Thursday, September 20, 2007:
A dredging channel that would cut voyages between the north and the eastern coast by up to 30 hours- a supremely sensible idea, one would say!
Perhaps so supreme that it needed divine intervention by no less than Lord Ram himself.
But what left most of us puzzled in the first instance was – just what could religion have to do with a development project of this magnitude? Everything, as it turns out!
The debate revolves around the Sethusamudram project that many believe would end up destroying an underwater bridge believed to have been built by Lord Ram and his vaanar sena to get to Lanka.
Ram Setu, the 30 km long sandy bridge proves to be a hindrance for navigation because of the shallow waters around. The idea is to cut across this so that ships could sail through without having to go around Sri Lanka.
The project has set off a blistering argument over who created the sand to be dredged- was it Mother Nature or was it indeed the Hindu god Lord Ram!
As the blueprint of the ambitious project took shape, what the planners of new India did not perhaps take into account is the fine line between reason and religion in a country where matters of faith often defy the cold logic of modern science.
Even as leaders of the right wing Hindu groups expressed resentment over the plan, a nonchalant remark by government archaeologists proclaiming that Lord Ram never existed, outraged public sentiment.
The Archaeological Survey of India, in its affidavit to the Supreme Court, asserted that "there was no historical and scientific evidence to establish the existence of Lord Ram or the other characters in Ramayan".
The affidavit filed by the ASI was in response to petitions, challenging the Government's decision to construct the Sethusamudram Canal by dredging a portion of the Ram Setu.
What followed were protests by Hindu groups and political parties alike against "a dismissal of Hinduism's holiest texts”. In typical ‘democratic’ fashion, traffic was blocked and trains were stopped.
The government was finally forced to withdraw the affidavit and disavow the archaeologists' words. The Centre sought three months' time stating that it would re-examine the entire issue relating to the Project.
So has the government bowed down to the hyper reality of Ram and its religious repercussions or was the move a valid restrain in the face of public outcry?
Should matters of faith be allowed to dictate a nation's development agenda or should religious sentiments be brushed aside as mere superstition, worthy of no more than just ridicule by the ‘intelligentsia’.
There may be no scientific evidence to prove that the structure widely called Ram Setu was physically built by Ram, but then again, when have matters of faith been subjected to rational scrutiny, or like in this case, submitted to a cursory archaeological reading?
Its imperative that a secular nation always be neutral in matters of religion- a golden rule that perhaps the ASI babus did not pause to think about. The affidavit thus served little purpose other than rubbing salt on the Hindu psyche.
It’s true that science often does not have answers to the universe’s greatest secrets. But not everything in this world can be rationalised; there also lies an alternate existence that cannot be trivialised or wished away.
The inability to prove does not always amount to proof of non-existence. If matters of faith were so irrelevant in modern India, then there would be little objection to razing religious structures to the ground, let alone years of communal disharmony.
Clash of faith
There is however a flipside to it as religious assertions in India are often accepted without question. And it is this faith-based system that sometimes falls prey to the political chicanery.
The problem with the current controversy goes beyond the political blame game to a more logical debate over what needs to be done when we find ourselves juxtaposed between faith, religion and development.
For the faithful the Ram Setu is no mere coral and stone and 30 extra hours of travel time is perhaps too small a sacrifice for the devotees.
But is the issue of historicity really that relevant when dealing with proposals of progress and development?
Some would argue that a secular nation cannot be divorced from religion and culture. The sentiments and beliefs of a larger public deserve attention. But then again, marginalistion of religion in matters of development may not necessarily mean trivialisation- at least it doesn’t have to be that way. Co-existence of both, though tough, does not seem impossible.
Modern arrogance often forces a debate on the rationality behind faith. But just how does one argue over a philosophy that forms the collective consciousness of the nation, a body of belief passed on from generation to generation.
Politics of Ram
Faith aside, what makes this debate important is the need to rectify a certain perversity that has crept into our political leadership resulting in such intravenous controversies.
What enrages a secular mind, in this regard, is the BJP- a party that defines its politics by the politics of Hindutva. Ever since it was voted out of power, its close identification with Ram, quite evidently, is little more than unwanted baggage- a ploy aimed at reviving its pet issue for political gains.
Also lost in the din of the religious battle is the matter of environmental safety in the face of the project.
Experts believe that with cranes and bulldozers, hundreds of rare marine species and coral reefs could be swallowed, destroying a natural defence against disasters. Some scientists are also of the view that the dredging could affect the flow of currents and water temperatures.
Whether Ram existed or not can be left to the believers to decide. Our polity meanwhile must focus on development, particularly the kinds that does not keep progress and sentiments exclusive to each other.