At the eve of independence, the sun set on two centuries of colonial rule heralding the dawn of a free, sovereign India with multiple ethnicities, cultural diversities, and plural religiosities. But while the newborn nation rejoiced at ‘the stroke of midnight hour’, its far-reaching corners bled to the wrath of communal violence – an inferno that would continue to burn the secular fabric of the nation from time to time.
Our colonial rulers had sown these seeds of religious antagonism that not only communalized the freedom struggle but also resulted in the partition. They have never been weeded out from the Indian politics ever since. It is a manifestation of this troublesome legacy that an age-old row over disputed land in Ayodhya was inflated to a fierce political movement in the 1990s and even three decades later it continues to be a faintly burning fire.
The recent adjournment of the hearing of the Ayodhya land title dispute to January 29 by the Supreme Court was fuel to this fire, bringing the issue into political priority once again. This will not only impact the 2019 General Elections but also strengthen the recently resurged Hindutva movement which is a dangerous possibility. Before delving any deeper, let us first explore what is the dispute actually about and how has it unfolded in the last three decades. ?
What is the row about?
The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute is essentially a contestation over a piece of land in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh between the Hindus and Muslims. The Babri Masjid which stood on this disputed land has been claimed by the Hindus to be the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi‘, i.e. the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of their most revered deities. Additionally, they claim that the mosque had been built by Muslim invaders after demolishing a Hindu temple and therefore, the land rightfully belongs to them.
The Babri Masjid had been constructed by Mir Baqui (one of Babur’s nobles) in 1528 and was used as a place of worship by the Muslims till 1949 when an idol of Lord Ram was installed within the mosque by the Hindus. Consequently, the Muslims protested and lawsuits were filed by both the parties staking their claim to the land. Ayodhya now became the hub of religious confrontations.
The issue would henceforth be exploited for political gains by flaring up the communal tensions through the mass mobilization of Hindus. The Ayodhya movement was consequently launched by Vishwa Hindu Parishad and supported by the BJP and RSS for the construction of a Ram temple to replace the Masjid. Led by L.K. Advani, the Sangh Parivar heavily endorsed a new brand of cultural nationalism that metamorphosed into the Hindutva movement with violent potential. As in the words of K.N. Pannikar, ‘Ayodhya, therefore, became a site for constructing the Hindu solidarity and avenging the Muslim wrong.’
Things took an unprecedented turn, when, the instigating speeches of the Shiv Sena, BJP and RSS leaders provoked thousands of ‘kar sevaks‘ to tear down the mosque on 6th December 1992. The demolition of the Babri Masjid caused communal riots throughout the country with far-reaching consequences.
The Legal Dispute
While the lawsuits for property rights over the disputed land can be traced back to 1885, it was only after the 1992 incident that proper litigation began. The demolition of the mosque set off communal clashes within and outside Ayodhya. As the situation got out of hand, the Centre intervened and dismissed the BJP government in UP led by Kalyan Singh, imposing President’s Rule within the State. It also acquired custody of the 66.7 acres of land in and around the disputed site through the Acquisition of Certain Areas at Ayodhya Act, 1993. The Act was subsequently challenged before the Supreme Court which upheld its validity in Ismail Faruqui vs Union of India case.
The situation remained relatively stable till 2002 when the VHP presented its demand to construct a Ram Mandir over the ruins of the demolished mosque which wasn’t endorsed by the BJP anymore. Soon there were train attacks on Hindu activists returning from Ayodhya which sparked off communal riots in Gujarat. A month later, the Allahabad High Court commenced its hearings on the original suits filed in 1989 and in September 2010, a three-judge bench comprising Justice D.V. Sharma, Justice S. Agarwal and Justice S.U. Khan announced its verdict. It divided the disputed territory equally between the three contesting parties- Ram Lalla represented by the Hindu Mahasabha, the Sunni Waqf Board and the Nirmohi Akhara. The ruling also established, though not unanimously, that the Babri mosque had been built after demolishing a temple and was, therefore, not in accordance with the tenets of Islam.
The various flaws within this judgment were severely criticized by historians, political commentators, and legal scholars. Nivedita Menon, a professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University, referred to the judgment as a ‘barely disguised partiality’ in favor of the Hindu political project that upheld faith over facts. It not only legitimized the demolition in a way but also benefitted the wrong-doers, thus undermining the values of Indian secularism. Lata Mani, on the other hand, viewed this ethical shortcoming of the judgment as ‘a negotiated compromise between people who have no choice but to live with each other and with all that binds them and all that threatens to separate them’ to facilitate peace. In 2011, even the Supreme Court suspended the ruling after both Hindu and Muslim groups appealed against it.
The hearing to the 14 petitions against the high court verdict was scheduled on 10th January 2019. However, it has now been postponed to the 29th as Justice U.U Lalit recused himself from the five-judge bench. This was after he was targeted by a senior advocate for representing Kalyan Singh in a related criminal case. The unexpected adjournment has instigated a sharp reaction from the VHP and will have great political implications.
A Paradigm for Communal Politics
The Ayodhya dispute has shaped Indian politics for the past four decades. It has been used as a political ploy by the Right-wing parties to mobilize the masses and seize power. As enumerated before, the Ayodhya movement was gradually transformed into a crusade for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, led by the Sangh Parivar through religious symbols like ‘rath yatra‘, the ‘shilanayas‘ and ultimately, the ‘kar seva‘. This was a major departure from the erstwhile territorial nationalism.
The Sangh Parivar’s political program and goals were now aimed at establishing a Hindu government. Moreover, the Mandir-Masjid controversy was projected in a way that a movement in favor of rebuilding the temple became a religious obligation. This, in turn, led people to unconsciously endorse the Hindutva movement despite being opposed to communal politics. Even the Congress, under Rajiv Gandhi, had endorsed the temple building movement in 1989, for political expediency when it risked falling out of power.
A major corollary here is that the dispute itself assumed a violent character owing to the political mobilization that went along with it. The Liberhan Commission’s report, 2009, revealed that the demolition of the masjid was a conspiracy of the Kalyan Singh government and the RSS. It also implicated prominent BJP leaders like L.K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Currently, with the unintended delay in the hearing of the petitions, the VHP is more ambitiously clamoring for legislation by the government to allow the construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya. Such legislation would violate the basic structure of the constitution by favoring a particular religion and be openly challenged in the court of law. Since it seems unlikely that the dispute will be settled before the general elections in May 2019, there is a great possibility that the government might undertake the risk to introduce the proposed law rather than risking the alienation of a vast Hindu majority. Such a law endorsing the majoritarian rule would mark a ‘second demolition’ of the Indian secularism and might pave way for communal cataclysms of an unimagined magnitude.C
On a final note
The Ayodhya dispute has manifested itself in various ways: an unending legal battle, a political movement, and dreadful communal violence. Still unresolved, it continues to plague the political discourse and has inflicted wounds on Indian secularism that will take generations to heal. The latter is especially because of the ‘ameliorative’ nature of the Indian secularism, i.e. ‘the state recognizes the need to reform religiously inspired oppression and hierarchy as well as the need to maintain inter-communal harmony.’
Had we adopted the western model of secularism characterized by a complete separation between the State and Religion, the situation would have unfolded differently. While the nature of Indian secularism has made it vulnerable to such political interventions, it is better suited for a pluralist nation like us.
Moreover, the politicization of a communal row has distorted historical facts. A court-ordered survey into the ruins of the masjid to ascertain the existence of a temple before the Babri Masjid was entangled in the antagonisms of the Left-Right politics. The historians of the right came up with pieces of evidence to show that the mosque had been built using the remains of a destroyed temple while the left-leaning historians completely ruled out the existence of the temple and even dismissed the validity of the Ran Janmabhoomi claim.
A dispute with such implications, therefore, needs to be resolved with utmost sensitivity. It cannot be tackled anymore as a conventional property dispute or in favor of the majoritarian rule as the Allahabad High Court did. Rather, as Nivedita Menon points out, ‘the Supreme Court should address the issue as one involving the future of plural faiths, India’s future as a democracy, the need to live together, and above all, the desires of the people of Ayodhya.’
What remains to be seen is whether the ruling government prioritizes the resolution of the Ayodhya case before the General Elections.
- The Indian Express
- The Telegraph
- The Ayodhya Judgement: What Next?'(Nivedita Menon)
- Where Angels Fear to Tread: The Ayodhya Verdict'(Lata Mani)
- Religious Symbols and Political Mobilization: The Agitation for a Mandir at Ayodhya.'(K. N. Panikkar)
Image Credits: India Today