A Hindu temple built on a destroyed mosque in India is helping Modi boost his political standing

NEW DELHI – Three decades after Hindu mobs tore down a historic mosque, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the inauguration of a major Hindu temple at the same site on Monday, giving his party new impetus ahead of a crucial nationwide vote.

Experts say the temple, dedicated to Hinduism's most revered deity, Lord Ram, will cement Modi's enduring but controversial legacy as one of India's most consequential leaders who sought to transform the country from a secular democracy to one to transform into an avowed Hindu nation.

“From the very beginning, Modi’s drive was to mark his permanence in history. He made sure of that with the Ram temple,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, an expert on Hindu nationalism and author of a book on Modi.

The opening of the temple in Ayodhya – a small town in northern India that has been a historical hotspot – was made a national event by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and is expected to resonate widely with Hindu voters.

Many of Modi's supporters see him as restoring Hindu pride in India, where Muslims make up just over 14% of the population.

“What is being done in Ayodhya, the scale at which it is currently being built, will actually make it look like the Hindu Vatican and that will be publicized,” Mukhopadhyay said. “Modi will not miss a single opportunity to try to sell the achievement of building a temple.”

Built at an estimated cost of $217 million, the Ram Temple is central to Hindus who believe that Lord Ram was born on the very spot where Mughal Muslims built the Babri Mosque on temple ruins in the 16th century . The mosque was demolished by Hindu mobs in December 1992, sparking nationwide riots in which more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. It sparked events that redefined the politics of social identity in India, catapulting Modi's BJP from two parliamentary seats in the 1980s to its current political dominance.

In the early 1990s, Modi, then a little-known local leader in his home state of Gujarat, also helped organize public agitation aimed at strengthening support for the construction of the current Ram Temple on the site of the former Babri Mosque .

Muslim groups waged a decades-long court battle over the restoration of the Babri Mosque. The dispute ended in 2019 when India's Supreme Court, in a controversial ruling, called the destruction of the mosque “an egregious violation of the rule of law” but left the site to Hindus. The court granted Muslims another plot of land in a remote area.

This troubled history is still an open wound for many Muslims, and some say the temple is the greatest political testament to Hindu supremacy yet.

“There is a fear that this government and all its affiliates want to wipe out all traces of Muslim or Islamic civilization from the country,” said Ziya Us Salam, author of “Being Muslim in Hindu India.”

Indian Muslims have come under increasing attack from Hindu nationalist groups in recent years, and at least three historic mosques in northern India are embroiled in court battles because Hindu nationalists claimed they were built on temple ruins. Hindu nationalists have also filed numerous lawsuits in Indian courts seeking ownership of hundreds of historic mosques.

“On the one hand, they want to change the names of all cities that have a Muslim-sounding name. On the other hand, they want to get rid of virtually every mosque, and the courts are happy to accept petitions, no matter the pretext,” Salam said.

Rebuilding the temple at the disputed site has been part of the BJP's electoral strategy for decades, but it was Modi, who came to power on a wave of Hindu revival in 2014, who finally followed through on that promise after attending the foundation stone-laying ceremony in 2020.

Ahead of its opening, Modi urged people across the country to celebrate by lighting lamps in homes and local shrines, saying the temple will be a symbol of “cultural, spiritual and social unity”. His government also announced a half-day closure of all offices on Monday to allow employees to take part in the celebrations. Modi has issued stamps on the Ram temple and live telecasts of the ceremony are planned across the country.

Saffron flags, a symbol of Hindu nationalism, are ubiquitous in many cities and towns. Numerous other politicians, well-known film stars and industrialists are also expected.

But the event will also be marked by some noticeable absences.

Some opposition leaders boycotted the ceremony, denouncing it as a political ploy and accusing the government of exploiting religion for political purposes. Four important Hindu religious authorities refused to attend the opening. Two of them said the consecration of an unfinished temple violated Hindu scriptures and that Modi was not a religious leader and therefore not qualified to lead the ceremony.

Salam said Modi had blurred the line between state and religion by making his faith a public display that motivated his hardcore supporters.

“When was the last time he was prime minister? “There have been so many instances where he behaved either like a BJP leader or like a Hindutva mascot, rarely like the Prime Minister of India,” Salam said.