Ram Sethu Project: Indian Secularism At Stake

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

“Adam’s Bridge”–the ribbon of land connecting India to Sri Lanka.

NEW DELHI – The manner in which noise has been made over the controversial Sethusamudram project or the Ram Sethu has raised question marks over the Indian political system, judiciary, practice of secularism as well the country’s development plans. The issue first hit the headlines last month (September 12) when the Archaeological Survey of India rejected the claim before the Supreme Court about the existence of the Ram Sethu bridge, where the major project proposing a shorter sea route was under construction. The affidavit filed through the ASI, stated: “The petitioners while seeking relief have primarily relied upon the contents of the Valimiki Ramayana, the Ram Charit Manas by Tulsidas and mythological texts, which formed an important part of ancient Indian literature, but which cannot be said to be historical records to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters or the occurrence of the event, depicted therein.” The affidavit was in response to a petition filed expressing that being a protected and ancient monument, the Ram Sethu should not be demolished while constructing Sethusamudram project.

The proposed Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project, on completion, will allow ships to sail from the West to East Coast within India’s own territorial waters, avoiding circumnavigation around Sri Lanka. However, saffron brigade is against the project as it would demolish the Ram Sethu, the bridge that was supposedly built by their supreme deity. Environmentalists and those fearing an adverse impact on livelihood of fishermen living in the area have also opposed the project. The DMK is against stalling the project.

Owing to a furor raised over ASI’s affidavit, questioning the historic validity of Ram Sethu, the central government withdrew the controversial affidavits the same week (September 14). In contrast to the earlier affidavit pointing that there was no evidence to prove the existence of Hindu god Ram, correcting this mistake, Additional Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium told the Supreme Court (September 14): “The government has total respect for all religions, and Hinduism in particular, in the context of the present case. The government is alive and conscious of religious sensibilities, including the unique, ancient and holy text of Ramayana.” “The government is also keen that its decisions bind and bring the society together rather than cause any disruption in the religious and social psyche of one true India,” he said. With the government having sought three months’ to examine the related issues, the matter is posted for hearing in the first week of January, 2008.

During this period, political parties have not refrained from exercising all strategies at their command to make the maximum noise as possible over the controversial project. To defeat plans of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who is also Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) supremo, to organize a statewide work-stoppage strike on October 1, the state’s opposition party All India Anna Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (AIADMK) approached the Supreme Court (September 29). The AIADMK that the matter be heard at the earliest, for if an order was not issued against the bandh by Sunday (September 30) it would be hard to implement the same. Holding a rare sitting on Sunday, a bench of Justice B.N. Aggarwal and Justice P.P. Naolekar ordered that DMK and its allies should not hold a bandh on any day, as a bandh was illegal and unconstitutional in keeping with earlier ruling of the apex court on validity of bandhs.

However, for a part of day, Karunanidhi did observe fast, in keeping with his earlier plans. Besides, roads in Tamil Nadu wore a deserted look, with a shutdown being observed. When the Supreme Court was informed of this development by AIADMK counsel, the bench, including Justice B.N. Aggarwal and Justice P. Sathasivam said: “This is not merely violation of our order, but a complete breakdown of the constitutional machinery in the state. If this is the situation, we will have to direct the Central government to impose the President’s rule in the state.” This judicial stand has stirred a new controversy, on the degree to which can the respected judiciary be permitted to intervene in the political authorities’ domain.

On its part, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems bent on exploiting the issue for its political gains. The party aims to move court against Karunanidhi for his anti-Ram remarks, BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit president L. Ganesan said (October 7). He also expressed that no political party in the state was opposed to Sethusamudram project. However, while DMK has no objections to demolishing the Ram Sethu, his camp aimed to implement the project without destroying the bridge, Ganesan said.

The complaint filed by former Union Minister, Madan Lal Khurana, seeking registration of an FIR against Karunanidhi remarks on Ram Sethu has been posted for hearing on October 12. “The sentiments of millions of Hindus have been hurt due to the deliberate utterances of the Chief Minister. His statement had an ulterior motive with a view to gaining political mileage and appease minorities,” Khurana alleged.

With too many politicians keen to exploit the issue for their own ends, the prospects of Ram Sethu controversy being resolved soon is unlikely. Indian secularism, which has long known to be hit by religious and caste-oriented divisions, is now being put to test by sectarianism prevalent in the society here!


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