This time, Hindu organizations have rechristened their claim Ram Karmabhoomi. And the allusion to Ram Janmabhoomi—the believed birthplace of Ram that was recovered in 1992, bloodily displacing the Babri Masjid—is entirely intentional.
The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition are again drawing battle lines in a dispute over Hindu history. At issue is an underwater walkway bridge—made of a special floating coral rock—between Dhanushkodi, in Tamil Nadu, and Sri Lanka being dredged as part of the Rs2,462 crore Sethusamudram shipping canal project.
When completed, the project may shave one day off transport between Kolkata and Mumbai’s ports.
But according to some believers, the bridge in Ramesh-waram may just be the one which Ram built—and that Ramayana mentions—and Hindu activists say it warrants preservation.
VHP plans a nationwide conference of about 15,000 sadhus in New Delhi this week “to force the government to respect Hindu sentiments,” said Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Rajnath Singh.
VHP’s all-India joint secretary Venkatesh Abdeo adds: “There’s no one left to look after the Hindus in this country... This is the most ancient Hindu heritage. Could be 1.7 million years old. We will protect this heritage of the Hindus with our lives, if need be.”
Meanwhile, the rally cries of the “Ram Karmabhoomi issue” and marketing efforts around saving the bridge with calls of “Chalo Rameswaram” are reminiscent of 1992.
Back then, it was “Chalo Ayodhya” and similar promises of a rath yatra, or a chariot journey, through “every village of the country.”
“The sadhus will decide if there will be a rath yatra. After that, we will get to work,” promised Abdeo. He said publicity material is being printed and kar sevaks are being readied to act.
But N.K. Raghupathy, the managing director of the government subsidiary that is in charge of the project, Sethusamudram Corp. Ltd, said rioting and violence wouldn’t work.
“There is something called the rule of law,” Raghupathy said. “You live in a country that has laws and these have to be followed.”
Concerns over the bridge have been raised by many others, many with little to do with Hindu sentiments.
Some fishermen, for instance, say they will lose their livelihood without the bridge, while environmentalists say rare species in the protected waters will be put at risk.
Even nationalists have joined the protest, saying India’s security can be more easily compromised by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. Currently, ships from Kolkata to Mumbai must go all the way around the troubled island nation.
On 17 July, the Supreme Court asked the government to explain why the Ram Sethu, also known as Adam’s Bridge, cannot be declared a national monument. Union minister for shipping, road transport and highways T.R. Baalu, refused to comment for this story. Meanwhile, says Raghupathy, work is proceeding.
Apart from the BJP, the VHP has received political support from Jayalalithaa Jayaram, leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, and Mamta Banerjee, leader of the West Bengal Trinamool Congress.
Abdeo said the VHP is not against the project, but wants the government to choose another route and leave the Ram Sethu intact.
As a part of the National Democratic Alliance government in 2002, defence minister George Fernandes had approved an alternative route that experts now say is less expensive, has lower environmental risks and does not require breaking down the Ram Sethu.
Fernandes says that since the current project was not in national interests, the VHP shouldn’t fight it alone.
“It is not just a religious question,” he said. “It is a national issue.
If VHP is doing something immediately against it, they should wait. Even if it takes a few more months, it should seek support of other religious organizations as well as people’s groups to oppose this project.”