Monday, July 01, 2013

Politics Of Religion: The Tug-Of-War Over Kedarnath Temple

By M H Ahssan / Hyderabad

At the heart of what we call religion, lies faith – the variations of which manifest themselves as obsession, superstition, prejudice and several other such disruptive emotions. On the flipside of India’s much celebrated plurality, however, are the consequences of the various expressions of faith – the collective experience of which is called religion. The fact that religion is a social construct and hence readily lends itself to politics, is not new. And major parties in India are not unaware of its potential when it comes to political wrestling matches.
 Expectedly, therefore, Narendra Modi, after having reportedly saved many a Gujarati from nature’s wrath in Uttarakhand, graciously offered to help rebuild the Kedarnath temple. Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna, however, refused to take the statement on his competence lying low and quickly dismissed Modi’s offer, literally asking the Gujarat CM to mind his own business. He said the reconstruction work of the temple will be undertaken by his government – a Congress-led one.

Kedarnath temple, or any other religious site in Uttarakhand, is not a political issue for us; it is an emotional issue. It is our pride and we will rebuild all these sites. Any help towards this cause on humanitarian grounds is welcome, but playing temple politics for political gains is not appreciated. Uttarakhand is known as ‘Veer Bhoomi’ (land of the brave) and ‘Dev Bhoomi’ (abode of Gods). We are brave and capable enough to face the crisis and rebuild the Dev Bhoomi.

While Bahuguna, might seem to be in a hurry to dismiss in the incident, the Uttarakhand tragedy and reactions to it are a sharp reminder of the fact that religion, in all its divisive glory, forms the bedrock of Indian politics. Uttarakhand’s biggest loss was not the brick and mortar structure of the Kedarnath temple. Nor should that be the primary concern of well meaning political parties in India – there are hundreds of corpses lying inaccessible in parts of the state, there a strong possibility of an epidemic, the infrastructure that supports basic livelihood of the locals of these places have taken a massive hit, but the political narrative in our country has conveniently focused on religion. And from their point of view, that is what is going to reap returns for a long time to come. 

Like Mani Shankar Aiyar points out in this essay, most countries in the Indian subcontinent ‘have no difficulty in accepting majoritarianism as the basis of their nationhood’. And in India, where 85 percent of the population are Hindus, the strongest majoritarian sentiments revolve around religion. Rebuilding Kedarnath will be something that’ll go down in history and will be referred to by generations who would have ceased to care about the other casualties of the tragedy. No wonder, a political tug-of-war is already in the offing.

While Modi jumped in to offer leading the reconstruction process, a cornered Bahuguna is not willing to give it all up. It is no secret that the rebuilding of his state depends on the generosity of the Centre and other states, but the Uttarakhand CM still chose to invite ‘help’ making sure nobody else takes a lead in the process and robbing the party of the glory that’d follow. “I am not joining issue on this with any other State or any other leader or any party. Any State, any leader, any party in India or abroad, who wants to help in the reconstruction of the entire Kedarnath Dhaam is welcome,” the Chief Minister said.

In fact, the Uttarakhand government is already in the process of putting together a team that’ll draw the blueprint of Kedarnath’s redevelopment. “Also, we will consult a host of other experts like environmentalists and archaeologists to carry out the whole process scientifically. The idea is to ensure that whatever comes up henceforth does so in a planned and structured manner.”

The right moves and the right words can have long standing benefits, political parties have realised. And they always have Ayodhya to fall back upon and re-learn the tricks of the trade. One just hope that the lives and livelihoods of the people of Uttarakhand don’t end up being collateral damage in the game of religious politicking.

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