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Controversial Hindu temple is inaugurated by India's prime minister

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, this next story takes us to India, where we are hearing the sounds of a celebration.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOWING CONCH SHELLS)

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Priests were blowing conch shells as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was leading the consecration of a temple to the Hindu Lord Ram, a temple that some argue has helped change India's very trajectory. A Hindu group built it on the site of a historic mosque razed three decades ago.

INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid is in Ayodhya, which is where the ceremony is taking place. Hey there, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did you see?

HADID: Well, Steve, I'm sitting in the media room where journalists have been pinned in while the consecration goes on. And we saw Narendra Modi, the prime minister, climb the stairs of this sweeping temple. And as he did, folks in this room broke out in cries of Jai Shri Ram, which means victory to Lord Ram. And the media has been breathlessly covering this event, the days leading to it. Kids have the day off, so do many civil servants. It feels and looks like a national celebration. Thousands of pilgrims have flocked here as well to Ayodhya, and they're celebrating, too. Have a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

INSKEEP: Can you help us understand the backstory here? We mentioned that this temple was built on the site of what had been a mosque. What makes this a matter of some controversy?

HADID: Right. What makes it a matter of some controversy, Steve, is that this temple was built on the site of a 16th-century mosque that was torn down more than 30 years ago by Hindu nationalists, who believe it's the birthplace of Lord Ram. And that act triggered communal violence across South Asia, killed thousands, mostly Muslims. But in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh, mobs also attacked Hindus. And those rioters were whipped up in part by the BJP. That's the party that now rules India led by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And he initiated the temple's building after the Supreme Court handed over the land to Hindu litigants in 2019. And, Steve, there's another interesting thing about this huge event, and that is that the construction of this temple is actually not complete.

INSKEEP: OK, if it's not complete, why is the prime minister leading this giant ceremony that you're describing?

HADID: Critics say the timing is key. They say that Modi has consecrated the temple today with an eye to upcoming elections, probably this spring, where he's expected to win a third successive term. I spoke to Ashutosh Varshney about this. He's the director of the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University. And he argues that this is a winning electoral strategy precisely for what this temple has come to represent, which is the primacy of Hindus in India. But this is also a country that is meant to enshrine the equality of all its citizens.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: The fact that the highest office of Indian polity will be leading the consecration essentially means a political declaration in favor of Hindu supremacy.

HADID: It's really like looking at a tale of two cities here. We spoke to one Ayodhya Muslim community leader and he says he's genuinely happy for Hindus. Lord Ram is deeply revered here. But he says he wants his community to be treated with the same equality.

INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid is in Ayodhya, India. Diaa, thanks for the observations.

HADID: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNOOZE'S "TRAINS AT JUPITER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Diaa Hadid
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.