An excerpt from ‘The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political Party’, by Nalin Mehta.
My family’s first domestic political fight, as far as I can remember, was over the Ram Temple. My grandfather brought a “Jai Sri Ram” (Victory to Lord Ram) sticker from somewhere and pasted it on the front of my father’s Bajaj 150 scooter. Dad blew his top.
My grandfather could not understand this reaction. “Ram is our god. We worship him every day in this house. What’s your problem with a sticker that has his name?” he asked with furious indignation.
“Yes, but this is now a political slogan. I am in the Army,” responded my father. “It would be treason to sport a political sticker and drive this scooter while wearing my uniform,” I remember him saying.
It was September 1990. LK Advani, then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had just started his 10,000-km Rath Yatra (literally, “chariot journey”), from the ancient reconstructed temple of Somnath on the western Gujarat coast to the disputed Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya in the heart of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, had just started making his name in Gujarat as a local BJP apparatchik. His name first appeared as a politician in the pages of The Times of India in 1988, as the organiser of an anti-Congress rasta-roko agitation on farmer demands in Gujarat, but not many outside the state had heard of him. That wider recognition would not come until he became a key organiser of the Yatra’s Gujarat leg in 1990. The first fissures of the Yatra – with “Jai Sri Ram” as its rallying cry – and what it meant for India were being felt in our household.
My grandfather was a Punjabi refugee from what is now Pakistan’s Toba Tek Singh district. Most of the family had made it alive to this side of the border in 1947, but Partition, and its Hindu-Muslim killings, left a deep psychological scar. One of his brothers joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) when they reached Delhi, although we seldom spoke of it at home.
My grandfather, a defence ministry civil servant, never joined the Sangh. But the bloody flight from his beloved village of Kamalia near Faisalabad in Pakistani Punjab and the painful rebuilding of a new life from nothing in Delhi left in him a gaping, lifelong wound and a distrust of Muslims. It made him deeply sympathetic to Hindu nationalist causes.
My father, born in Nehru’s India, a year after Gandhi was assassinated, became an unapologetic Nehruvian secularist. When he joined the Indian Army, it still had a recruitment rule that denied entry to known RSS members on security-clearance grounds.
The “Jai Sri Ram” sticker ignited an argument in which neither side could understand the other. My father saw it as a political statement – one that he, as a serving Army officer, refused to make. My grandfather framed the issue as one of religious belief. When my father pulled the sticker off, insisting that he could not be seen driving a vehicle with religious messaging on it, my grandfather’s religiosity was deeply offended.
“How can you remove Ram?” he shouted. Matters were getting out of hand when my grandmother stepped in and said quietly: “Stop the political talk. No politics in the house. We have lost too many people to it already.” And that was that. Or my memory of it.
It was my first personal experience of politics, an early baptism in the wider debate on Hinduness, Indianness, secularism – the complex meanings underpinning the interface of religious identity and politics that the Rath Yatra had set off. Many Indians went through versions of this same family debate as it replayed in multiple family WhatsApp groups, in drawing rooms and in discussions with friends on 5 August 2020.
On this day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided over the consecration of the new Ram Temple, which the Supreme Court had ruled could be built on the site of the demolished mosque. The debates were now different in detail. The BJP was in its sixth year of continuous majority power in India, but the underlying touchpoints of cultural and political contention that its rise had engendered – on what it means to be Indian in a Hindu-majority but non-sectarian State – were essentially the same.
A couple of months after the appearance of the “Jai Sri Ram” sticker, I accompanied my father when he went to pick up my mother from her Union government ministry office in Delhi’s RK Puram. Her co-workers, lower-level bureaucrats, had set up a shrine to the Hindu gods Ram, Shiva and Krishna in a corner of their shared office space. Next to it, someone had pasted a new sticker.
It sported the visage of a martial Ram with a bow and arrow and a one-line message: “Mandir Vahin Banaayenge” (We will build the temple right there). This was another rallying cry of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement – an assertion that the temple would only be built on the site of the Babri mosque, no matter what.
My father, who was in his olive-green Army uniform, stiffened when he saw the slogan inside the government building. “They have taken an oath to be apolitical in government service,” he said. “All this should be fought outside, not here.” I was too young to understand it at the time, but my mother’s office wall reflected another fissure that the Ram movement had opened up: on the role of the State and its officials when their private religious and political beliefs clashed with expected behaviour, especially when these beliefs were being vehemently, and politically, contested.
By the time LK Advani’s rath, a souped-up Toyota truck rejigged to look like a medieval chariot, wound its way through India, I was in boarding school. We were participating in school debates with topics like “There Is No Place for Religion in a Democracy: For or Against” or “Our Culture Is Our Greatest Strength: For or Against”.
Most students did not really care about these topics; they were just school assignments. Yet, in an India without internet or mobile phones, in the secluded, sheltered surroundings of our elite boarding school, a couple of senior boys were excited enough by the Ram movement to keep a daily pictorial scrapbook on the Rath Yatra and its day-to-day travails, with cuttings from newspapers and weekly magazines.
The din of the Ram Mandir movement was all around us, challenging our young minds. One of these scrapbook-boys went on to become a successful IT entrepreneur, another a high-flying corporate banker.
I do not know what happened to that scrapbook, but Narendra Modi would have featured in it. The BJP was yet to win Gujarat, but his role in the Somnath-Gandhinagar leg of the Yatra meant that, by 1991, he was already being hailed in the press as the “architect of the BJP’s phenomenal growth in Gujarat”.
In 1992, less than a month after the demolition of the mosque, with Ayodhya still under curfew – and some BJP leaders in detention – he was being counted as one of the party’s next-gen leaders, important enough to be mentioned among the key functionaries who met for an emergency session of the party’s national executive in Delhi.
The gathered BJP brass, led by senior leaders like future prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, demanded immediate access to Ram Lalla idols for “darshan” in the curfew-hit town. They called on the government to allow in devotees to Ayodhya on 26 December 1992 for the yearly “Pragat Utsav” – a festival commemorating the appearance of the Ram idols in the Babri Masjid in 1948.
Earlier that year, as chief organiser of the BJP’s Kanyakumari-to-Kashmir Ekta Yatra, Modi accompanied the then BJP president Murali Manohar Joshi to unfurl the Indian tricolour in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk in a symbolic ceremony. The flag-hoisting was preceded by the creation of the eponymously named “Kesari Vahini” (literally, “saffron vehicle”), which comprised some 6,00,000 volunteers who had been mobilised from around the country.
Its slogan, as Modi told reporters, could not be clearer. “Article 370 hatao, atankawad mitao, desh bachao” (Remove Article 370, wipe out terrorism, save the country). The BJP leaders were airlifted from Jammu to curfewed Srinagar, where they hoisted the tricolour before being flown back. Given the rise of Dr Joshi in the BJP’s leadership, what stood out then was Modi’s salience as an apparatchik.
He was part of the party’s tapestry, no matter who headed it. Clearly, in 1990-1993, Modi was a rising star, being noticed for defining party campaigns that presaged some of his signature moves as prime minister two decades later.
And here are some pictures — including the original plaque, inscribed inside in Arabic, recording the founding of the mosque by the Hindu zamidar just opposite what was then the family mansion 2/3 pic.twitter.com/rX9jUMyj1j— Nalin Mehta (@nalinmehta) January 4, 2022
Reporting on another offshoot of the Ram Temple agitation in 2002, I discovered that my new mother-in-law from UP had herself been to kar-seva twice: before and immediately after the temple demolition. This was yet another example of how the political tumult of the “outside” world plays out in complex, unexpected ways in our “inside” family worlds. I spent most of 2002 covering the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat, which had started with the burning of fifty-nine kar-sevaks on their way back from Ayodhya.
The election that followed was the making of Narendra Modi as a mass leader. Midway through that campaign, as I discussed the political rhetoric with a bureaucrat in Ahmedabad, she mused aloud about its psychological wellsprings. “It is almost like they are taking revenge for Somnath, as if taking account for all those centuries of humiliation,” she muttered half- seriously.
Later that day, when I questioned my devout mother-in-law about what motivated her kar-seva, she insisted it was personal belief. She had grown up in Ayodhya’s Kanak Bhawan, within sight of the Babri Masjid. “Hamaare bhagwan hain (he is my god)“ was her gentle but firm answer each time I attempted a wider discussion on her beliefs.
What about the underlying politics of the movement? What did she think it meant for Muslims? I could never draw her into a deeper dialogue on the questions I was used to discussing in my professional circles – the “idea of India”, “secularism vs communalism”, “minority rights”. Her answer started and ended with faith.
It confounded me because her gentle religiosity did not square with the aggression, machismo and anti-Muslim-ness I had seen in many of the movement’s stormtroopers. Just when I was bracketing her in my mind as a one-dimensional Hindu nationalist, a new familial twist emerged.
My father-in-law, another devout Hindu, was equally supportive of the Ram Temple. The surprise was that his daily morning pooja at a Hindu altar was followed by another, more discreet ritual: the reading of the Quran in a closed room. The morning aarti and prasad would be followed by a religious recitation of the Islamic “Bismillah-ir-Rehman-ir-Rahim”, as he physically ran his hands in reverence over the lines of the Quranic pages.
In a Kayasth family of feudal landlords in UP’s Fatehpur, the origin myth of this syncretic tradition went back to the legend of a Muslim peer (Sufi saint) who apparently came down to their forebears seven generations ago. The family story was that the peer advised their ancestor to keep a Quran in the house, read it daily in secret, but to remain Hindu and not convert. That tradition had survived to the present day.
In a town that once had Muslim overlords, the practice may have begun as a social defence mechanism. The fakir story may simply have been an “invented tradition”. Yet, it was also a fascinating story of secret and multiple selves, of a remarkable cross-pollination of religious traditions born out of centuries of co-existence and an outstanding example of the legendary Ganga–Jamuna tehzeeb of UP, a fusion of Hindu and Islamic traditions born out of centuries of co-existence.
The Kayasths mastered Persian, then Urdu, as scribes and close associates of various Muslim rulers or landed gentry. They were far from an orthodox, closeted elite. This was not really multiculturalism in the modern sense. The original impulse may have been a survival instinct in a time of conflict, but the tradition had survived.
My new relatives in Fatehpur, I noticed, were more religiously “Hindu” than anyone I knew, but still greeted each other with the Urdu “salaam”, not the Hindi “namaste”. The black-and-white photos of their ancestors on the walls depicted two kinds of cultural layering. There were colonial-era photos of impassive-looking feudal nobility dressed in starched suits and British uniforms. But the oldest family portrait, preceding the British era, depicted a gentleman in the dress of Muslim aristocracy, with a beard and headgear in the Islamicate style.
They had retained their Hinduness in the internal domain, but their external cultural selves had changed with the ruling zeitgeists. Now they were changing again.
The befuddling result of this syncretism was that the same family was involved in both Ram Temple kar-seva as well as a daily reading of the Quran. They had contributed Rs 40,000 to the construction of the new Ram Temple after Prime Minister Modi led the consecration ceremony in Ayodhya. Yet, they had continued, till recently, to also provide yearly donations for the upkeep of the local Mansingh Masjid, a mosque still prefixed with their Hindu surname and built over 150 years ago by an ancestor.
The Masjid was built on family land that was later sold off. Its nineteenth-century spires, built opposite what was once the family mansion’s main gate, are surrounded today by a row of modern houses but it still retains its Hindu nomenclature. At the centre of its prayer hall is a foundation plaque in black stone, recording its founding by a Mansingh, accompanied by a verse from the Quran.
For my father-in-law, the Quran was a treasured family “virasat (heritage), part of his lived daily tradition. Yet, his household also distributed motichoor ke laddoo as ritual prasad to neighbours to celebrate the Ram Temple consecration ceremony. The laddoos had been specially sent out from the Ayodhya temple, where Modi performed the rituals, to several households across UP, and had reached them via relatives in Allahabad.
Their story encapsulates for me the multiple contradictions of India, the complexities of Hinduism and Hindu nationalism beyond simple binaries, and equally, the questions it raises for the future of older, syncretic traditions. This ability to straddle two religious worlds, well- studied by anthropologists, historians and writers, would be familiar to many Indians from a small-town or rural milieu. Even now, dargahs (shrines to revered figures, often Sufi saints or dervishes) draw people of all faiths, and Indians, cutting across religions, look to pirs and other religious figures to ward off evil.
This is why an understanding of the nature of the BJP’s growth, its structures of power and modes of mobilisation is critical today. The answers may be surprising.