This cannot be the dream ending of the Ram Mandir movement for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who as a young RSS/BJP karyakarta took part in it during the first few years.
Though he hailed the Supreme Court decision, the whole process of Ayodhya closure lacks Modi’s signature touch. The credit goes to the court.
Speaking to the BBC, former VHP leader Praveen Togadia lamented that if the temple had to be constructed by a court decree then why did so many people die in the process.
But all is not lost. Modi can still bring his unique stamp to how the Ayodhya solution is implemented. If he truly wants to unroll his sabka saath sabka vikaas mission, then Ayodhya is a good test case. He should appoint a Dalit woman as the head priest of the grand new Ram Mandir. And I can suggest a Dalit Sanskrit scholar who is perfect for the job.
Mandal vs Kamandal
Appointing a Dalit woman priest will be the right tribute to a movement that saw a Dalit kar sevak from Bihar, Kameshwar Chaupal, laying the first brick for the shilanyas of the proposed Ram Mandir.
It was no coincidence, but a deliberate, well thought-out move by the RSS-VHP. Among the rabble-rousing leaders of the Ram Mandir movement, the most aggressive role was played by those from the lower castes, like Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar and Sadhwi Ritambhara.
Now, appointing a Dalit woman as the head priest of the Ram Mandir would be a fitting finale to the politics that began in the Mandal-Kamandal era. Especially, if the move is initiated by Modi, a leader who washed the feet of Dalit sanitation workers.
As the Ram Rath Yatra coincided with the implementation of the Second Backward Classes Commission report, popularly known as the Mandal Commission report, the BJP had no other option but to give representation to lower caste leaders to attract people. To counter the Mandal, the Kamandal of the BJP had to be reinvented with lower caste groups placed at the centre.
Varna system & Ram Mandir movement
This is not an unfamiliar phenomenon around the world. In 2013, the Catholic church for the first time in its history decided that a Latin-American (Argentinian to be specific) would lead the Catholics of the world.
If we dig deep, we will find that the North American Church, which initially quoted the Bible to give moral credence to slavery, later took on the role of a saviour for the Blacks and the persecuted. Black churches played a seminal role in organising protests against segregation and disenfranchisement of the Blacks.
Many of the leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr., were pastors. A whole set of pastors became part of the movement that called for emancipation of the downtrodden in South America; this religious movement later came to be known as Liberation Theology.
The RSS pays lip-service to the cause of liberating Dalits or people from other backward classes, while constantly holding up the hegemonic structures and the Vedic past of Hinduism. But the RSS does need the support and consent of a section of Dalits. This is necessary not because of any moral compulsion, but because of electoral politics, where numbers have a predominant role to play. This also fits into the scheme of things of the varna (caste) system, wherein manual labour and cumbersome, many a times even dirty, tasks have to be performed by the shudras and untouchables.
The idea of the varna system is reproduced in the Ram Mandir movement too. Those heading the temple movement – be it top political leaders, strategists or the core committee of the VHP’s Dharma Sansad – came exclusively from the upper castes. VHP’s Ashok Singhal, Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas’s Ramchandra Das Paramhans, and BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani are just some examples.
In contrast, the rabble-rousers and the foot soldiers belonged to middle and lower castes. This also explains the symbolism of asking a Dalit to lay the first brick for the proposed Ram Mandir.
To date, no sociological data (Indian sociology has its own biases, as articulated by noted sociologist Professor Vivek Kumar) has been compiled on the composition of the foot soldiers of the movement; otherwise, it would have provided us with valuable empirical data and insights into the event that changed the course of history in India.
Can Modi do the unthinkable?
The Ram Janmabhoomi movement is still widely regarded as an RSS/VHP-led, Singhal-Advani movement, which found denouement in the Supreme Court.
Is there anything Modi can do now?
Modi should form a trust, which will appoint the priest. He can form the trust with members of his preference and persuade them to appoint a Dalit woman as the head priest of the Ram Mandir.
Modi knows the importance of symbolism. He bows too often in front of portraits and statues of B.R. Ambedkar. He has famously said that only because of Ambedkar, he could become the Prime Minister of India. He is building five memorials (PanchTeerth) to pay homage to Ambedkar.
He can now consider appointing Kaushal Panwar as the priest of the new Ram Mandir. She is from the Valmiki community. After all, we all know about Ram only because Valmiki had immortalised him through Ramayana. Kaushal Panwar is a doctorate scholar of Sanskrit and has thorough knowledge of the Dharma Shastra and Mīmāṃsā, and is well-versed in Nigama and Agama (knowledge of vedas).
She has delivered speeches in top universities of the world and teaches at Delhi University. She recounted the horrors of the Hindu caste system in Satyamev Jayate, a show hosted by Aamir Khan.
She has told me that she can do shastrarth (religious debate) on live TV with anyone who aspires to become the head priest of the Ram Mandir. Modi will be happy to know that she is a known Ambedkarite and believes in annihilation of caste. She can be the right choice for the head priest in Ayodhya.
It all started on 9 November 1989 with a Dalit, Kameshwar Chaupal, putting the first brick for the proposed Ram Mandir. Exactly 30 years later, on 9 November 2019, the Supreme Court delivered the Ram Mandir to Hindus. It is only natural that a Dalit head priest now offers prayers at the temple.
Will Modi do the unthinkable again?
The author is an adjunct professor, Dept of Mass Communications at Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication (MCNUJC), Bhopal. He is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.