Ram Setu is real? A look back at the controversy that has come back to haunt Congress

Ram Setu is in news again, 10 years after the then Congress-led UPA government at the Centre had submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court, arguing that Valmiki Ramayana, which mentions Ram Setu built by Lord Rama, lacked scientific and historical veracity.

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A graphic representation of Adam's Bridge or Ram Setu (PTI File)

Ram Setu is in news again, 10 years after the then Congress-led UPA government at the Centre had submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court, arguing that Valmiki Ramayana, which mentions Ram Setu built by Lord Rama, lacked scientific and historical veracity. The promo of an upcoming programme on Discovery Science Channel shows Ram Setu is man-made and not natural. The channel quotes an archaeologist that the rocks on top of sand pre-date the sand. The BJP has latched onto the channel’s claim, seeking an apology from the Congress. “Those who filed the affidavit should explain now. The research has supported what the BJP has been claiming all along…The setu is part of our cultural heritage,” BJP leader and Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said today.

The Controversy

Controversy over the Ram Setu owes its genesis to the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project off Rameshwaram in Tamilnadu. The project proposed a shipping canal across the Gulf of Mannar, Palk Bay, and the Palk Straits to link the Arabian Sea with the Bay of Bengal. For this, a channel, passing through the limestone shoals of Adam’s Bridge (which is also known as Rama’s Bridge, Ram Setu, and Ramar Palam), was to be dredged in the Sethusamudram sea between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

The project remained part of election manifestos of parties in many elections. Way back in 1955, the Government of India had appointed the Sethu Samudram Project Committee led by Dr A Ramaswamy Mudaliar to examine the desirability of the project. The committee had then found the project viable. However, it had recommended against the channel cutting through the Ram Setu.

In 1999, the then NDA government had announced that it would complete the Sethusamudram project. The NDA government had also allocated money for the feasibility study of the Sethusamudram Project in 2000-01 Budget, while the NDA Manifesto of 2004 promised speedy completion of the Project.

In 2005, Manmohan Singh-led UPA government inaugurated the project. However, the project was opposed by environmental groups as well as some Hindu groups and national parties like the BJP. In 2008 the Centre had appointed an RK Pachauri-led six-member committee to find out the possibility of an alternative alignment to avoid cutting through the Ram Setu. In 2013, the committee said the project was unviable from both ecological and economic angles.

Political storm

A petition in the Supreme Court challenged the Sethusamudram project. Quoting Valmiki Ramayana and Tulsi Das’ Ramcharitmanas, the petition claimed the ‘Ram Setu’ is a historical and cultural heritage. In response, the Centre submitted an affidavit that snowballed into a massive controversy ahead of assembly elections in many states then. The government affidavit had said, “Valmiki Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas admittedly form an important part of ancient Indian literature, but these cannot be said to be historical records to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters and occurrences of events depicted therein.”

The Centre’s affidavit had also cited studies to argue that ‘Ram Setu’ “was not a man-made structure, but actually comprised 103 small patch reefs lying in a linear pattern with reef crest, sand cays, and intermittent deep channels.”

The BJP attacked the government’s contention as blasphemy. The government’s contention was part of the government’s opposition to the demands of stopping the project on the ground that it would destroy Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge. The Centre later succumbed to opposition pressure, withdrew the affidavit and also suspended two ASI officials, holding them responsible for the fiasco.

The then Union Law Minister HR Bharadwaj had also declared, “Lord Rama is an integral part of Indian culture and ethos and cannot be a matter of debate or subject matter of litigation in court…As Himalaya is Himalaya, Ganga is Ganga, Rama is Rama. It is a question of faith. There is no requirement of any proof to establish the existence based on faith.”

Reactions to Centre’s affidavit

The Centre’s move was read differently by different political groups.

CPM published an article headlined as “‘Ram Setu’: UPA Government’s Calculated Capitulation to Saffron Agenda”. It said, “The BJP’s covert rollback of its opposition to the Indo-US Nuke Deal had exposed its own surrender on the question of defending the nation’s sovereignty. In the wake of this surrender, the BJP has sought to shore up its sham of ‘nationalism’ by whipping up a storm over the so-called ‘Ram Setu’ bridge. The UPA Government, instead of boldly confronting the BJP’s obscurantist saffron agenda, has instead surrendered to it and lent it legitimacy, even as the Sangh Parivar has indulged in a violent campaign in Tamilnadu, burning alive two people in a bus, throwing a bomb at Karunanidhi’s daughter’s house and issuing a fatwa-type call for Karunanidhi’s head.”

Meanwhile, the BJP also attacked the Congress, blaming the latter for being “indulged in a very dirty trick to play with the people’s faith and that too for the sake of votes.”

“It has betrayed its anti-Ram mentality, a mentality that is going to cost it very dearly. It has hurt the faith where it pains and pinches. It has done an irreparable damage to the faith of crores of Indians in India and abroad for whom Ram is more valuable than their own life even. The attempts at “damage control” or ‘patch repairing” by the Congress Party appear only funny,” the BJP had commented.

Senior BJP leader LK Advani had then attacked the Centre, saying, “With the UPA government claiming in an affidavit before the Supreme Court that Lord Ram did not exist and that the Ramayana has no historical basis, it is clear that the Congress party’s pseudo-secularism has degenerated into sadist-secularism.”

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First published on: 13-12-2017 at 16:26 IST