/ 31 March 2024

God edition: Hindu nationalism clangs temple bells

Gettyimages 1953998293 (1)
Disputed: The Ram Mandir was consecrated in January. The Hindu temple is built on a site believed to be the birthplace of Lord Rama. In 1992, Hindu nationalists demolished the Babri Mosque on the same site, the site of another temple in the 16th century. Photo: Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images

Everyone in the neighbourhood was making a fuss about this new, big temple that was being inaugurated, but we could only watch it on television because it is in India. 

The Ram Mandir was built in Ayodhya, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. 

In Hindu scripture and mythology, Ayodhya is a sacred site, said to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Rama. It’s something any Hindu does not question, but simply accepts. 

That’s probably the case with most religions: we don’t question faith and we don’t question religion. Maybe it’s fear of the higher power, maybe we don’t want to be disrespectful or perhaps we don’t have evidence to argue with scripts that were written hundreds of years ago. 

But that’s changing. 

I didn’t pay much attention to the inauguration, even though Hindu organisations in South Africa hosted events to celebrate it. Some people lit lamps in their homes. I didn’t participate in any of these activities, not out of cynicism but because I just didn’t connect with it. But I watched as Bollywood celebrities descended on the site.

My interest was piqued when I heard there was controversy over the site of the Hindu temple.

According to reports, the temple was built on the site of the 16th-century Babri Masjid that Hindu far-right nationalists demolished in 1992. It triggered nationwide riots between Hindus and Muslims, which led to the deaths of more than 2  000 people, mostly Muslims. 

The site was subsequently closed to the public, and in 2019 India’s supreme court ruled in favour of Hindus, saying the land should be handed over to a trust that would oversee the construction of a Hindu temple. Construction kicked off in 2020. 

The law decided it. 

It’s a land issue underpinned by religion. The court ruled in favour of the Hindus so it might be right, but was it okay for Hindus to claim the site, stand on top of the mosque and violently demolish it?

I don’t think so. 

I also don’t think it’s okay for Israel to colonise land and demolish anything (and anyone) on it. 

The principles are similar; and I learnt that I should take the side of humanity. 

Not religion, but humanity. Isn’t that what everyone is preaching amid Israel’s war on Gaza? 

Am I allowed to question my religion when it’s wrong? Surely it doesn’t make me any less of a Hindu? 

Then amid all the noise, information from 2019 resurfaced: there was a grand temple below the Babri Mosque, according to archaeological evidence that was presented to the supreme court.

That information came from a Muslim archaeologist, KK Muhammed. He was the only Muslim on the team of archaeologists that had carried out the first excavation at the site in 1976-77. The second one was carried out in 2003 after the mosque was destroyed, and the archaeologists found more remains of a temple that was apparently razed in the 16th century. 

According to an article in the Times of India: “The structure discovered was a temple below the Babri Mosque and dated back to the 12th century CE.”

Science determined it. 

But there was an inner conflict about how we, as Hindus in South Africa, could look past the politics of it so easily and see it as our own victory and celebrate it at temples in South Africa. 

The consecration of the Ram Mandir signals India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist politics and could pave the way for his reelection campaign in general elections scheduled for later this year.

It is a political thing. 

I sense concern from the South African Muslim community about what this means for the Muslims and minorities in India. It is heightened by what is happening in Gaza. 

I have never been a fan of Modi because of his Hindu nationalist leanings — it goes against my beliefs of choosing humanity. 

I am more upset that Hinduism is at the centre of it and it forced me to reckon with the faults in my religion that enabled the “othering” of non-Hindus. 

I realise that my religion was okay, but the politics was not. 

Hindus in South Africa can celebrate their religion in India, and the Muslims in South Africa can express their solidarity with Muslim people there, while we coexist peacefully in this country (which we do).

But we should recognise the politics behind our religion, and be bold enough to question it and even go against it when it’s used to drive a political agenda.