New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday laid the foundation for a temple at a flashpoint holy site exactly a year after imposing direct rule on Muslim-majority Kashmir — twin triumphs for his Hindu nationalist government.
The site of Ayodhya and divided Kashmir have been two of the most divisive communal issues of the past 30 years in India, and Modi has attempted to draw a line under both in his second term.
For his fans both steps confirm Modi as a decisive, visionary leader, and India’s most important in decades.
His critics see him as remoulding the country as a Hindu nation, at the expense of India’s 200 million Muslims, and taking it in authoritarian direction.
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“Modi has certainly been India’s most transformative leader in recent memory,” Micheal Kugelman from the Wilson Center told AFP.
“This has made him wildly popular, but also highly controversial and quite divisive.”
The holy city of Ayodhya in northern India has long been a fault line in India’s religious divisions, and has been the spark for some of its worst sectarian violence.
Devout Hindus believe that Lord Ram, the warrior god, was born there some 7,000 years ago but that a mosque was constructed on top of his birthplace in the 16th century.
In the 1980s a Hindu movement began to agitate for the mosque to be removed and in 1992 a mob demolished it with shovels, pickaxes and their bare hands.
This triggered religious riots that killed 2,000 people, most of them Muslims.
A lengthy legal battle ensued but in November, in a major victory for the BJP, India’s top court awarded the site to Hindus, allowing a temple “touching the sky” to be built.
“(It’s) a huge achievement for (Modi). He is going to make his position permanently in history purely on the strength of this temple,” biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay told AFP.
Further cementing his place in India’s annals is Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan since 1947, the spark for two wars and the source of much bloodshed.
The BJP has long seen the special status enjoyed by the part of Kashmir controlled by India as a historical wrong, and on August 5 last year Modi abolished it.
An accompanying security operation turned the region into a fortress for weeks with all telecommunications cut and thousands taken into custody.
Now, people from outside Kashmir are being granted domicile rights for the first time, giving them the right to buy land and claim government jobs.
This has stoked fears that Modi wants to change Muslim-majority Kashmir’s demographic and religious makeup along the lines of Israel’s actions in the West Bank.
“What I see unfolding is a Hindu settler colonial project in the making,” Mona Bhan from Syracuse University told AFP.
Other actions have also alarmed Modi’s critics and delighted his fans.
Last year a new law made it easier for millions of illegal immigrants from three neighbouring countries to get citizenship, but not if they are Muslims.
A “citizenship list” in Assam state left off millions who were unable to prove they were Indian, many of them Muslims, a process many fear the BJP wants to roll out nationwide.
More may be in the pipeline.
On the BJP’s wishlist is a uniform civil code, doing away with personal laws for religious minorities in areas such as marriage, family and death — a policy aimed primarily at Muslims.
“Clearly, it’s full speed ahead with the Hindu nationalist agenda,” Kugelman said.
“The government knows it has some major challenges with the economy and the pandemic. By focusing on the social agenda… it can distract its rank and file and shore up political support.”