If you thought that the contentious Ram temple had ceased to be an issue with the Supreme Court judgment, you were mistaken. It has now come literally to your doorstep.
Since last month, right wing cadres have been going from house to house, seeking donations for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.
Now, there is nothing illegal about raising funds for a religious structure as long as the trust is registered, receipts are given and accounts submitted. Donating for a cause is also an individual choice. However, the manner in which the whole thing is being carried out is disquieting.
To begin with, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement to build a temple to the deity at the Babri masjid site was divisive. So, when the donation pamphlets equate the building of the temple with nation building (‘Mandir nirman se desh nirman’), they are striking at the secular foundation of India.
Neutrality on faith
Contrary to the BJP’s claims, a lot many still believe that the state should be neutral on matters of faith. And the majority echoes Nehru’s view that the temples of modern India are its big infrastructure projects. Why, what is Modi’s promise of inclusive development, ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ all about?
Yet, we are in an era when religion has been weaponised to the extent that even a chief minister is heckled with slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, with the PM watching silently from the dais.
The climate of fear in which dissenters, from students to septuagenarians, are being locked away for years without a trial, also deters non-conformism. All this emboldens the donation seekers to question the religion and patriotism of Hindus who disagree with them when it should be the other way round.
Gated societies, which are so paranoid about access control that they didn’t even let in census enumerators, have no compunctions about ‘Ram sevaks’ entering freely at night and knocking at every door. Would these gated societies have let in volunteers seeking donations for the reconstruction of the Babri masjid? That’s legitimate too but no one would even dare talk about it.
On the other hand, the Ram ‘bhakts’ boast that even Muslims have contributed towards the temple.
Requests for donation
Some housing societies are sending requests for donation on their letterheads with the reminder that even the President of India has contributed for the temple. They even keep tabs on who have paid and who haven’t. Messages are circulated by such societies naming those who haven’t, giving them another opportunity to donate to a ‘national cause’. Big Brother and the thought police are here.
For those who have lived through the ‘Mandir Wahin Banayenge’ campaign, which insisted on building a temple on the mosque site, this is reminiscent of the aftermath of the Babri masjid demolition when the lumpen, armed with electoral rolls, hunted Muslims residents of upmarket south Mumbai localities. In fact, Muslim-owned establishments were torched, including those right outside police stations; a precursor to Gujarat-2002.
Such was the terror that posh housing societies in Mumbai removed the name plates of Muslim occupants, who took the cue and fled to safer areas till sanity returned. Nonetheless, their apartments were marked with a ‘chand-sitara’ (moon and star) sign. Today, the Hindutva brigade is marking the houses of the non-contributors, by not pasting a Ram Mandir sticker on the door. The others with stickers can mark themselves as safe.
Amply endowed trust
Even those who question the need for a door-to-door collection drive when the Shri Ram Janambhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust itself admits to having received more than Rs 1,500 crore in donations, think it prudent to fob off the fund-raisers with a hundred-rupee note, lest they be targeted. The Ram mandir sticker on their door marks out another victim of intimidatory majoritarianism.
Actually, it is ironic that we are collecting funds for a temple in the middle of a pandemic when these shrines offer no succour; some such as Tirupati even sacked employees. No amount of ‘mantra jaap’ (reciting mantras) or showering flowers or ringing bells helped where Covid was concerned.
Incidentally, how are people being allowed to go door-to-door when Covid cases are on the rise again?
The need of the hour is to fund mass vaccination, to build more public hospitals and to increase the health budget, which remains 1.5 per cent of the GDP, the fourth-lowest in the world.
Babies die like flies in our hospitals for lack of oxygen cylinders, as in Gorakhpur, or are charred to death because of faulty incubators, as in the Bhandara civil hospital recently but we are obsessed with a temple for Ram ‘lalla’ (the infant Ram).
So gullible are we that even gangsters like Chhota Rajan exploit our religious sentiments. For years, he put up a spectacular Ganeshotsav pandal which drew lakhs of devotees. The display of clout boosted his extortion rates. The gangster was forced to scale down the pandal when Justice A P Bhangale, then with the MCOCA special court, took suo motu notice of an investigative report by yours truly and ordered an inquiry into the funding of the pandal.
The police ought to take notice of the fund-raising for the Ram temple given the fear it has generated. After all, the failure of the Mumbai police to curb the ‘maha aartis’ on the streets was one of the reasons why the post-Babri violence spread so fast.
At the end of the day, it is a political decision but the governments in non-BJP states are either looking the other way or starting their own fund-raising drives for the Ram temple.
The donation drive is basically an outreach program for the next general elections. It also serves to keep the focus away from the mismanagement of the economy, foreign policy and of the country itself.
The Hindutva agenda can be rammed through (no pun intended) and critics can be silenced but if a temple could usher in Ram rajya, it would have happened long ago, with the reconstruction of the Somnath temple.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.