Asansol: The calls to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya have polarised elections for years, but a new shrine to the Hindu deity opened this week in West Bengal with a different message: Vasudhaiva Kutumbukam, the world is one family.
Shiva mantras rang through the air as over 5,000 residents of Pandaveswar, a village on the outskirts of Asansol, gathered at the newly-built marble-arched Ram Janaki temple for its launch Tuesday.
Brahmin priests blessed devotees, while Muslims doled out sweets in small paper cups.
“People of all faiths helped build our Ram temple,” said Mohammad Munir, a resident of Pandaveswar. “This is our answer to religious polarisation.”
With this temple, the villagers said, they meant to call out the Narendra Modi government for “dragging its feet” on the Ram temple in Ayodhya and milking the controversy for votes.
“We credit Asansol’s mayor Jitendra Tiwari [of Trinamool Congress] for his wholehearted support to our cause,” said one villager. “Bengal needs to preserve its progressive and secular ethos,” added another.
As Prime Minister Modi took a jibe at the Trinamool Congress for “rising corruption and crime rate” during an election rally in Asansol the same day, residents here were celebrating their unity.
Sanjay Yadav, a community leader, said the Ram Janaki temple was constructed entirely by the people with zero resources from the government.
“Muslims contributed 10,000 bricks, while Sikhs and Christians rallied around us. We believe in inter-faith work and worship,” he said.
The plan to construct a Ram temple in Pandaveswar was first mooted around 2016, when residents petitioned Tiwari in the backdrop of rising communal violence across India under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre.
Tiwari, who said he had by then already decided to beautify and renovate religious structures across Asansol, lent support to the cause.
“In Ayodhya, Muslims feel threatened, but here we foster peace at the political, social and spiritual levels,” he told ThePrint.
In December 2017, Trinamool Congress MLA Arup Biswas laid the foundation stone for the Ram temple, following which residents launched a crowd-sourcing campaign for its construction.
While some people made monetary contributions, others sponsored construction material such as bricks, granite, marble, cement and tiles.
“There was no government interference,” said Kamaljeet Singh, a Sikh community leader involved in the initiative since the beginning.
According to Singh, Sikhs joined hands with other community representatives not only to make material contributions, but also to raise consciousness about tolerance in faith spaces.
Religious harmony is evidently a collective aspiration for residents of Pandaveswar.
Before Ram Navami last year, according to villagers, activists of the notorious fringe group Bajrang Dal convened a meeting at a temple in Pandaveswar. Fearing a possible outbreak of communal violence, villagers alerted the temple committee.
“A flag on top of a Ram Navami akhara had been tossed away, so Hindus were enraged,” said Singh. “But the administration brought the situation under control.”
However, violence did break out in nearby Asansol city as a Ram Navami procession wound through a Muslim neighbourhood.
The religious event turned into an aggressive display of weapons when men in saffron allegedly shouted provocative anti-Muslim slogans and played hate-spewing songs.
Soon, a mob set fire to shops and homes and killed the 16-year-old son of a Muslim cleric.
The imam of Noorani Masjid, Maulana Imdadullah Rasheedi, contained the flare-up, saying he would move out if anyone retaliated against his son’s death.
“Religious events shouldn’t become platforms to lob insults and spread violence,” said Rasheedi as he appealed for peace.
Asansol was among the places affected by riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992. The 2018 riots shattered a peace locals have maintained with pride ever since.
‘Polling agent Ram’
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress said she would punish the miscreants, while Asansol MP Babul Supriyo of the BJP alleged that the Centre had made several attempts to convince the state to allow the deployment of paramilitary personnel.
Amid the political bickering, civil society expressed concern that Ram Navami celebrations had taken on communal overtones.
“This year, too, we were scared because Ram has been turned into a polling agent before the elections,” said Ghulam Sarwar, a councillor in the Asansol Municipal Corporation.
“We are hoping the Pandaveswar temple will be an example for the rest of India by bringing people across castes, classes and religions together,” he added.
Another councilor, Haji Nasim Ansari, said the politicisation of religiously-significant places like Ayodhya had stripped them of their real value.
“BJP’s Bhopal candidate [for the Lok Sabha polls] Sadhvi Pragya Thakur’s remark that she was among those who razed the Babri Masjid only serves to alienate Muslims,” he added.
“Our Ram mandir was built because everyone felt included. Consensus lay not in the hands of the politicians, but with people,” he said.
Even though Ram Navami has only recently been glorified on the Bengali calendar, Pandaveswar’s residents think it has benefits of the non-political kind too.
Women devotees want to participate in Ram katha recitals in the Vaishnava spirit, while also bringing in members from other communities.
“Ram is the most important god in the Hindu pantheon of deities,” said Sagarika Das, a 45-year-old housewife who lives in a neighbouring village. “Muslims, Sikhs and Christians have agreed to venerate Ram through puja, charitable events and community meals during major Hindu festivals,” she added.
Despite the local excitement around the temple, BJP leaders see it as nothing more than a “lollipop” offered by the Trinamool Congress to appease Hindu voters ahead of the Lok Sabha election in Asansol on 29 April.
Asansol BJP leader Madanmohan Choubey said Trinamool’s “temple politics” would only lead to its defeat.
“People need jobs and development, not religion,” he added. “The fact that the Trinamool is taking Ram so seriously betrays their fears about electoral defeat,” he said.
The BJP courted a lot of resentment among its followers for failing to build the Ram temple despite assuming office in 2014 with a brute majority. This Lok Sabha election, the temple is once again a part of the BJP manifesto.
Some BJP members told ThePrint that Pandaveswar could not be compared to Ayodhya: The latter, they said, was a disputed site, a factor that hindered efforts to construct the promised temple right away.
Spiritual leaders, meanwhile, said the “furore” over Ram was a ruse used by the BJP as well as the Trinamool Congress to assert and concretise their political hegemony.
“Ram belongs to the people,” said Arun Sharma, a secretary and spiritual head at the 19th-century Mahavir Sthan Durga Mandir in Asansol.
“Political leaders in Ayodhya and Bengal are driven by their political motivations. Has Modi ever visited Ayodhya to lay claims on Ram’s birthplace?” he added.
Pandaveswar community leader Sanjay Yadav said “religion should not divide people”.
“It should allow everyone to coexist harmoniously. Our temple is a step in that direction,” he added.