Ayodhya: One aspect of the ‘bhoomi pujan’ for the much-debated Ram temple here on August 5 was the discernible change in the attitude of the top BJP leadership towards Sita, who was somehow relegated to the background in the years that the temple campaign was at its peak.
Cries of “Jai Shri Ram” which reverberated at most events of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) or its frontal organisations were, on Wednesday, replaced with chants of “Jai Siya Ram”. And that was led by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, who spent a couple of hours performing rituals at the Sangh’s temple event.
Modi, who was never before been heard making reference to Sita, took everyone by surprise when he not only repeatedly talked about “Janki mata”, but also reverted from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s patented war cry of “Jai Shri Ram” – which he and other leaders used as recently as the 2019 Lok Sabha election, especially in West Bengal – to the original Hindu salutation of “Siyapati Ram Chandra ki jai”.
“Jai Shri Ram” began as a battle cry of the VHP’s war for Ram Janmabhoomi and quickly supplanted traditional, softer references to Ram. And over the years it became common practice, particularly with BJP leaders, to confine themselves to this slogan. Not only did it have a politicised edge, it was also seen as a reflection of traditional north Indian male chauvinism. In contrast, “Siyapati” gives precedence to Sita as Ram’s identity is sublimated as the “husband of Sita”.
Many in Ayodhya wonder if it was the end of the political “struggle” for the Ram temple, following the 2019 order of the Supreme Court, that had prompted Modi to remember the original salutation of “Siyapati Ram Chandra ki jai”, with which he began and concluded his 35-minute address.
After all, the battle for the temple is now over, why the need for a battlecry? Or was the shift a well-considered strategy to appeal to female devotees?
That apart, Modi sported longer than usual hair and a longish beard and also wore a golden yellow kurta that helped him merge with the gathering of saffron-clad seers and saints.
Yet, what he skilfully ensured was that he, and only he, remained in the spotlight. Thanks to COVID-19 precautions, Modi did not have anybody else in close proximity. So much the better, considering that the camera frame did not have to feature any one else as they remained on him during the entire ‘puja’ .
While the function was limited largely to sadhus, every single cabinet colleague of Modi’s was conspicuous in their absence. Consequently, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat remained the most prominent guest at the show. Uttar Pradesh governor Anandiben Patel and chief minister Adityanath were perhaps unavoidable presences because of protocol reasons. The consensus was that Yogi stood a political gainer to the extent that he happened to be the only political leader to share some of the media glare with Modi.
The talk of the temple town also hovered around how systematically all frontline leaders of the Ram temple movement were kept away from the event. Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Kalyan Singh were not in the list at all because of “old age” and the allied risks to their health on account of the pandemic.
Even though Uma Bharti was also not invited by the Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, she managed to use her networking with the ‘sant samaj’ to get a last minute entry to the ‘bhoomi pujan’ venue.
A day earlier, the trust’s general secretary Champat Rai openly declared that none of these leaders had been invited to the function. Interestingly, each of these leaders continue to face criminal charges in a Lucknow court for their alleged involvement in the demolition of the 16th century Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, a does Rai and the trust president, Nritya Gopal Das. Twenty eight years on, the case is yet to reach the final stages.
At the end of the day, Wedneday’s ‘bhoomi pujan’ was clearly a Narendra Modi show all the way.
He touched down on Ayodhya by helicopter at 11.30 am and drove through the almost entirely saffron-painted and marigold-bedecked town to reach the steps of the majestic Hanuman Garhi temple, known as the oldest shrine in Ayodhya.
Walking up the long flight of steps covered with a red carpet and flanked by newly painted saffron coloured walls, he first offered prayers before the Hanuman idol. This is one of the few Hanuman temples where he is portrayed as a king.
The next and final destination was the Ram Janmabhoomi, where a special sprawling ‘pandal’ awaited him for the temple ritual. Nine ‘shilas’ or stone bricks engraved with ‘Shri Ram’, were specially lowered in a shallow pit marked by engineers of the construction company Larsen and Toubro, at the exact spot where the idol of Ram Lalla had been illegally installed in 1949 under the central dome of the Babri Masjid. The idol remained there after the mosque’s demolition by mobs mobilised by BJP leaders, under a makeshift tarpaulin temple.
In his speech, Modi sought to draw a comparison between India’s independence day (August 15) and the victory of the mandir agitation. He said that for all those who have been closely associated with the demand for the temple, this day is like August 15.
Referring obliquely to the long drawn battle for the Ram temple, he said, “Ram is going to get a permanent abode after decades of staying under a tarpaulin or tin-shed.”
In his speech, the prime minister sought to highlight how the construction of the Ram temple would change the dynamics of the otherwise quiet Ayodhya. “The entire region will witness economic development of the kind that none have conceived so far, as it is bound to attract people from across the globe,” he said.
He named the countries where the Ramayana is part of local culture. “Ram’s influence is not limited only to different parts of India but traverses across geographical and political boundaries in Malaysia, as also Cambodia, Laos and Thailand,” he pointed out, adding, “Even China, Iran and Sri Lanka had their own stories connected to the Ramayana.”
Modi made it a point to emphasise how Ram’s philosophy was aimed at inclusiveness and towards promoting social harmony and universal development and progress. “Ram did not believe in any discrimination against anyone, and humanity being his cardinal principle, he also believed in special compassion for the poor and the weak,” he added.
Significantly, he also avoided any remark that could get him the blame of “playing politics” in the name of the temple. However, whether this is a significant shift, only time will tell.