The BBC recently reported that the Indian government has withdrawn a controversial report submitted to the Supreme Court which questioned the existence of the Hindu god Ram. The report was presented in connection with a case against the proposed Sethusamudram shipping canal project between India and Sri Lanka.
The report was withdrawn after huge protests by opposition parties. Protests that have since spilled over into roadbloacks, disruptions of train services and even two murders by Hindu activists when a bus was set alight near Bangalore.
The BBC reports that “Hindu hardliners say the project will destroy what they say is a bridge built by Ram and his army of monkeys. Scientists and archaeologists say the Ram Setu (Lord Ram’s bridge) – or Adam’s Bridge as it is sometimes called – is a natural formation of sand and stones.
In their report submitted to the court, the government and the Archaeological Survey of India questioned the belief, saying it was solely based on the Hindu mythological epic Ramayana. They said there was no scientific evidence to prove that the events described in Ramayana ever took place or that the characters depicted in the epic were real.”
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi (pictured right) – the president of the secularist DKP party – caused further outrage by saying ‘‘Some say there was a person over 17 [hundred thousand] years ago. His name was Rama. Do not touch the bridge (Ramar Sethu) constructed by him. Who is this Rama? From which engineering college did he gradute? Is there any proof for this?’’
The arguments in opposition do not appear to question the scientific claims. As one person writing to the Hindustan Times put it “…[tens of millions] of Indians have sanctified spiritual beliefs, values and practices. These cannot be questioned by any rationalist experiment, the ASI’s reports, Nasa satellite images or by the Law Minister of India.” or another “Questioning the existence of Lord Ram translates into the worthlessness of crores of Hindus going to temples to worship him.”
And so the issue is being cast as primarily an attack on Hinduism. The Indian Express writes: “Hindu-bashing is nothing new for Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, an avowed atheist who has been peddling the rationalist principles of his mentor Periyar.”
Worried about the adverse reaction from the majority Hindu population of the country, the Congress Party-led government has now done a U-turn and withdrawn the statement submitted in court asking for three months to try and sort out the issue.
It is important not to underestimate the importance that people attach to their belief – it would be silly to dismiss them out of hand – but is it right that facts are ignored because enough people don’t like them? Isn’t this to the detriment of us all – religious believers and atheists alike?
Perhaps it is the way the issue was handled – would it have been more acceptable to argue that there may have been a Ram’s Bridge but this wasn’t it and leave the question open still?
The liklihood is that this argument will be avoided as other rational cases are made against the building of the canal.
The project proposes to link the Palk Strait with the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka by dredging a canal which is expected to provide a continuous navigable sea route around the Indian peninsula, reduce travel times and so boost the economic and industrial development of the region.
But reports are emerging that the economic benefits of the project have been exaggerated, perhaps offering a way out of the jam.