India canal plan runs into Hindu god

A government-led effort to dredge a canal through a holy Hindu waterway caused riots two weeks ago that left two people dead.

When Swami Vigyananand speaks of the canal-dredging project in the narrow strait between India and Sri Lanka, his voice rises in anger.

He is not an environmentalist or local fisherman. He sits in his Delhi office in the orange robes of a Hindu pilgrim. And this faith feeds his frustration. Making a canal for freighters though the shoals near Sri Lanka will destroy the remains of a land bridge built by the god Rama, Swami Vigyananand and other Hindu fundamentalists say.

Worse, perhaps, is the argument the government made in favor of the project in a recent court affidavit: there is no proof that Rama ever existed.

Two weeks ago, the ensuing furor killed two people – burned alive in a bus doused with fuel. The affidavit has been withdrawn, and the minister whose office wrote it has offered to resign. But its assertions and their attendant violence hint at India's struggle to reconcile its increasing modernity and diversity with an ancient religion practiced by 80 percent of its citizens.

For Vigyananand, it was confirmation of his worst fears – that the government of India has lost its Hindu soul, mortgaging the site one of Hinduism's most treasured stories for a 30-hour shipping shortcut.

"India is acting as the enemy of Hindus," says Vigyananand, who is an official for the World Hindu Council, a strident pro-Hindu organization.

Vigyananand adheres to Hindutva, the Hindus-first ideology that peaked a decade ago and is most often turned against Muslims and Christians. The controversy over Ram's Bridge, however, is a reminder that Hindutva is still woven through Indian politics like a saffron thread.

That it should be turned against a new shipping lane is not surprising, say some experts. The left-center alliance that governs India is weak, damaged by its insistence on pushing through the nuclear deal with America without legislative tinkering. Ram's Bridge is merely another issue with which right-wing opposition might poke the government, prodding it toward early elections, perhaps.

It is typical Indian politics, say experts. The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led government pursued the project when they were in power from 1999 to 2004. Now it is to their advantage to attack it.

"These are artificially created storms," says Amulya Ganguli, a political scientist in New Delhi. "The BJP exploits these sentiments.

The Hindu text Ramayana says that the Lord Rama ordered his army of monkeys to build a bridge from India to Sri Lanka so that he might rescue his wife from the demon Ravana. Many Hindus believe that the necklace of shallow shoals and islands that stretch from south India to Sri Lanka – and through which the government of India wishes to dredge a channel – are the remains of this bridge.

The government affidavit stated that the Ramayana, all six volumes of which sit beside Vigyananand's desk "cannot be said to be historical record to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters or the occurrence of the events depicted therein."

Vigyananand blames the British-style education that he says "has created a breed of self-alienated, secularist Hindus" who care little for Hindu traditions, says Vigyananand. "By skin they are Indian, but by mind they are British."

Yet critics argue that the sort of pan-Indian Hindu consciousness that Hindutva seeks is, in itself, inconsistent with Hindu traditions. In India, where many states have their own language and culture, many also have their own take on Hinduism, which has no orthodox theology or primary text. The notion of a "national" Hinduism is impossible because the faith varies subtly – but importantly – by region.

This is one reason that the potential desecration of Ram's Bridge does not stir the entire nation to outrage, say experts. Like all things in India, religion is intensely local. The efforts of the BJP alone made the birthplace of Rama in the northern city of Ayodhya a national issue in the 1980s, says Mr. Ganguli, the political scientist. Now, they are trying to do the same with another chapter of the Ramayana.

Yet here, too, Hinduism's local traditions have proved difficult to overcome. In the south, where the passage between India and Sri Lanka lies, the Ramayana is widely rejected, seen as another attempt by northern Indians to assert their superiority over southern Indians. Hindutva, too, is seen as a bid for northern Indian hegemony.

In the wake of the affidavit scandal, the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, who is also an atheist, has gone so far as to claim that Rama was "a big lie" and a "drunkard." Such comments prompted a mob in Bangalore to set fire to a bus from Tamil Nadu, killing two. Continuing the back-and-forth, members of Tamil Nadu's ruling party attacked the office of the BJP in Chennai (Madras) this week, breaking furniture and windows.

Environmentalists, local fisherman, and some scientists also object to the canal-dredging, but the Hindutva argument has so far gained the most traction.

Tamil Nadu has the most to gain from the plan, and the chief minister has sought assurances from the government that it will press on with the project, regardless of the opposition. The government is stepping back for the moment. But it has given no indication that it will abandon the project.

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