By Siddhartha Deb

The sleepy pilgrimage city of Ayodhya in northern India was once home to a grand 16th-century mosque, until it was illegally demolished by a howling mob of Hindu militants in 1992. The site has since been reinvented as the centerpiece of the Hindu-chauvinist “new India” promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In 2020, as Covid-19 raged unchecked across the country, Mr. Modi, the leader of the Hindu right, went to Ayodhya to inaugurate construction of a three-story sandstone temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site of the former mosque. Dressed in shiny, flowing clothes and wearing a white N95 mask, he offered prayers to the Ram idol and the 88-pound silver brick being inserted as the foundation stone.
I traveled to Ayodhya a year later and watched as the temple was hurriedly being built. But it seemed to me to offer not the promise of a new India so much as the seeds of its downfall.
Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalism has fed distrust and hostility toward anything foreign, and the receptionists at my hotel were sullenly suspicious of outsiders. There was no hotel bar — a sign of Hindu virtue — and the food served was pure vegetarian, a phrase implying both Hindu caste purity and anti-Muslim prejudice.
Outside, devotional music blared on loudspeakers while bony, manure-smeared cows, protected by Hindu law, wandered waterlogged streets in the rain. The souvenir shops at the temple displayed a toxic Hindu masculinity, highlighted by garish shirts featuring images of a steroid-fed Ram, all bulging muscles and chiseled six-packs. Even Hanuman, Ram’s wise but slightly mischievous monkey companion, appeared largely in the snarling Modi-era version known as Angry Hanuman, which went viral in 2018 after Mr. Modi praised the design.
After a decade of rule by Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindu-majority India maintains the facade of a democracy and has so far avoided the overt features of a theocracy. Yet, as Ayodhya revealed, it has, for all practical purposes, become a Hindu state. Adherence to this idea is demanded from everyone, whether Hindu or not.
This is not sustainable, even if it seems likely that Mr. Modi will ride to a third victory in national parliamentary elections that begin Friday and conclude June 1. Mr. Modi’s India is marked by rampant inequality, lack of job prospects, abysmal public health and the increasing ravages of climate change. These crises cannot be addressed by turning one of the world’s most diverse countries into a claustrophobic Hindu nation.
Perhaps even the prime minister and his party can sense this. Their crackdowns on opposition political leaders, manipulation of electoral rolls and voting machines and freezing of campaign funds for opposition parties are not the actions of a confident group.
In January of this year, a wave of Hindu euphoria swept the nation as the temple I had watched being put together with cement and lies (there is no conclusive evidence supporting Hindu claims that Ram was a historical figure or that a temple to him previously stood there) was about to be inaugurated.
Newspapers devoted rapturous front pages to the coming occasion, and when I flew to my former home Kolkata on the eve of the big day, my neighbors there declared their anticipation by setting off firecrackers late into the night. The next morning, on Jan. 22, loudspeakers and television screens tracked me through the city with Sanskrit chants and images of the ceremony taking place at the temple. Mr. Modi, as usual, was at the center of every visual. Friends in Delhi and Bangalore complained about insistent neighbors and strangers knocking on their doors to share celebratory sweets. Courts, banks, schools, stock markets and other establishments in much of the country took a holiday.
The inauguration date seems to have been chosen carefully to overshadow Republic Day, on Jan. 26, which commemorates India’s adoption of its Constitution, amended in 1976 to affirm the country as a “socialist, secular, democratic” republic. Those values are fiercely in opposition to what Hindu nationalism has ushered in. The temple inauguration date, which will be celebrated annually, reduces the republic to secondary status next to Mr. Modi’s Hindu utopia.
A similar effort has been underway to diminish the importance of Aug. 15, marking Indian independence in 1947. In 2021, Mr. Modi announced that Aug. 14 would henceforth be Partition Horrors Remembrance Day, referring to the bloody division of the country into Hindu-majority India and an independent Muslim Pakistan in 1947, a murderous affair for Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike.
This was sold to the Indian public as underlining the need for unity, but it was also a reminder from Hindu nationalists that a section of Muslims broke off to form their own nation and that the loyalties of India’s remaining 200 million Muslims were suspect. Given that Hindu rightists participated in massacres, rapes and forced displacement during the partition, Mr. Modi’s weaponization of the suffering seems particularly reprehensible. I was born to a Hindu family, and my father, a refugee from the partition, never blamed Muslims his entire life.
There have been countless other such stratagems with the Hindu right in power. The old Parliament building, whose design features refer to India’s syncretic history — Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian — was replaced last year by a new structure that explicitly reduces India’s past to a monochromatic Hindu one.
In the new Parliament, the lotus flower, common in Hindu iconography and the symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party, runs amok as a motif. A statue atop the building of four back-to-back lions — India’s national symbol and a look back at its Buddhist past — has been altered so that the lions are no longer serene and meditative, as in the original, but snarling, hypermuscular Hindu beasts. Everywhere in India, roads and cities have been renamed to sever connections to centuries of Muslim history in favor of a manufactured Hindu one. On new highways through the state of Uttar Pradesh, where I traveled last summer, gleaming signboards pointed toward concocted Hindu sites but almost never toward the state’s rich repository of Muslim mosques, forts and shrines.
Knowledge and culture are being attacked along similar lines. Bollywood, Indian television and the publishing industry have become willing accomplices of Hindu chauvinists, churning out content based on Hindu mythology and revisionist history. In the news media, the few journalists and institutions unwilling to shill for the Hindu cause face legal threats and police raids.
In education, government institutions are run by ignorant functionaries of the ruling party, and from school textbooks to scientific research papers, the Hindu nationalist version of India is pushed forward, myth morphing into history. In the private universities that have begun to crop up in India, Mr. Modi’s government keeps a close eye on classes, panels or research that might be construed as criticizing his government or its idea of a Hindu India.
This cultural shift and the accompanying reduction of Muslims to alien intruders has been made possible by Mr. Modi delivering on his party’s three main promises to Hindu nationalists.
In 2019 he repealed the notional autonomy enjoyed for decades by the disputed Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, which the Hindu right had assailed as favoritism toward Muslims and victimization of Hindus. Later that year, Mr. Modi delivered on a second promise by introducing a law that ostensibly opened a pathway to Indian citizenship for persecuted minorities from neighboring countries but whose true motive lay in that it pointedly excluded Muslims. In the northeastern state of Assam, a registration process had already been underway to disenfranchise Muslims if they could not provide elaborate documentation of their Indian citizenship. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s declared intention to establish a similar registration system nationwide hangs the threat of disenfranchisement over all of India’s Muslims.
The inauguration of the Ram temple delivered on the third and most important electoral promise. It announced, triumphantly, the climax of the battle to turn India into a Hindu nation. And yet after 10 years under Mr. Modi’s government, India is more unequal than it was under colonial British rule. In 2020 and 2021, it surpassed China as the largest source of international migrants to O.E.C.D. countries. Many of the undocumented migrants to be found pleading for entry on the U.S.-Mexico border are from India, and they include Hindus for whom India should be a utopia.
The Hindu right’s near-complete control of India may indeed deliver a third term for Mr. Modi, maybe even the absolute parliamentary majority his party wants in order to expand on the transformation it has begun.
But the truth is harder to hide than ever. Mr. Modi and his party are giving India the Hindu utopia they promised, and in the clear light of day, it amounts to little more than a shiny, garish temple that is a monument to majoritarian violence, surrounded by waterlogged streets, emaciated cattle and a people impoverished in every way.

Courtesy: New York Times

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