Adams' Bridge- Faith Verses National Interest
Syed Ali Mujtaba
The case of "Adams' Bridge", a mythical barrier situated south-east of Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu, India, connecting Talaimanar coast of Sri Lanka has snowballed into a faith verses national interest controversy. The Supreme Court of India is hearing a public interest litigation petition on the multi core Sethusamundram canal project that involves dredging of a sea channel cutting across the Adams' Bridge across the Gulf of Mannar .
Some Hindu groups believe that the mythical barrier have been constructed by Lord Rama while marching to Lanka to vanquish the demon-king, Ravana, who had kidnapped his wife. These groups have been opposing the construction of Sethusamundram canal as it would destroy the mythical barrier they revere as "Ram Sethu" and with which their faith is attached.
The Rs 2,427 crore Sethusamundram project is to establish and maintain a ship canal from the west coast of India to the east coast without going around Sri Lanka . It had a clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forest and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated this project with much fanfare on July 2, 2005.
Two years after the commencement of the project, the Janata Party President Subramanian Swamy filed a public interest litigation petition in the Supreme Court alleging that the Centre plans to blow up the "Adams' Bridge" for further construction of the canal and wanted the apex court to intervene and stop tempering with the mythical barrier, with which faith of millions are attached.
The Supreme Court on August 31, 2007 had 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 but allowed the dredging activity to continue to the extent it did not cause any harm to the mythical barrier."
The Central government in its defense submitted a 400-page document to the apex Court saying the canal project was being constructed strictly in accordance with law and has a high degree of strategic and financial importance to the country.
Defending the mega project, the Centre told the Supreme Court the Adams ' Bridge formation can 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." It added that in the light of the various scientific studies conducted on the formation, it cannot be said to be a man-made structure.
Quoting an article in the journal published by Indian Society of Remote Sensing, the Centre said, nothing has been observed at Adams ' Bridge except coral and sand formations which cannot be said to be of historical, archaeological or artistic interest of importance. At the best, this is a case of disputed mythology and not a matter of historical importance.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which filed the affidavit in this regard said; it "duly respected the deep religious imports bestowed upon these texts by the Hindu community across the globe," but such claims cannot be vouched by it without "tangible material evidence".
It further stated that the contents of the Valmiki Ramayana, Tuslidas's Ramcharitmanas and other mythological texts cannot be a historical record to prove the existence of the characters mentioned in the book. The ASI elaborated that there is no "historical record" to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the character, 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, is essential to prove archaeologically, the existence and veracity of a historical fact but no such human remains have been discovered at the site of the formation known as Adams ' Bridge.
The ASI asserted that the Adams ' Bridge cannot be treated as a "protected monument" under the Ancient Monuments & Archaeological Sites & Remains Act, 1958 since it does not satisfy the requirements necessary for being qualified under the Act. It further said that till date the bridge has 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 previous 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.
The Centre urged the Supreme Court to dismiss the petitions as it was filed two years after the commencement of the project and termed the opposition to it as motivated by "extraneous considerations." It urged the Apex Court to "impose exemplary cost" on those opposing the project.
The affidavit filed by the ASI and the center’s stand on this issue has sparked a row in the country. The opposition the BJP has taken this issue in a big way as in it sees a chance to embarrass the government for its anti Hindu stand.
BJP president Rajnath Singh rejected the Government's explanation and demanded an "unqualified" apology for the affidavit submitted in the court. He asked "why is there a picture of Ram and Krishna in the Constitution of India, if Ram or Krishna did not exist? And why did Gandhiji, the Father of the Nation show us the dream of 'Ramrajya'? 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." Rajnath Singh demanded that unless the Centre apologizes for the affidavit and withdraws it, the BJP would support the VHP-RSS demand for scrapping of the Sethusamudram canal project.
Panicked by the political repercussions and the VHP's move to go to the streets to mobilize public support, the Central government has decided to withdraw "offending remarks" from the affidavit which said 'there is no scientific or historical evidence to prove the existence of 'Lord Ram.'
Union Law Minister H R Bharadwaj said; "Lord Ram is an integral part of Hindu faith" and his existence can never be doubted." He announced the Government would file a supplementary affidavit on this issue before the Supreme Court and that would be cleansed of offending remarks.
A new twist in this tale has taken place as former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has joined the ranks of the Hindutva forces and moved the Supreme Court afresh saying that the issue not only involved huge public sentiments, but also impinge upon the national security.
After breaking ranks with the third front and in an apparent rapprochement with the BJP, Jayalalithaa in her petitions says that Ram Bridge is a symbol of might and power of human will. She subscribes to the mythical theory of the construction of the bridge by the Vanar Sena (Monkey Army) of Lord Rama and calls it a victory of human endeavor in the face of adversity.
The Tamil Nadu political heavyweight cautioned the government that any destruction to the mythical barrier would expose the country to grave security threat from the US . She submitted that India and Sri Lanka had always treated the Palk Bay , Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Straits as historical as its territorial rights, whereas the US has objected to such claims and considers the waters international.
So now there is a Hobson choice before the Supreme Court. Can a court arbitrate over the issues of faith? The job becomes much more complex when it involves the sentiments of the majority community and that comes in direct clash with the national interest.
Every one is eagerly waiting for the Supreme Court's judgment as it may have far and wide repercussions on other cases relating to the matter of faith.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org