15 September 2007

Indian culture minister offers to quit

Ambika Soni, India's Minister of Culture, has offered to resign in a dispute over whether the Hindu gods are mythological figures or not.

The trouble started when the Indian government decided to build a shipping channel called the Sethusamudram Ship Canal to link the Palk Strait with the Gulf of Mannar. This would give ships a way to circumnavigate the Indian peninsula without going around Sri Lanka. The channel, however, would cut through a sand-and-stone formation known as Adam's Bridge in English and Ram Setu (or "Ram's Bridge") in Hindi.

Some Hindu groups see any attempt to cut through the natural formation as blasphemy, because they believe it to have been constructed in ancient times by the Hindu god Ram with the help of monkeys. On 12 September, the Archaeological Survey of India submitted documents to the Supreme Court saying that the fact that Ram is mentioned in Hindu holy texts does not prove his existence in real life.

In response, Hindu groups held demonstrations in Delhi, Bhopal and other areas. The Archaeological Survey has now withdrawn its report from the Supreme Court, and the two Archaeological Survey directors responsible for the report have been suspended.

Ms Soni has now left the decision over whether or not she will continue in her job to PM Manmohan Singh (BBC).

The question is why the culture minister would take the fall over a construction project that is about commerce and shipping, rather than culture. Even if the Archaeological Survey falls within her portfolio, the government should either take or refuse the blame collectively, rather than letting a relative junior member accept the blame for arousing public anger among Hindus.

The Sethusamudram Ship Canal is expected to cost US $560 million (Canadian $576 million). Obviously there are bigger fish involved here.

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