For several years, a large section of the country had considered the domes of the imposing structure symbols of humiliation thrust on the people. So, when the top court of the country declared the place can be converted into a shrine for the majority community to pray, the leader of the country became so emotional that he couldn’t sleep all night.
On the day the doors were to be re-opened for prayers, the leader and his entourage arrived for the service in the heart of the historic district, walking on red carpets and marbled floors. He began the service with a recital from the scriptures and continued the formal prayers for hundreds of specially invited attendees and the call to prayer rang out from the building’s minarets.
Sounds like Narendra Modi? Feels like Ayodhya? Already hear the echo of the familiar chants of ‘Jai Shree Ram?’
No, this wasn’t Modi laying the foundation of a Ram temple in Ayodhya on August 5. It was his Islamist doppelganger, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, opening the doors of the Hagia Sophia—a national museum till recently—in Istanbul for Muslims to pray, on July 24, 2020.
Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian cathedral by the Roman king August in what was then called Constantinople. In 1453, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman forces, the Byzantine Church was turned into a mosque. In 1935, when Mustafa Ataturk founded Turkey, he converted the contested building into a national museum.
Ataturk dreamt of a country based on the principles of secularism, scientific temper, liberal humanism and a thriving economy. He converted the shrine into a museum so that Turkey could move on from the troubled history of medieval myths, religious rivalries and wars; and also to send out a strong message that his was a truly secular republic with a clear distinction between the state and religion.
But, over the years, this version of Turkey had become an anathema for Erdogan, who wanted to run it as a theocracy, with himself as its temporal and spiritual head. On July 24, Hagia Sophia fell to Erdoğan’s Islamist agenda, aided and abetted by a court decision that paved the way for converting a modern museum into a medieval mosque.
“This is Hagia Sophia breaking away from its chains of captivity. It was the greatest dream of our youth,” Erdoğan said before the reopening. “It was the yearning of our people and it has been accomplished.”
On August 5, coincidentally, the first anniversary of the revocation of special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir, Modi used a similar imagery in Ayodhya. “Centuries of struggle are coming to an end today,” he said. “A grand temple will now be built for our Ram Lalla who had been staying in a tent. Today Ram Janmabhoomi breaks free of the cycle of breaking and getting built again – that had been going on for centuries,” the PM added.
The similarities between the events at Ayodhya on August 5 and Istanbul a fortnight ago are difficult to miss. They follow a pattern so similar that India and Turkey, Modi and Erdogan, Istanbul and Ayodhya appear separated at birth by geography. But they appear united by identical versions of two antagonistic ideologies— a Hindu India and an Islamist Turkey.
Imagine for a moment the Indian Supreme Court had stuck to its initial stand that the demolition of the structure in Ayodhya by kar sevaks in 1992 was an act of “national shame” and ordered its re-construction. Imagine this order by the apex court were delivered in Modi’s India.
Would Modi have gone to Ayodhya with similar zeal, replacing his saffron attire with some shade of green, to lay the foundation of a mosque? Would he have addressed the nation from the mosque’s minbar and called it a proud moment in the history of India? Since we know Modi’s aversion to even the symbolic act of wearing a skullcap, the answer to the hypothetical question isn’t difficult to guess. But, we will find out if and when a mosque in lieu of the demolished structure is built in Ayodhya in accordance with the Supreme Court judgment that granted the dispute site to Hindus in November 2019.
Modi’s presence in Ayodhya on the occasion of the groundbreaking ceremony of the Ram temple points to two important things. One, he is, like Erdogan, keen to remove every vestige of the legacy of India’s Ataturk—Jawaharlal Nehru.
Nehru’s was extremely liberal in his interpretation of a secular republic compared with the founder of Turkey. But, Modi and the RSS just do not want a nation where the state and its leaders keep religion where it belongs—in the privacy of their homes. Instead, they want religion to be the defining identity of the nation, its leaders and its people.
Two, his presence at a religious ceremony that preceded a violent, divisive history that ended with the destruction of a mosque, shows Modi has reached a point in politics where he can confidently signal to the world that the democratically elected leader of India is primarily the leader of the Hindu majority. In doing this, he has accorded to himself not just the role of India’s political leader but also its supreme social and spiritual leader—someone in the mould of the formidable Ayatollah of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini—whose presence is a sine qua non at the head of political and religious tables.
This is a big deviation from the Indian tradition where the line between politics and religion was separated by a strict Lakshman Rekha. In the Indian school of thought, the king was never meant to be the spiritual head of his subjects, unlike in Islam and Sikhism where the swords of Miri and Piri (political and spiritual leadership) could be wielded by the same person.
Spiritual leadership was usually bestowed on those who renounced power and the material world, sacrifices that made them appear superior to the political leaders in the eyes of the subjects. This is precisely why the king usually had a guru to guide him through the spiritual world. And, more importantly, this is also why even kings, like Siddartha, who wanted to pursue the spiritual, started their journey with the act of renunciation.
This arrangement survived in India till the advent of Modi’s era. Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, confined himself to politics, leaving debates on public morality, spiritualism and god to Mahatma Gandhi. Even the first Prime Minister from the BJP camp, Atal Behari Vajpayee, never dabbled in theological debates, maintaining the image of a man who cared only for politics, though by temperament he was also a bit of a philosopher and a fakir.
Modi, in contrast, is keen on being both Nehru and Gandhi—Mir and Pir— with a bit of Shankaracharya and the famous Ramkatha vachak (narrator of Lord Ram’s legend) Morari Bapu added to this fascinating mix of multiple personalities. He fancies himself as a nationalist leader, a preacher, a social reformer and the head of the virat Hindu parivar who condescendingly interprets Lord Ram’s legend for them from the pulpit in Ayodhya, all this while calling himself a fakir.
Only time will tell where this avatar of Modi will take India. Erdogan would be watching from the pulpit of the Hagia Sophia.