As the world reeled from the Covid-19 pandemic in August 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi fulfilled a decade-old campaign promise: breaking ground on a Hindu temple at Ram Janmabhoomi, a site in the Northern Indian city of Ayodhya, where the deity Rama is believed to have been born.

Hindu and Muslim religious groups have battled, often violently, for ownership of the site, which was home to the Babri Masjid Mosque from 1527 until it was demolished by a violent Hindu nationalist mob in 1992. That attack set off six weeks of rioting that claimed over 2,000 lives across the country and has had ripple effects for decades.

But on August 5, Modi laid an 88-pound silver brick for the new temple’s foundation, as onlookers chanted “Jai Shri Ram,” or “Victory to Lord Ram,” a seemingly innocuous phrase that has come to signal Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s increasingly exclusionary Hindu nationalism. Also heard among the crowd was the phrase “Ayodhya is just a preview, Kashi and Mathura are next in line,” a reference to similar controversies at the Kashi Gyanvapi Mosque in Banaras and the Shahi Mosque in Mathura.

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The controversy at Ayodhya and other sites have become emblematic of the ways in which archaeology has become a political weapon, particularly for Modi and the BJP, who many argue have grown increasingly brazen in their efforts to shift India from a pluralist, secular state to an ethno-nationalist religious one that favors Hindus above all others.

Ayodhya looks to be only the beginning.

Le Char Minar construit en 1591 à Hyderabad, la capitale de l'Andhra Pradesh-Inde du sud
The Charminar in Hyderabad. Rashed Khan, a politician for Indian National Congress, filed a petition seeking to have its top floor opened to Muslims for prayer.
Corbis via Getty Images

India’s Newest Political Battlefield

The current push to take back religious and archaeological sites in India have gained steam with the BJP’s rise over the last decade. Since 1996, the BJP included reclaiming the disputed temple site in Ayodhya in its election manifesto, a promise it renewed during Modi’s re-election campaign in 2019, which the BJP won in a landslide.

That goal became a reality later that year when India’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled the disputed land be given to the Ram Birthplace Trust for the construction of a temple. The Muslim community, represented by Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board, was to be compensated with five acres for a mosque at a prominent site in Ayodhya. The decision reversed a previous court decision that split the land between the communities.

New campaigns to reclaim other contested sites like the UNESCO World Heritage site Qutub Minar Agra Jahanara Mosque and the Peer Pasha Dargah mosque are now underway.

Other groups have taken up the tactic as well. In May, Rashed Khan, a politician for Indian National Congress (the country’s other major party), filed a petition to open Charminar, a 16th-century monument in Hyderabad, to Muslims for prayer on its top-floor mosque, which was closed to the public by the Archaeological Survey of India decades ago. Khan also referred to the Hindu temple adjoining the monument as “illegal.” Prominent BJP politicians began visiting the temple in a show of strength and accused the INC of stoking unrest to promote the party.

The same month, in Goa, the state’s chief minister, the BJP politician Pramod Sawant, earmarked $2.5 million for renovations to Hindu temples destroyed by the Portuguese. Goa legislators Vijai Sardesai and Altone D’costa accused the state government of trying to “rewrite history” for political gains.

Tariq Anwar, a longtime and high-ranking INC member of parliament, has argued that the battle of archaeological sites is used by the BJP to divert public attention from rising poverty, unemployment, corruption, and inflation.

“The 1991 Places of Worship Act was created to draw a line and say whatever existed at Independence, apart from Ram Janmabhoomi case, be maintained as is,” he told ARTnews. “Otherwise there would be no end to such issues. Amending or removing this law could only prove detrimental and enflame Hindu-Muslim divide.”

Biased media coverage has only added increased tension. , controversy erupted as Muslims and Hindus both tried to lay claim to the Jamia Masjid, a mosque in Karnataka that dates back hundreds of years. Right-wing activists began to claim the masjid was built in 1782 after a Hindu temple named after the god Hanuman was demolished. Amid the furor, the conservative news organization Republic TV published a sensationalist report that it had “accessed” a 2004 ASI letter citing the madrasa operating in the Jamia Masjid premises as being illegal. This article, as well as others like it, fueled a right-wing social media campaign that sought to lay claim to the structure.

These disputes go beyond mere archaeology, according to Nadika Nadja, a journalist and Indian archaeology expert.

“We see that with the Ram-Krishna supremacy in Hinduism, unbridled casteism has come back, and publicly,” Nadja told ARTnews. “This will create lines of resistance along linguistic subnationalism, food practices, and caste lines.”

Portrait of M. K. Stalin giving a thumbs up before microphones.
M. K. Stalin.
Photo Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images

‘Scientifically Proven’ History

Race has become a focal point in this war over historical sites, with some archaeological finds being used to substantiate the supremacy of certain identities. A case study is currently unfolding in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Four months after entering office, chief minister M. K. Stalin (a member of center-left Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party) announced that carbon-dating of soil samples inside burial urns found at an excavation site in the village of Sivagalai could be traced to 1155 B.C.E. In announcing the find, Stalin said, his government would “scientifically establish with evidence” that Indian history should begin with “the Tamil landscape.” That assertion would directly challenge right-wing assertions of Vedic-Aryan heritage as the birth of Indian civilization.

In another address to a Tamil diaspora group on July 4, Stalin alleged certain forces were attempting to “split us [Tamils] based on caste and religion.” Asserting Tamil history is not fiction, he added: “Some people have built their history with fancy tales while ours is scientifically verified.”

Some experts have questioned Stalin’s motivations in being so public about new archaeological studies. But these claims have been picked up as facts and used to burnish the significance of Tamil identity, Dravidian heritage, and the idea of Dravida Nadu.

Conceptualized by the 20th-century activist Periyar EV Ramasamy, Dravida Nadu (or Dravidian land) refers to the notion of a Dravidian civilization that is superior, if not equal to, its Aryan counterpart. According to Periyar’s concept, Dravida Nadu predated the “Aryan invasion” of south India. His political successors—among them C. N. Annadurai, the first chief minister of Tamil Nadu and founder of the DMK party there—subscribed to these ideas, codifying them as a part of the state’s cultural identity.

However, after secession was deemed illegal in 1962, demands for a Dravida Nadu state largely receded. That is, until now. Speaking this past July, DMK MP A. Raja, said, “Do not make us revive our demand for a separate state. Give us state autonomy.”

Portrait of K. S. Eshwarappa shaking hands with another man.
K. S. Eshwarappa.
Photo Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

‘Re-Establish the Cultural Tradition’

For Hindus, the restoration of destroyed temples, which Modi has referred to as a “Gaurav Yatra,” or pride march, while inaugurating Gujarat’s revamped Mahakali temple in June, is the new focus.

Hindu groups are urging the public to report “evidence” of demolished temples.

Shankar said this just weeks after K. S. Eshwarappa, a BJP politician in Karnataka, controversially claimed that 36,000 Hindu temples had been destroyed by the Mughal Empire.

“We cannot allow them to build masjids over our temples,” Eshwarappa said in a speech this past May.

Eshwarappa has held true to his thinking despite the controversy.

“In the past, we didn’t have the strength, but now we will legally reclaim what is rightfully ours,” he told ARTnews.