Hindu devotees light earthen lamps on the banks of the River Sarayu on the eve before the groundbreaking ceremony of the proposed Ram Temple in Ayodhya on August 4, 2020. Photo: AFP

Wednesday’s planned groundbreaking for the construction of a Lord Ram temple, while polarizing leading political parties, is also eliciting murmurs of protest from some leaders. The detractors see it as an event dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which controls the central and state governments, and its allies and object to the ceremony being led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi will perform the groundbreaking ceremony in the ancient town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state on the banks of the Saryu river. Most opposition leaders have not been invited to participate in the historic event. Yet, in a country of more than a billion Hindus, political parties want to be seen to be on the right side of the sentiment associated with the temple.

The number of attendees was curtailed in part because of the surging number of coronavirus cases – over 1.85 million with more than 50,000 new ones each day for the past week. Covid-19 has been spreading across India after being initially confined mainly to major cities such as Mumbai and Delhi.

Lord Ram is referred to as Maryada Purshottam, which means honor and righteousness, or a person who performed all his roles and duties in the most ideal and honorable manner. Rumayana, the epic depicting his life, is enacted each year over 10 days in all towns and villages, culminating in Diwali, the festival of lights, in India and some Southeast Asian countries.

“Ram temple at Ayodhya is a symbol of our civilization,’’ said Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, national vice president of the BJP. “It has nothing to do with anything communal. In fact it’ll strengthen the emotional integration of India.”

But there are detractors. Asaduddin Owaisi, a member of the parliament and the president of All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party, said he opposes Modi leading the groundbreaking in Ayodhya because he is the prime minister.

“I object because the prime minister takes an oath on the constitution of India,” Owaisi said on NDTV TV. “Neither the government nor the country belongs to any one particular religion. He has a responsibility towards the constitution. Secularism is integral part of India’s constitution.”

Owaisi has loudly voiced Muslim points of view and sentiments. He said he resented the Supreme Court judgment that granted the mosque site to the Hindus – accepting archaeological evidence that it was indeed the birthplace of Lord Ram. It was forcibly turned into a mosque by Mughal king Babur in 1526. The court gave Muslims an alternative parcel of land for a new mosque a few kilometers away.

Suhas Palshikar, who taught political science at Pune University, supports his position.

“The [Supreme Court] ruling in the Ayodhya case, ordering that Muslims be given an ‘alternative’ site, formalized the peripheralization of the Muslims both spatially and politically, while the celebrations openly involving state machinery underscore the officialization of the status of Hindu religion as the basis of the new republic,’’ Palshikar wrote in the Indian Express on August 4.

Muslims constitute 14% (172 million) of India’s 1.38 billion people. The present Lok Sabha has 27 Muslim members out of the 543 elected members. AIMIM has two members in the lower house.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) said the takeover of the ceremony by the state and central governments, and the involvement of the prime minister go against both the Supreme Court verdict and the letter and spirit of the Constitution of India.

Yet, leaders of national parties are reaching a consensus that Lord Ram belongs to the Indian civilization, cutting across religions and narrow faiths. They cite the fact that the festival of Diwali has been celebrated as a national event across the country for centuries.

People of all faiths participate in some way or the other in Ram Leela, or the enactment of Ramayana, before the killing of wrongdoer Ravana on Dussehra day. In villages across the country youngsters of all faiths can be seen enacting the roles of any of the epic’s characters.

Leaders of the main opposition Indian National Congress also made an effort to be seen as supporting the temple.

The groundbreaking ceremony must become an occasion for national unity, fraternity and cultural congregation, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, daughter of Sonia Gandhi, Congress party president, said in a statement. Kamal Nath and Manish Tewari, former central ministers in the Congress government, also made comments in support of the temple, reinforcing their image as devout Hindus.

However, Rahul Gandhi, former Congress president, continued his relentless barbs at Modi for the country’s sliding economic growth and surging Covid-19 cases.

“People’s trust and confidence in the economy has evaporated,” Gandhi tweeted. “The Prime Minister and his team have neither the understanding, nor the tools or the ability to fix the problem. It’s only a question of time before every Indian is forced to understand this.’’

The Indian economy is expected to contract this year, with some analysts saying it could shrink by double digits. To make matters worse, Covid-19 cases are surging, prompting US President Donald Trump to say, “India has a tremendous problem.”