It’s not every day that a theological argument has to be settled in a court of law, yet that’s exactly what is about to unfold in the Supreme Court of India.
After avoiding the issue for years, the New Delhi court soon will hear a hotly-contested dispute between Muslims and Hindus over the birthplace of one of Hinduism’s chief deities, Lord Ram.
For 165 years, Hindus and Muslims have fought over a plot of land less than three acres in size. Commonly referred to as “Ayodhya” because of the city in Uttar Pradesh in which it’s located, the religious site also was home to the 500-year-old Babri Masjid mosque. Yet Hindus long have contended the mosque was built over a temple that marked the birthplace of Lord Ram, and therefore the site belonged to Hinduism.
In 1949, Hindu activists broke into Babri Masjid and installed a Lord Ram idol, transforming the mosque into a de facto temple and exacerbating religious tensions that boil to this very day. In the early 1990s, things took a sharp turn for the worse when a right-wing Hindu mob tore apart the mosque building, setting off a series of violent clashes and legal fights that have brought the issue to the Supreme Court. Now everyone in India is waiting for the next shoe to drop.
Nationalist organizations such as Vishva Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — the parent organization of the BJP, India’s ruling party — have mobilized up to 200,000 supporters to pressure the government to build a temple in Ayodhya, attempting to bypass the Supreme Court process. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, a Hindu monk himself, even announced a bronze statue of Lord Ram would be installed in Ayodhya. If built, the statue will rise nearly 40 meters higher than the tallest statue in the world — which was unveiled in India only last month and cost $400 million.
Yet as pressure from politicians and religious leaders mounts, it would be a grave mistake for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cave in to demands to build a temple in Ayodhya and circumvent a matter for the high court to decide.
Yes, the Hindus have a legitimate claim for their request, but how does one decide who gets ownership to religious site in a country whose constitution grants freedom of religion to both Hindus and Muslims? Naturally, it is up to the courts to be the neutral arbiter.
India has seen this movie play countless times before, and the ending is always the same: when religion and politics come together, the outcome too often is violence and polarization that hurts India’s social and economic integrity. One only has to look back to the assassination of India’s first female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, which triggered a horrible cycle of violence between Sikhs and Hindus that continues to this day, or the deplorable state that Kashmir has been in for decades.
The stakes in the Ayodhya dispute might be even higher because of the current volatile atmosphere in the region. The state where the religious site sits has both the largest Muslim and Hindu populations in India. It also has the highest number of communal violence incidents in the country, many sparked by religious disputes.
A showdown between hardline right-wing Hindus and Muslim extremists could lead to a series of violent reprisals. For example, in 2002, more than 2,000 people died in riots in another state shortly after a mob set on fire a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya, killing 58 of them. Even the infamous 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai allegedly were committed to avenge the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque.
Things are so intense in Ayodhya that families have fled the area, and leaders in India and abroad are calling on Prime Minister Modi to not allow this latest skirmish to result in another catastrophe.
Depoliticizing religion is not only a necessary step for social order; it’s also imperative for the economy. As Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation and author of a study on the subject, observed, “Religious hostilities and restrictions create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies.”
Prime Minister Modi’s historic victory in the 2014 election did not come on promises to build a temple. He ran on a platform of economic development and anti-corruption. This unfortunate situation is his best opportunity yet to prove that he is the leader that countless millions of Indians believe him to be.
The Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is an internationally renowned human and civil rights activist. He is founder of Dignity Freedom Network, which advocates for and delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcasts of South Asia. He is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and serves as the president of the All India Christian Council.