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Ram Setu Bridge:FAITH vs NATIONAL INTEREST, by Syed Ali Mujtabha, 17 September 2007 Print E-mail


New Delhi, 17 September 2007

Ram Setu Bridge


By Syed Ali Mujtabha

The case of "Adams' Bridge" nee Ram Setu, a mythical bridge situated south-east of Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu connecting the Talaimanar coast of Sri Lanka, has snowballed into a major controversy of faith verses national interest. The matter is before the Supreme Court of India, which is hearing a public interest litigation petition on the multi-crore Sethusamudram canal project that involves dredging of a sea channel cutting across the Adams' Bridge across the Gulf of Mannar.

Many Hindu groups believe that the mythical barrier was constructed by Lord Rama for his attack on Lanka to rescue Sita, his wife, from the demon-king Ravana, who had kidnapped her. These groups have been opposing the construction of the Sethusamudram canal since it would destroy the mythical bridge they revere as "Ram Setu" and with which their faith is emotionally involved.

The Rs 2,427 crore Sethusamudram project is designed to establish and maintain a navigational canal from India’s west coast to the east coast without the ships having to go around Sri Lanka. Cleared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the project was inaugurated with much fanfare on July 2, 2005 by the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.

Two years after the commencement of the project, the Janata Party President Subramanian Swamy filed a public interest litigation petition in the Supreme Court to stop the Centre from blowing up the "Adams' Bridge" for constructing the canal. He wanted the Apex court to intervene and stop tampering with the mythical Ram Setu with which the faith of millions of people across the country was attached.

On August 31, 2007, the Supreme Court put on hold the demolition of the "Adams' Bridge" and issued an interim order saying: "The alleged Ram Setu shall not be damaged in any way.” However, it “allowed the dredging activity to continue to the extent it did not cause any harm to the mythical barrier."

The Central Government submitted a 400-page document to the Apex court in its defense stating that the canal project was being constructed strictly in accordance with the law and that it had a high degree of strategic and financial importance to the country. It also stated that the Adams' Bridge formation could be classified "as a series of shoals or a series of barrier islands, both of which are natural formations caused due to several millennia of tidal action and sedimentation." Adding that in the light of the various scientific studies conducted on the formation, it could not be said to be “a man-made structure.”

Quoting an article in the journal published by the Indian Society of Remote Sensing, the Centre said nothing had been observed at Adams' Bridge except coral and sand formations which could not be said to be of historical, archaeological or artistic interest or importance. At best, the Bridge was a case of disputed mythology and not a matter of historical importance.

Significantly, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which filed the affidavit, added that: “It duly respected the deep religious import bestowed upon these texts by the Hindu community across the globe," but such claims could not be vouched by it without "tangible material evidence".

It further stated that the contents of Valmiki’s Ramayana, Tuslidas's Ramcharitmanas and other mythological texts could not be treated as historical record to prove the existence of the characters mentioned in the book. The ASI elaborated that there was no "historical record" to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters, or the occurrences of the events, depicted therein.

The existence of human remains, according to the ASI, whether in the nature of bones or in other forms of artifacts, was essential to prove archaeologically the existence and veracity of a historical fact. But no such human remains had been discovered at the site of the formation known as Adams' Bridge.

The ASI asserted that the Adams' Bridge could not, therefore, be treated as a "protected monument" under the Ancient Monuments & Archaeological Sites & Remains Act, 1958 since it did not satisfy the requirements necessary for being qualified under the Act. It further said that till date the bridge had neither been declared as a "protected area" nor "protected monument" or for that matter as an "ancient monument."

The Centre told the Supreme Court that it was, in fact, the earlier NDA regime which had approved the project in 2002 after which it was subjected to the mandatory environmental impact assessment. Fourteen public hearings and other discussions were held before deciding to execute the project. It urged the Supreme Court to dismiss the petition as it was filed two years after the commencement of the project and termed the opposition to it as motivated by "extraneous considerations." It also urged the Apex court to "impose exemplary cost" on those opposing the project.

The affidavit filed by the ASI and the Centre’s stand on this issue has sparked a row in the country. The BJP, in its bid to embarrass the Government for its “anti-Hindu” stand, has taken up this issue in a big way. The Leader of Opposition, LK Advani, expressed his anguish to the Prime Minister at the latter’s dinner for the visiting Bulgarian Prime Minister and demanded immediate action --- and retraction.

The BJP President, Rajnath Singh, while rejecting the Government's explanation, demanded an “unqualified" apology from it for the affidavit stating: "Why is there a picture of Ram and Krishna in the Constitution of India, if Ram and Krishna did not exist? And why did Gandhiji, the Father of the Nation, repeatedly talk about 'Ram Rajya' as the ultimate in good, people-oriented governance. Were all these fictitious?”

The BJP President went on to add that the affidavit filed by the ASI “directly hurts the religious belief of the majority of the people and may trigger inter-religious conflict in the country." He demanded that unless the Centre apologised for the affidavit and withdrew it, the BJP would support the VHP-RSS demand for scrapping of the Sethusamudram canal project by mobilizing public support against it.

Fortunately, the Central Government has withdrawn the “offending” affidavit which had stirred a hornet’s nest by stating that “there is no scientific or historical evidence to prove the existence of Lord Ram.” Moreover, the Union Law Minister, H R Bharadwaj, on his part, promptly moved in for damage control and told the media: "Lord Ram is an integral part of Hindu faith and his existence can never be doubted." He also announced that the Government would file a fresh affidavit on the issue before the Supreme Court.

That apart, a new twist to the controversy has been given by the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa. She has moved the Supreme Court afresh stating that the Ram Setu issue not only involved public sentiment, but also impinged upon national security and welfare. The Adam’s Bridge is said to have softened the blow of the tsunami, which played havoc in South India.

Jayalalithaa’s move is also significant for one other reason coming as it does after breaking rank with the Third Front. It reflects an apparent bid for rapprochement with the BJP. Her petition avers that the Ram Setu is a symbol of might and power of human will. Calling the construction of the bridge by Lord Ram’s Vanar Sena (Monkey Army) as the victory of human endeavor in the face of adversity.

Tamil Nadu’s political heavyweight has additionally cautioned the Government that any destruction of the mythical barrier would expose the country to a grave security threat from the US. India and Sri Lanka, she has submitted, had always treated the Palk Bay, the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Straits as historically part of their territorial rights. The US has, however, objected to such claims and considers the waters international.

That, however, is not all. Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, Karunanidhi has jumped into the controversy as one who has been championing the cause of the Sethusamudram Project, which is viewed as a catalyst for the economic development of the State. He has supported the ASI’s stand on Ram Setu and cautioned the Manmohan Singh Government against falling a prey to the “fundamentalist forces.”

Clearly, the Supreme Court is faced with Hobson’s choice. Can a court arbitrate over issues of faith? The Apex court’s task has become much more complex since it involves the sentiment of the majority community, which comes in direct clash with India’s national interest. Its judgment is awaited eagerly as it may also have far-reaching repercussions on other cases relating to matters of faith. ---- INFA

(Copyright India News & Feature Alliance)


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