Ayodhya/Lucknow, India – Wearing her hijab, Yusra Hussain stood in the queue to enter a makeshift temple to the Hindu god Ram in Ayodhya, the northern Indian city believed to be his birthplace. What followed is etched in her mind.
“I was jeered [at] and taunted,” the 32-year-old said. “And people started chanting Jai Shree Ram [victory to Lord Ram]. I got a sense of aggressive triumphalism.”
That was eight years ago. On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate an incomplete Ram temple built in place of the makeshift shrine Hussain had visited, amid a nationwide frenzy over the consecration that has brought the country of 1.4 billion people, and a nearly $4 trillion economy, to a virtual standstill.
The stock market is shut, government offices are working only half the day and movie halls are offering live screenings of the religious ceremony that Modi’s opponents say he has hijacked ahead of national elections that are expected to begin in March.
Major public hospitals announced reduced services for the day to allow staff to soak in the celebrations, though some have since retracted those announcements.
Missing from news channels and popular discourse is any reference to the fact that the temple is coming up at the very spot where the 16th-century Babri Masjid was torn down by a Hindu nationalist mob on a grey winter morning in December 1992.
Hussain, a freelance journalist based in the city of Lucknow, 120 km (75 miles) east of Ayodhya, said she fears that the “triumphalism” she witnessed on what was her first visit to the temple town “might just get worse in the coming days”.
“In fact, after Ayodhya, there might be a snowballing effect on other disputed places like Mathura and Kashi,” she said. Mathura and Varanasi – Modi’s parliamentary constituency also known locally as Kashi – are also home to historic mosques that the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu majoritarian allies say were built on demolished temples.
For many among India’s 200 million Muslims, the state-sponsored pomp and ceremony around the temple’s launch is the latest in a series of painful realisations that – especially since Modi took office in 2014 – the democracy they call home no longer appears to care about them.
Increased religious polarisation in the country affects not just their safety and security but also their political influence in the upcoming national vote. Muslims constitute more than 20 percent of the population in 101 of India’s 543 directly elected parliamentary constituencies. Indian secularism has been premised on Hindus and Muslims – the country’s two-largest communities – voting primarily on economic or non-religious issues.
That has meant that while Indian Muslims are no homogenous voting bloc, the community has had the limited but definite ability to affect electoral outcomes for the best part of independent India’s 77-year journey. This has especially been true in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh – home to Ayodhya, Varanasi, Mathura and Lucknow – and Bihar as well as the eastern states of West Bengal and Assam, home to some of India’s largest Muslim populations.
With religious sentiments running high and if the majority Hindu vote consolidates behind a party like the BJP, as it often has in recent elections, this equation no longer holds.
“The 2024 elections could be a one-sided affair in favour of BJP,” said Hussain Afsar, Yusra’s father and also a Lucknow-based journalist.
At the centre of Modi’s religious pitch is the Ram temple, which is being unveiled while it is still under construction, despite opposition from some of Hinduism’s senior-most seers who have accused the prime minister of timing its consecration to maximise electoral gains.
“Hindus and Muslims have coexisted with each other for hundreds of years along with mosques and temples in India. Both places of worship are culturally and historically important for all Indians,” Lucknow-based social activist Tahira Hasan said. “I don’t think any Muslim has a problem with a temple, the problem arises when religion and places of worship are used to polarise society, create animosity and use religion to create tensions.”
Since January 12, Modi has been keeping a fast and visiting a series of temples dressed in saffron robes, blurring the lines between prime minister and monk. On Monday, Modi will join priests and selected dignitaries in a 30-minute ceremony at the temple. The country’s biggest opposition party, the Congress, is skipping the event.
“Using religion in politics is what people are concerned about,” Hasan said.
The temple is being built at the estimated cost of 11.8 billion Indian rupees ($142 million). “This will be the new Vatican for the Hindus,” said Vijay Mishra, an astrologer and priest who shuttles between Ayodhya and Lucknow.
But it is only the centrepiece of a broader revival and enlargement of the city of Ayodhya, where Modi inaugurated a new airport and railway station in December. The city is increasingly extending into the neighbouring city of Faizabad, which is named after a Muslim courtier.
Also, next to Ayodhya is Dhannipur village, where India’s Supreme Court, in a 2019 judgement, asked the government to give land to the Muslim community to build a mosque. It was the same judgement that awarded 2.7 acres (1 hectare) of disputed land to a trust to build the Ram temple where the Babri Masjid mosque once stood.
Athar Hussain, who is a coordinator of the trust tasked with building a mosque in Dhannipur, said that “our plan is to build a hospital and mosque”.
“We may not have the funds yet but we will eventually collect them,” he said. Hussain, who is unrelated to Yumna and her father, conceded that the Supreme Court verdict, and the subsequent, rapid construction of the Ram temple, had left many Muslims despondent. But, he added, “There is not much we can do about it.”
That sense of resignation extends to many Muslims and some, like Yumna, also hold the community’s leaders responsible.
“We had reconciled to the construction of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya but the Muslim leadership began to raise hopes that a secular Constitution will look after the interests of the minorities and return the disputed land,” she said.
Expectations peaked, she said, when, in 2018, the Supreme Court attempted arbitration between representatives of the communities. Those efforts failed.
Still, Hussain, the coordinator of the Dhannipur mosque project, continues to hope that India’s judiciary will not allow a repeat of Ayodhya’s example in Mathura and Varanasi.
Last week, the Supreme Court put on hold a High Court judgement ordering a study of the 17th-century Shahi Idgah Mosque in Mathura to see if it was built over the remains of a temple.
“We hope it will remain that way,” Hussain said.