tally with 303 seats in 2019. Today, as the BJP gears up for the 2024 Lok Sabha election, it rides the same wave of Hindu triumphalism at the cost of secular humanism.

Although the BJP did not abandon the Ram temple issue, the party’s first Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who headed a multiparty coalition government from 1999 to 2004, had no option but to put it and other contentious issues on the back burner. Even during the first Narendra Modi government, the issue was not highlighted. The party’s 2014 and 2019 manifestos only said: “BJP reiterates its stand to explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.”

It was the Supreme Court verdict of November 2019 that saw the culmination of the Ramjanmabhoomi project. The judgment not only cleared the way for the construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site, it put an elected government in charge of the project rather than a religious organisation.

(A 5 acre [2 hectare] plot was simultaneously awarded to the Sunni Waqf Board. An addendum to the judgment noted: “Hindus believe that at the birthplace of Lord Ram the mosque was constructed, and (the) three-dome structure is the birthplace of Lord Ram.” This point was criticised by many observers, who pointed out that faith and not fact was followed in the judgment.) In parallel, as the BJP’s fortunes have swung upwards with each crest of the Ayodhya agitation, the Congress has gone into a long decline, first in Uttar Pradesh, where it has not been in government for over 30 years, and then across the country.

In two successive general elections, in 2014 and 2019, the party failed to even get the Leader of the Opposition post in the Lok Sabha. It won only five seats in Uttar Pradesh in 1998 and 1999 and had to be satisfied with a mere 148 seats nationwide in the 1998 Lok Sabha election, 141 in 1999, and 145 in 2004. Since the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid in 1986, the Congress has not won a simple majority at the Centre.

Highlights
  • The Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi controversy took centre stage after February 1986, when the Rajiv Gandhi government opened the locks to enable Hindus to offer prayers.
  • In 1990, BJP leader L.K. Advani led a “rath yatra” from Somnath to Ayodhya to garner support to build a Ram temple at the site of the mosque.
  • The Supreme Court verdict of November 2019 saw the culmination of the Ramjanmabhoomi project.

Impact on elections

With the general election due this summer, the BJP’s central leadership went into a huddle in January itself. Predictably, Ayodhya figured prominently in the discussions. J.P. Nadda, the party president, took pains to explain to State leaders the party’s strategy to maximise the political mileage from the consecration event. The party asked households to light five diyas (lamps) on the day and called on its party workers to assist devotees visiting Ayodhya from January 25 to March 25. The party also launched a countrywide plan to clean local temples between January 14 and January 27. Clearly, the BJP has set its sights beyond Ayodhya. The party has not looked back since it latched on to the Ram temple movement in 1984. In the very next election, in 1989, its tally rose from a dismal two Lok Sabha seats to 85 seats. In 1996, the first Lok Sabha election after the December 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, the party overtook the Congress for the first time, winning 161 seats against the Congress’ 140.

Shortly thereafter, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power, first for 13 days in 1996, then for 13 months in 1998-99, and then for a full term from 1999 to 2004. With the BJP in power, Hindutva was for the first time raised in a major way in public discourse.

The coalition government of Vajpayee was voted out in 2004, but a decade later, the BJP wrested power on its own in 2014. It marked a different milestone. Narendra Modi, widely criticised for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, led the BJP to a single-party majority, winning 282 seats. It was the first single-party majority since 1984 when the Congress, after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, won 404 seats.

Emboldened by its continuous growth, the BJP aims to break its 2019 record of 303 seats in the 2024 election and hopes to do this by sharpening its self-projected image of Modi as the “Hindu Hriday Samrat”. The party claims to have fulfilled its core promises: the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir; building the Ram temple; and its nascent moves towards a uniform civil code (UCC).

BJP leader L.K. Advani during the rath yatra in 1990.

BJP leader L.K. Advani during the rath yatra in 1990. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Departure from idea of India

But with Kashmir and the UCC having limited popular resonance, it is the Ram temple issue on which the BJP has gone into overdrive. The hype is at such a high pitch that Modi even declared audaciously that God himself had made him an instrument to represent all Indians. Speaking to Frontline, Ram Puniyani, former IIT Bombay professor and author of books such as Caste and Communalism and Indian Nationalism versus Hindu Nationalism, said that the temple inauguration, timed to coincide with the election, was “quite a departure from the tryst with destiny dream of the first Prime Minister of India, whose vision was to wipe the tears of the last man in the line. Towards this he defined irrigation facilities, public sector units, education, and scientific institutes as the temples of modern India.”

He added: “Now the wheel has turned full circle and the idea of India envisaged during the freedom movement is being replaced by a narrow and exclusionary ideal. Real issues are being put in the margins and mass hysteria is being created.”

After a series of recent soft Hindutva forays, the Congress finally decided to skip the consecration ceremony. In a statement issued on January 10, it described the ceremony as an “RSS-BJP event” pushed forward for “electoral gain” and part of their “political project”.

This move comes after the party altered its strategy on the basis of the A.K. Antony Committee report, which flagged a need to reach out to Hindus after the party’s 2014 electoral debacle.

Stance of opposition parties

While it is a bold initiative, the Congress “will have to be more than fully prepared to handle a malicious propaganda by the BJP PR machine to bracket it as an anti-Hindu party”, according to Sanjay Jha, author and former Congress spokesperson. He told Frontline: “The key is political communication; how they handle the narrative is crucial. The BJP is hoping the temple issue will dominate over its dismal track record on governance, corruption, sectarianism, unemployment, food inflation, rural distress, death of small businesses, etc.”

There has been criticism, across party lines, of the BJP’s blatant exploitation of religion for political gain. D. Raja, general secretary of the CPI, said that politics and religion must remain separate and asked why the Prime Minister was leading the consecration. Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the CPI(M), said: “The inauguration ceremony has been converted into a state-sponsored event. This is a straightforward politicisation of the religious beliefs of the people, which is not in consonance with the Constitution.” The grouping of parties opposed to the BJP, called INDIA, is clearly not entirely comfortable with distancing itself fully from the Hindutva plank. When DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin said Sanatana Dharma was against social justice, the Congress distanced itself from the statement. The party’s leader in Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath, courted a Hindu monk before the Assembly election.

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav studiously avoids talking about how his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, boldly ordered the police to open fire on kar sevaks in 1990 to uphold the rule of law. However, West Bengal has been more consistent. After the mosque demolition, its Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, imposed a curfew to check violence, and his tough stance ensured peace, unlike in other States that were singed by communal riots.

This time, too, Mamata Banerjee categorically rejected the invite to the consecration event. She has talked of fighting to the last to protect “Hindu-Muslim-Sikh-Isaai” unity.

A Ram flag flying from a rickshaw, in Ayodhya on December 28, 2023. Images of Ram are now ubiquitous in the city.

A Ram flag flying from a rickshaw, in Ayodhya on December 28, 2023. Images of Ram are now ubiquitous in the city. | Photo Credit: ARUN SANKAR/AFP

The INDIA bloc is still hopeful that one-to-one contests in at least a majority of the Lok Sabha seats will keep it in good stead. After 1992, the BJP lost the 1993 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election when Kanshi Ram formed an alliance with Mulayam Singh Yadav, giving rise to the famous slogan: “Mile Mulayam Kanshi Ram, hawa mein ud gaye Jai Shri Ram” (When Mulayam and Kanshi Ram came together, Jai Shri Ram [BJP] vanished). But politics has changed since then. National elections are a different ball game, and the BJP’s election machinery today is far more powerful.

Muslim position

Amid all the noise generated around the temple, the Muslim community seems to have lapsed into silence.

Speaking to Frontline, the noted historian S. Irfan Habib said: “They are more concerned about their security. What has happened in the past 10 years relating to their life and livelihood had nothing to do with the temple issue. From the very beginning it was a political issue. It was never a matter of history and now the political nature of the issue has become even more clear.”

Also Read | Editor’s Note: Ram temple and the politicisation of faith

Speaking of Hindu-Muslim relations, Habib said: “The way history is being rewritten, the way Muslims are being linked with what happened in the 16th and 17th centuries…, why should either Hindu or Muslim bear the burden of the past? History is not for blame games. There has been a syncretic culture in the country where Rahim stood with Tulsidas in the 16th century and Bismillah Khan played the shehnai on the ghats of the Ganga, the holy river of the Hindus. The politics of religion ignores this fact.”

As one enters Ayodhya, a doha (couplet) by Tulsidas greets visitors, which starts with the words “Siyaram mein sab jag jani” (the entire universe is filled with Ram), but the cacophony of Hindu triumphalism and hyper-nationalism seems to be drowning out this message of universality and accentuating the othering of a community.

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