Friday, December 7, 2007

Non-American, Non-Christian, Nutcases (for a change)

I feel so bad for my American friends. You've got the Republican front-runner pushing himself as "The Christian Candidate" (with the bass-ackwards slogan "Faith. Family. Freedom."). You've got one of his opponents doing a bad imitation of JFK. And finally, you've got the blatantly political dismissal of an employee of the Texas Education Agency fired for sending an email deemed "not neutral" enough, ie. obliquely endorsing science as opposed to ideologically motivated pseudoscience.

But it could be worse (well, a little bit).

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The GoogleMap above shows the area of sea between Sri Lanka and the Indian mainland. Near the southern margin of the shallows (light blue) is an arc of islands and shoals stretching between the two landmasses (just below the dotted line that marks a ferry route). The Indian government wants to dredge a canal through it to shorten the shipping distance around the bottom of India. Obviously, there are legitimate environmental concerns -- sandy shallows tend to be ecologically interesting, but also fragile. Then there's the cost (US$560m). And then, there's the religious angle: the chain is known as "Rama's Bridge" (though some Westerner later dubbed it "Adam's Bridge"), and Hindu mythology holds that it was constructed by the Lord Rama and his army of monkeys. Scientists, of course, tend to think it was constructed by natural causes like geology, coral reefs, and sand transported by water currents.

And therein lies a problem. Some Hindus take the myth as literal history (sound familiar?), and complain that the canal will destroy Rama's Bridge -- an act of sacrilege -- and this angle has become part of litigation to stop or change the route of the proposed canal. Back in September, the Archaeological Survey of India presented a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that there was no evidence that the army of monkeys ever existed, or that Rama himself was a literal person who walked the earth and did civil engineering mega-projects (note this description carefully skirts the question of whether Rama might exist in some non-material spiritual realm). The reaction:

On Wednesday, Hindu hard-line organisations blocked roads across India to protest against the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project.

Commuters in the capital, Delhi, were stuck in traffic jams for hours as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal blocked roads at various places.

Road blocks were also held in Bhopal, the capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, on the Delhi-Agra highway and on the Jaipur-Agra highway.

Train services were disrupted in many places across northern India.

The next day, the report was withdrawn and two directors of the Archaeological Survey were suspended (move over, Chris Comer!).

The following week, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state again questioned the literal existence of Rama the bridge-builder. This time, people died:

On Tuesday Hindu activists angered by the comments set fire to a Tamil Nadu bus, killing two people, police said.

Enraged Hindu hardliners in the city of Bangalore, in neighbouring Karnataka state, also attacked the home of Mr Karunanidhi's daughter, Selvi.


On Saturday, addressing a public rally, Mr Karunanidhi had asked: "Who is this Ram? From which engineering college did he graduate?"

Angered by his statement, Hindu hard-line groups have demanded his dismissal and arrest.

However, a less explosive case in the Indian state of Jharkhand may offer a possible solution: the judge in a dispute over a plot of land on which stand temples to Ram and Hanuman has subpoenaed those deities to appear in court to defend their title. Thus far they are no-shows, however it seems like the Supreme Court could try the same thing in the canal case: summon Rama to testify to his involvement in his eponymous "Bridge". And if he doesn't show up to defend his construction....

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