The political frenzy that ensued from a recent affidavit filed by the Archeological Survey of India in the Supreme Court, threatened briefly like it could take the country down a road recently travelled, with deeply traumatic results. All the ingredients that made the Ayodhya controversy such a lethal cocktail were present: the aggressive protestations that faith necessarily trumped reason, the identification of one particular tradition – of the many that make up the living cultural tapestry of the country – as the unique marker of the Indian national identity, and a craven political order that buckles under at the first signal of turbulence and fails to stand by the conscientious actions of its officials.
There are a number of sound reasons why the Sethusamudram project has stirred unease and anxiety in some quarters. Cutting a navigation channel by dredging up the shallow ocean floor in the Palk Straits may hasten communications between India’s eastern and western seaboards. But fishing communities will probably suffer an irreparable loss of livelihoods and the ecologically diverse and sensitive Gulf of Mannar may be irreversibly damaged.
Yet the petitioners who have sought a judicial directive against the project as it is presently conceived, are unconcerned about these all too real issues. Their concern rather is with preserving a cluster of limestone shoals that lies roughly halfway across the narrowest passage between the Indian and Sri Lankan coastlines. Alternately called Adam’s bridge (after the primal figure of the Semitic faiths) and Ramar Sethu (after a central figure of Hindu legend), the limestone shoals stretch over a length of roughly 50 kilometres. Since the depth of the sea diminishes rapidly in its vicinity, Ramar Sethu has long been seen as a hindrance to efficient navigation. But the petitioners, relying on textual references from some of the many renditions of the legend of Ram, purport to see the origin of the undersea ridge in the historic crossing of the ocean by the armies of the good, as they embarked on their mission of conquering the ungodly lands where the forces of evil reigned.
In responding to this petition, the ASI did what any professional body that is true to its ethos, would do: it weighed up all the available evidence and found that the claim was unsustainable. The submission it made before the Supreme Court, acknowledged the deep significance of the legend of Ram in Indian life, but insisted that Ramar Setu was formed through natural processes of “tidal action and sedimentation”. Indeed, the body of epic literature on Ram, though vast, could not be deemed in any of its variants, to refer to any specific historical figure or pertain to any geographical area.
How these dispassionate and clinical observations gave rise to a political firestorm within a matter of hours, is partly about media functioning in a deeply polarised political milieu. And the government reaction, beginning with the suspension of two ASI officials, the deletion of certain paragraphs from an affidavit placed before the Supreme Court, and the commitment to reexamine the scope of the Sethusamudram project, is a case study in the politics of cowardice and infirm convictions.
The predictable disavowals of responsibility for the ASI affidavit followed and ministers vied zealously with each other to proclaim their faith in Ram, as both divinity and history. The Hindutva forces meanwhile, sharpened their knives to prepare for another assault on the foreign origins of the chairperson of the ruling coalition at the centre. And the mastermind of the Ayodhya campaign, L.K. Advani, seemed to recover his long-lost facility for turning a catchy slogan: to its long record of “pseudo-secularism”, he claimed, the Congress party had now added “sadism secularism”.
One constituent of the ruling coalition though, seemed disinclined to join the ostentatious public display of contrition. The DMK, which is in power in Tamil Nadu, has made a heavy investment of its political credibility in seeing the Sethusamudram project through to completion. And its feisty chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, reprised some of the iconoclastic rhetoric of his party’s formative years, in debunking the claims made on the Ramar Setu.
Retribution came immediately in the form of an attack on a near relative’s home in the city of Bangalore. As with the Ayodhya campaign, the Hindutva fanatics have proven once again that they can act with extreme belligerence and little thought for political niceties. And yet again, the supposedly secular political formations have shown that they have no stomach for a fight on matters that touch at the very core of India’s future as a multicultural democracy.