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“Museum wahin banayenge!”

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The shifting politics of Ayodhya: Can a museum achieve what a temple will?

All politics is symbolic. And the BJP is replacing realpolitik with symbolic politics, especially in Ayodhya.

Pilloried by both followers and critics for not moving fast enough on building a Ram temple, the ruling party has offered a museum instead. The newly minted 21st century slogan should be: “Kasam Ram ki khaaten hai, museum wahin banayenge.”

One of the first decisions that the newly elected BJP government in Uttar Pradesh took was to set aside 20 acres for a grand Ramayana museum in Ayodhya. Interestingly, the decision came the day the Supreme Court recommended an out-of-court settlement of the temple-mosque conflict.

But can a Ramayana Museum achieve what a vishal mandir will? Yes, and more.

Museums typically are purveyors of power around the world and government museums are often a symbolic reflection of political hierarchy and ideology. The museum institution may masquerade as a benign, cultural institution but at its core, it is an intensely political creature. When the state sets out to create a new museum or change an existing museum, it is embarking on the task of re-contouring history.

A Ramayana Museum in Ayodhya will be an ante room to the mandir, a sort of holding place to consolidate claims on history.

The museum is a brilliant political strategy to shift the decades-long obsessive debate away from academic, archaeological fixed history to an experiential, story-telling museum-ised history. At this point, a museum is surely less contentious than a mandir, embattled as the latter is in legal and political landmines. The museum’s real trump card is it will succeed in historicising the character of Ram in ways courts and archaeologists can’t.

In the quest to prove that the land was indeed the birthplace of Ram and an old temple had stood at the spot, Indians have lived through waves of religious rioting, political contests, court battles, archaeological excavation and calls for mediation. Sometimes, it also produced eye-rolling, tragicomic fodder – Ram lalla himself was a litigant in court; when the digging in Ayodhya unearthed Jain figurines, many said this proved that a Jain temple existed at the spot, not Ram’s; archaeologists said there is evidence of a large-scale non-residential temple-like structure, but was it a Hindu temple, and was it a Ram temple?

It must be emphasised that the proposed museum is not being called Ram Janmabhoomi Museum but Ramayana Museum. Focus on faith, not historicity. You build a museum about an ancient Hindu epic and the faith of millions of people, and history will follow. It has to.

By naming it the Ramayana Museum, the institution can also deftly avoid alluding to the recent conflicts and parallel claims on the disputed site.

In October, Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti said there was no dispute over Ayodhya being Lord Ram’s birthplace. The only disagreement, she said, was over the land’s ownership. When history, faith and collective memory fold into each other like this, a museum – often posing as the arbiter of truth — can only problematise the issue, it will not bring real clarity.

Even if a vishal Ram mandir is never built at the Ayodhya site, it does not matter anymore. A museum can become something more powerful. A museum will fortify the politics like nothing else. A museum is a place that even non-believers will visit; school children can be herded into groups for field visits; foreign tourists will come to encounter the power of collective memory of Hindus. Most importantly, a museum can cleverly fudge the lines between hard history and soft faith. It all depends on how it is curated, how the exhibits are developed.

The museum will be completed in 18 months and is part of the grand Ramayana Circuit that the government has approved with a large budget of Rs 225 crore – similar to the Buddhist trail for tourists that UPA government introduced.

Museums are effective tools – around the world – whenever history is on trial.

During Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, the National Museum in New Delhi became a site for contestation when the text panels, brochures and banners were changed. The Indus Valley Civilisation was now renamed as Indus-Saraswati civilisation. Critics said Harappan “fire pits” from Lothal, Kalibanga and Banawali were now renamed as “fire altars”; terracotta spindle-like objects and human figurines from Kalibanga were described as Shiva Linga and yogic postures.

The proposed Ramayana Museum isn’t the first time we have thought of mixing religion and museum in India. We do, after all, have a small government-run museum at the other temple-mosque site of Somnath temple, modest and unimaginative as it may be. There is the popular SriKrishna Museum in Kurukshetra, Haryana. There is a small exhibition with animatronic figures inside the private ISKCON temple in New Delhi. There is also the privately run Akshardham museum inside the temple complex in New Delhi – where exquisite exhibitry allows you to paper over somewhat dodgy historiography.

There is still some confusion in the public mind about whether a museum that displays religious sculptures should be regarded as sacred or secular place. For instance, many staffers at the National Museum in Delhi still place flowers reverentially or touch the feet of the large Vishnu sculpture on display before they enter. The museum administration placed a wooden barrier around the sculpture, but that has not deterred the practice. The museum cafeteria serves only vegetarian food. Similarly, many people touch the threshold of the SriKrishna Museum before they enter.

Will a Ramayana Museum become a semi-sacred, pilgrimage site as well – at least until the temple is built? After all, Indians used to garland the TV set in villages when the dramatised Sunday series was aired.

But ultimately, the Ramayana Museum will be judged by not what it includes, but by what it excludes. History is fluid, so is faith. Will the museum include other versions of the epic – prevalent in different regions and communities across the country – or will it only portray the one that is politically convenient and beneficial?

If the state museum is not elastic enough in its story, all is not lost. There is still room for cultural and political subversion.

Perhaps, in some years from now, there can be a non-government community-curated museum in Ayodhya that tells the story of parallel Ramayanas, and may be another about the political history of the temple-mosque site. Museums, after all, are safe spaces for unsafe ideas.

The idea of a museum in Ayodhya is a potent tool – no matter who wields it.

Rama Lakshmi is Editor, Opinion & Social Media, at ThePrint. You can follow her on Twitter @RamaNewDelhi

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