Modi’s Temple of Lies

The sleepy pilgrimage city of Ayodhya in northern India was once home to a grand 16th-century mosque, until it was illegally demolished by a howling mob of Hindu militants in 1992. The site has since been reinvented as the centerpiece of the Hindu-chauvinist “new India” promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In 2020, as Covid-19 raged unchecked across the country, Mr. Modi, the leader of the Hindu right, went to Ayodhya to inaugurate construction of a three-story sandstone temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site of the former mosque. Dressed in shiny, flowing clothes and wearing a white N95 mask, he offered prayers to the Ram idol and the 88-pound silver brick being inserted as the foundation stone.

I traveled to Ayodhya a year later and watched as the temple was hurriedly being built. But it seemed to me to offer not the promise of a new India so much as the seeds of its downfall.

Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalism has fed distrust and hostility toward anything foreign, and the receptionists at my hotel were sullenly suspicious of outsiders. There was no hotel bar — a sign of Hindu virtue — and the food served was pure vegetarian, a phrase implying both Hindu caste purity and anti-Muslim prejudice.

Outside, devotional music blared on loudspeakers while bony, manure-smeared cows, protected by Hindu law, wandered waterlogged streets in the rain. The souvenir shops at the temple displayed a toxic Hindu masculinity, highlighted by garish shirts featuring images of a steroid-fed Ram, all bulging muscles and chiseled six-packs. Even Hanuman, Ram’s wise but slightly mischievous monkey companion, appeared largely in the snarling Modi-era version known as Angry Hanuman, which went viral in 2018 after Mr. Modi praised the design.

After a decade of rule by Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindu-majority India maintains the facade of a democracy and has so far avoided the overt features of a theocracy. Yet, as Ayodhya revealed, it has, for all practical purposes, become a Hindu state. Adherence to this idea is demanded from everyone, whether Hindu or not.

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