Rohit Ticku on Temple Desecrations as a Political Strategy

Shruti Rajagopalan and Rohit Ticku discuss the destruction of temples in medieval India and the effects of same-sex marriage legalization on expressions of sexual orientation in the U.S.

This episode is the second in a series in which Shruti will speak with doctoral candidates and postdoctoral scholars about their research as they enter the job market and the world of academia. The first episode featured Vaishnavi Surendra. In this episode, Shruti speaks with Rohit Ticku about his research on the economics of religion, culture and identity. Ticku is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics and Society at Chapman University.

This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and for the next few weeks, I will be speaking to young doctoral and postdoctoral candidates entering the academic job market and the policy world about their newly minted research on Indian political economy.

The second scholar in our young scholars series is Dr. Rohit Ticku. Rohit is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics and Society at Chapman University. He is working on religion, culture and identity from an economic point of view.

I spoke with Rohit about his paper, “Economic Shocks and Temple Desecrations in Medieval India,” which is coauthored with Anand Shrivastava and Sriya Iyer. They show that during economic downturns Mughal rulers strategically desecrated temples to quell mass uprisings.

We also discussed another one of Rohit’s papers on “Same Sex Marriage Laws and Coming Out in America: Theory and Evidence from Catholic Priesthood” (coauthored with Avner Seror).

Hi, Rohit. Welcome to the show.

ROHIT TICKU: Shruti, thanks for having me.

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. One of the most controversial topics in India right now is, of course, the question of temple desecration. The question of the original Ram Mandir and, at some point, whether it was either desecrated or fell into ruin at the contested site of the Babri Masjid, and all that drama has played out for most of, I guess, your and my life in India.

Whether it was Hindu temples or Buddhist monasteries before that, or mosques after that, the standard narrative is that these are sites which are casualties of religious warfare of some sort. And you, in your research, along with Anand Srivastava and Sriya Iyer, who’s also been on the show, actually provide quite a different and very interesting lens to look at this problem. You actually give an economic reason for temple desecration. Can you walk us through that? Because that sounds really bizarre and counterintuitive.

TICKU: Shruti, when we started this project, it was conducted with two elements in mind. The first element was that the interpretation of these desecrations or religious repressions in the past has dictated the social strife that we have observed in our society in the past two, three decades.

So, it was important for us to understand what could be the possible drivers of these outcomes, to differentiate between whether there were these cultural factors that were driving the desecrations, for instance, the antipathy towards idol worship. Or there could have been some more strategic explanations for driving these interactions.

The second element that had to be woven into this was Muslim rulers—they were minority rulers who were ruling over vast swathes of population. And for any ruler, the first strategic decision would be to maximize his rule for the longest period of time. So, as a strategic incentive, it didn’t make a lot of sense to indiscriminately keep on desecrating temples, which could have created a lot of consternation and furor in the society and could have led to rebellions or potential overthrow of these regimes.

This suggested that it’s possible that there could also be some more strategic interpretations or explanations that we try to understand in our research project. So, when we looked at the data, it was very fascinating that systematically during the periods of economic upheavals, we found that the Muslim rulers were more likely to desecrate Hindu temples.

And when we looked at further evidence, it suggested that these desecrations were more a punishment mechanism to dispel any possibility of rebellion among the Hindu masses, which could be a response to any kind of upheaval in the society due to these economic or agrarian shocks.

RAJAGOPALAN: I have two follow-up questions to this. One is, how does one go about studying something like this? Because we still don’t have good evidence on the Ram Mandir issue of whether there was a temple there before that. The archaeological evidence is really complex, and the Supreme Court and High Courts have looked at it for years, and we don’t have good conclusions on that kind of evidence. So, when you’re studying something that goes so far back in history, and you say you collected data on it, how does that work exactly?

TICKU: To begin with, one has to have a sense of humility in this type of work because we are not historians, and we don’t do the primary—either archaeological or archival—work to understand some of these phenomena.

When we look at Indian economic history in contrast to, let’s say, medieval European history, we don’t have this systematic compilation of data through which we can understand some of these processes. So, a lot of work in this project entailed collecting a lot of archival work, which different historians have looked at these phenomena, but to systematically aggregate it together was, in fact, a key contribution of the project.

RAJAGOPALAN: So, how many temple desecrations are we talking about in your particular paper?

TICKU: We are looking at 80 instances of temple desecrations. I would like to distinguish that these are events of desecrations. So, it could imply that within each event, there was probably more than one temple that was desecrated. For example, one of the events that shows up in the data, which is related to Jahangir desecrating some . . . an event of desecration in a given year. So, it’s important to distinguish that, even though these were 80 episodes, there could have been a lot more temples that were actually desecrated.

RAJAGOPALAN: And now, I want to ask you the second part of what you said, which is, when you say that there is an economic downturn, what is a good way to think about that?

TICKU: Actually, it makes it slightly easier to think about economic downturns in those periods, given these were largely agrarian societies. Anything to do with economic downturn has to do with any shock that affects the agrarian economy. So, an excellent predictor of an economic downturn would be negative weather shocks that would likely lead to loss of agrarian production and would cause these kinds of social upheavals in the society.

RAJAGOPALAN: And so the mechanism that you have in mind is that during this kind of an economic downturn—because there is a possibility of social upheaval and revolt from what happens to be a majority of the people from a different religion—the way the Mughal rulers got the public or the citizens under control is by imposing this kind of religious tyranny or desecrating their temples.

TICKU: Right. In fact, throughout societies, it was a very useful mechanism. The symbolic destruction of something that the masses valued was an important mechanism for the rulers to showcase their supremacy over the masses. For example, in medieval Europe, we find examples that the leaders of the rebellion were impaled and put in the public square for all the public to see. It not only dissipates the existing rebellion, but it also prevents the likelihood of rebellion in future, now that the ruler has reinforced his authority over the public.

In context of medieval India, it takes even more significance where these temples were, in a way, also seen as protecting the society as well. If a Muslim ruler comes and desecrates a temple, it’s actually establishing not just the secular power of the ruler, but also the temporal power of the ruler over the society. So, it would have been a great mechanism to prevent rebellion among the masses.

RAJAGOPALAN: You said that there’s this tension between desecrating too many temples because it’s going to cause a major revolt or revolution versus, in an economic downturn, there still needs to be some kind of force that is used or some kind of authority that is imposed on potentially grumbling masses or unhappy mass of citizens. So, in the strategic model of any king or ruler, what is the optimal or equilibrium number of temple desecrations to land at the right point?

TICKU: As a ruler, one has to make a strategic choice between dissipating these current undercurrents of revolution versus a possibility that the repression is so strong that people may rise in future. If the importance of repressing that rebellion in present time is so high, then one would anticipate that you would be more likely to desecrate a temple to maintain your authority.

In fact, we also see examples. We found evidence that the desecrations were even more likely at the onset of the tenure of a Muslim ruler. And we know from historical literature that Muslim rulers, especially at the onset of their tenure, face a lot of contestation even from within the regime, from their siblings, from the other members of the court, who wanted to depose the ruler.

Especially at the onset of the tenure, it actually became more important for the Muslim rulers to maintain their authority over the population, so we see instances of the likelihood of temple desecration following an economic shock being much higher if the ruler was in the early period of his tenure.

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s fascinating. We know that India has had, over the centuries, different religions dominating at different points, both in terms of the majority population, but also in terms of the religious affiliation of the ruler. There was a point in time when India was hugely Buddhist. Then there was a time—of course, the majority were Hindus—but there were lots of Mughal rulers, and so on and so forth.

Now, can this theory of temple desecrations easily be applied to desecration of other religious structures and other religious institutions at different points in time? Though that’s not what your paper discusses. Or is what you are studying very unique to the Mughal period and Hindu temples?

TICKU: There are certain examples, actually. And this comes mainly from anecdotal evidence that even between Hindu kings—kings who were following the Vaishnavite tradition versus kings who were following the Shaivite tradition. There were examples where, if the local population belonged to a different tradition, sometimes you would destroy their temple to, again, establish or reestablish your authority.

Also, in different contexts, you will find examples that when a ruler who was, let’s say, a Shaivite defeated a ruler who was a Vaishnavite, there were examples that they would destroy a temple as a marker of their authority over the newly conquered territory.

RAJAGOPALAN: How much of this is also a question of looting? Because in medieval temples, the temples are also the location of a lot of the wealth within the community. Typically, the temple structure will probably have precious metals or gemstones and things like that. And we know that, with invaders especially—they were prone to looting. So, how much of this has a second strategic reason, which is just looting the temple and, in the process, destroying it?

TICKU: Right, that’s a great question. But one has to remember that some of these temples were also enabling huge pilgrimage economies. So, a strategic ruler would also have to make a choice. “Should I destroy a temple, loot it in present, or I maintain it, especially within my territory, to also benefit from the pilgrimage economy in future?”

RAJAGOPALAN: So, this is the roving versus stationary bandit problem. You would typically see outside invaders, who are roving bandits, come and loot a temple and walk away, versus the rulers that you are talking about in your paper are more likely to make that choice between whether to desecrate a temple or how many temples to desecrate, given that it’s also a source of revenue because of the local economy.

TICKU: Exactly. In fact, we also find—this comes from anecdotal evidence—that prior to Muslim rulers establishing their rule in the Indian subcontinent, the early skirmishes were primarily driven by this looting mechanism. So, you actually see a lot more temples being destroyed in that period compared to the later period, once these rulers established their authority over the state, and then their incentive is more to collect taxes from their population.

RAJAGOPALAN: What kind of modern implications does it have? For instance, is the current Hindu nationalism a result of the slowdown in economic growth? Because both of them have sort of happened simultaneously. Can the past temple-desecration strategic mechanisms help us think about the present and the future?

TICKU: I think of these problems in a slightly different way. If I think of this mobilization of identity in the Indian society, or the political mobilization of Hindu identity, one can think of how political parties are making these strategic decisions on when to introduce these identities or when to play up these identities.

If we think about this in contexts where parties have their own voter bases, where people are voting for these parties based on their identity preferences, it’s actually a great mechanism for parties. Rather than promising economic reforms, you can actually substitute by promising this kind of identity benefits. So if your political party or the incumbent government is performing poorly in terms of the economic outcomes, you can actually mollycoddle, maybe, your voter base by actually providing these identity preferences in the society.

RAJAGOPALAN: Is it a question of “We cannot raise your economic outcomes or your levels of prosperity, but we can improve your status in society by this kind of playing up the identity”? What exactly is the mechanism at play? Or is it something as straightforward as, say, reservations being promised to certain caste identities, or to women, or so on and so forth? What is exactly being exchanged during an economic downturn when it comes to identity versus votes?

TICKU: One can think of it in two ways. In fact, if you look at the evidence from the past six years, and if you compare the elections of 2014 versus 2019, in 2014, the BJP’s campaign was on what is called Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. Vikas was very important, in part, as a composite of . . . which is development. But in 2019, the focus was on Sashakt Bharat, which means a powerful India.

You see that between 2014 and ’19, there was an economic downturn. And you see that the political propaganda or the political promises that the government was making to its voter base also actually strategically shifted, which is even evident in the manifestos they were providing.

RAJAGOPALAN: I have a feeling this kind of playing up religious identities—though we may not know the magnitude or the effects of it yet—will be one of the things that we see as India deals with the post-pandemic economic stress. That’s my hunch. Of course, you’ll tell us in a few years if that actually played out the way it did.

Now, you’re a keen examiner of both religious phenomenon from the economic point of view, but also questions of culture and identity and religion interacting with each other, and here I wanted to move on to a slightly different paper of yours. This actually has to do with legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States and what kind of impact that has on people choosing to express their sexual preference more in society.

There’s always this great puzzle in these kinds of questions, on whether changing the law or a legal change will lead more people to express their sexual orientation accurately, or whether it is more people expressing their sexual orientation in the first place that leads to the change in law. Can you talk a little bit about how you answer these questions?

TICKU: Shruti, in the paper that you refer to, we [coauthored with Avner Seror] try to understand how the institutional legitimization of same-sex relationships through the passing of same-sex marriage reforms could affect an individual decision to openly express their sexual identity in the society. Now, the studying of these dynamics is ex ante difficult because we do not have systematic data where we can track individuals expressing their sexual identity.

However, in our context, actually, the Catholic priesthood provides an excellent setting to study this question because Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy. Becoming a Catholic priest implies that you are forgoing the option of openly being in a relationship in the secular society. So, any change in enrollment in the priestly programs or priestly studies which follows after the passing of same-sex marriage reforms can help us to understand if these laws have impacted coming-out decisions in the United States.

An interesting advantage of this setting is that, in the United States, the same-sex marriage laws were implemented across states in a staggered fashion. So, this provides us an excellent context to compare the dynamics of enrollment in states that pass the reforms versus states that did not pass the reforms. In this way we can evaluate if it is the passing of the law which has had an impact on enrollment decisions in Catholic priesthood.

RAJAGOPALAN: So, you’re talking about a subgroup of people who both happen to have a preference for same-sex relationships and who also happen to have some preference in joining the clergy. And on the margin, according to you, the choice to join the Catholic priesthood or not depends on whether it is easier and legal to express their same-sex preferences outside of the priesthood, because now the vow of celibacy has relatively become costlier.

TICKU: Exactly. In the first place, where the society imposes very high constraints on expression of homosexual identity, it’s relatively cheaper—if I may in an economic parlance—for these individuals to actually maintain a vow of celibacy compared to heterosexual individuals. However, as these institutional reforms weaken these constraints, you would expect at the margin, exodus in priestly enrollment, which is actually driven by this weakening of institutional constraints on homosexual identity.

RAJAGOPALAN: There are other kinds of roles within the clergy in the seminaries, where one does not need to take a vow of celibacy. They can have a family, and many of them, in fact, do have a family. So, if what you’re saying is driven by the same-sex marriage policy, then it should have no effect on those kinds of priests or those jobs where a vow of celibacy is not mandated.

TICKU: Right, Shruti. Since the mechanism through which these reforms are going to impact enrollment in Catholic priesthood is through the channel of celibacy—within the Catholic priesthood—the other occupations where you don’t have to remain celibate, where you can actually be married, one would ex ante expect that the reforms do not have any impact.

And in fact, when we look at the enrollment data of these occupations, such as lay ministry or deacons, we actually find the reforms have null effect on these occupations. So, in a way, we can actually parse at the margin. We can see the difference between occupations where religious devotion might be the main variable versus the other dimension, where your sexual identity might also be playing a role in self-selection into priesthood. You see that the laws have different effect, even within the Catholic Church.

RAJAGOPALAN: This is really fascinating.

When it comes to legalizing same-sex marriage, that again has a huge impact in India because very recently, India actually held Section 377 unconstitutional. Same-sex relationships were decriminalized. But same-sex marriage is not yet a policy in India, though I believe there are a few people who have filed a public-interest litigation in the Supreme Court and who are trying to make this a reality. What kinds of marginal effects do you expect to see in India?

TICKU: If I have to generalize—and I think this is probably true for larger, wider society in America and for India as well—research has shown that same-sex households are quite different in their consumption preferences, in terms of their preference for raising children, even in terms of their preference for labor market. They behave very differently in contrast to the heterosexual households.

If these reforms are enabling formation of more and more same-sex households in the society, these will have implications both for labor market but also household behavior in the society. This is something that we will have to keep an eye on in the United States and in India.

RAJAGOPALAN: What are some of the big questions, outside of your research in this area, which are really important and are unanswered questions?

TICKU: I think there are three big questions. The one biggest question is that within the economics-of-religion framework, a lot of the intuition or the analytical framework actually comes from studying the Judaic traditions, studying Christianity or even Islam, which has a very different characteristic, which has a very congregational characteristic compared to some of these Indic traditions.

So, I think a big research agenda would actually be to think, “How can we apply the analytical framework to understand some of the features of Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism, which are not congregational in nature?”

A second interesting thing or big research agenda which I find very fascinating is that, if you look at the evolution of religion in the Indian subcontinent, it’s very distinct from Europe or the Middle East, where, after a certain period of time, there was a hegemony of one main religion.

However, the subcontinent is very distinct in that, even over a space of 1,000, 1,500 years, many different religions have coexisted with each other. So, I think a second important research agenda could be, what were the dynamics that ensured that different religions could coexist in the subcontinent?

And then that leads to the third question—what could be the long-term dynamics or long-term implications of these kinds of interactions between different religions?

RAJAGOPALAN: And now I have one last question, which is the most important question during the pandemic. What have you been binge-watching?

TICKU: Actually, I have been watching a lot of Korean movies.

RAJAGOPALAN: Do you speak Korean, or do you do subtitles?

TICKU: I just do the subtitles. In fact, I’ve been watching the movies of—I may get his name wrong—Bong Joon-ho, who made the movie Parasite. He has such an enormous body of work, which is just mind blowing. And one wonders that, for such a small industry, the quality of movies that they produce—it’s just unbelievable. So, that’s something I’ve been binge-watching on.

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, that’s fantastic. Rohit, thank you so much for doing this. It was a pleasure having you and learning more about your research. I look forward to reading more of it in the future.

TICKU: Thank you so much, Shruti.

Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with Shruti on Twitter @srajagopalan. Our next episode features the research of Dr. Tanu Kumar,  a postdoctoral fellow at William and Mary’s Global Research Institute on housing subsidies and political participation in India.

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Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app