Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 1 New Delhi December 21, 2019 | ANNUAL NUMBER
A Temple to Rise from Rubble
Saturday 21 December 2019#socialtags
by L.K. Sharma
A 25th century historian finds in the archives two books by foreign travellers who visited a place in Ayodhya. One describes a mosque there but the other has the photo of an exquisite temple exactly at the same spot. The confused historian discovers another book that solves the mystery. Its author quotes some locals who witnessed a Ram Temple appearing majestically in the place of a very old mosque.
Another foreign travel writer is told by an old semi-naked holy man that the temple materialised as a result of his tapasya in a Himalayan cave. One night, Lord Ram appeared in his dream and asked him to go back to Ayodhya to worship in a new temple.
The historian gets to hear about Lord Ram’s second exile to which he finds no reference in any of the multiple versions of the Ramayana. He is told that a 20th century Indian poet wrote about the second exile but his manuscript was destroyed by the police. The historian discovers that the last print of a documentary titled Ram ke Naam was burnt in a fire of 2024. He writes An Indian God Reborn which wins an award in 2420.
Away from past and future, in the present, argumentative Indians are discussing furiously a historic judgment in a land dispute in Ayodhya. The Supreme Court recognises a Hindu God as a juristic person and grants Him the title of the disputed plot. The Court not only gives the land to Hindus but also fixes a mechanism for building the Ram temple there. It has involved a secular government in this religious project to be run by a government-appointed trust.
The Hindu litigants represented the millions who have been agitating for building a Ram temple, claiming that Lord Ram was born on the spot where the mosque was built after demolishing a temple! This disputed piece of land had a mosque till demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992.
The critics of the judgment ask the Supreme Court whether it could have awarded the land to Hindus had the Babri mosque not been demolished. They point out that the judges rewarded the very force that committed the act which the court itself has called illegal. For implementing the judgment, the remains of the demolished mob will be dug up and cleared by an authorised agency! That will be giving finishing touches to the work done by the mob in 1992.
Why is a spiritual nation obsessed with a mere piece of land? One is told that this plot is coveted not for pecuniary gains but for the salvation of the soul. One wonders why Lord Ram grabs the undivided attention since Hindus have 3.3 billion Gods and Goddesses to worship.
The judgment delivered by a five-member Bench was awaited with bated breath by millions of Hindus and Muslims since the land contested by the two communities involved a demolished mosque and a yet-to-be built temple. Now the most powerful Supreme Court in the world is being criticised for delivering a self-contradictory judgment. Nothing unusual. Every scholar knows that in India, if this is true than also its opposite.
The Supreme Court dealt with a dispute that transformed Indian politics by inspiring a BJP-led movement to build a Ram temple in the place of the mosque built by Emperor Babar 500 years ago. That movement led to the demolition of the mosque that gave a new life to the Hindu nationalist party and led to its overwhelming victory in two elections.
Those involved in the mosque demolition in 1992 are called Ram devotees but a minority sees them as political vandals.The demolition caused sectarian riots in which more than 2000 lives were lost. The aggressive devotees justified their act by claiming that the mosque was built on a spot where Lord Ram was born and where a temple existed earlier.
The Ayodhya land dispute has elements of mythology, history, facts, fiction, faith, rationality, law, order, politics, populism, religion, secularism, democracy, violence, peace, harmony and majoritarianism. Public and media interest in this case is so intense and widespread that it shows up if one googles demolition, mosque, temple, Hindu, Muslim and the names of three Indian political parties and a Hindu cultural organisation.
The Babri Mosque controversy festered for long as a religious dispute but got traction when politicised a few decades ago. The dispute would have pleased Sir Winston Churchill who had forecast that the new rulers of India would be “rascals, rogues and freebooters”. Whatever they turned out to be, they faithfully followed the British divide-and-rule strategy.
The mosque-temple dispute illustrates the British policy in India and what some elected Indian rulers learnt from the departed colonial masters. The temple-mosque dispute never flared up for 300 years.The earliest Hindu-Muslim clashes at the mosque site were marked by the British colonial power in 1956-57. It erected a six-foot brick wall dividing the site to grant the inner portion of the mosque to Muslims and the outer portion to Hindus!
Documentary-maker Anand Patwardhan says: Why does the year 1857 ring a bell? Because it also marks the First War of Independence, when Hindus and Muslims heroically united and almost defeated the British. The latter, obviously, found it convenient to stoke a potential religious conflict in Ayodhya!
Despite the insidious attempt by the British, thanks to the local Hindu and Muslim preachers, communal harmony remained undisturbed till December 23, 1949 when Hindu miscreants broke into the mosque at night and installed Ram idols there. The local District Magistrate, K.K. Nayar, took no action and went on to join the Jana Sangh (the precursor to the BJP) and became a Member of Parliament.
There were several twists and turns in the Ayodhya story including a judgment by the High Court. Then came the Supreme Court decision that has sharpened divisions. It came a few days before the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri mosque on December 6, 1992. The day is celebrated by a section of Hindus but mourned by Muslims and secular Hindus. Many Hindus lament the violation of India’s Constitution by a mob. A large section of Hindus accords equal respect to all faith traditions. They recall that Mahatma Gandhi had condemned the desecration of some Delhi mosques by Hindu miscreants and said that their act was against Hinduism.
Several Hindu commentators, who cherish secular ethos, criticise the judgment for placing faith above law. The Muslim community generally feels aggrieved because the Hindu miscreants have been rewarded for their acts that have been called “illegal” by the Supreme Court itself.
Politicians led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi have welcomed it. The ruling BJP is happy because its election manifesto promises to build a magnificent Ram temple on the dispute site.The admirers of the judgment call it balanced and conciliatory, designed to end sectarian conflict. The legal experts have lauded the Supreme Court for declaring as illegal the acts of the Ram devotees who demolished the mosque and had earlier stealthily planted some idols into the mosque. They note with satisfaction that the Bench repeatedly asserted that it is guided by law, not faith. This assertion was critical since the hearing was dominated by witnesses expounding on faith and belief.
But then by the judgment’s operative part, the Supreme Court upheld the contention of the Hindu litigants, giving them the land on which a mosque had stood for 500 years. This has made the judgment very controversial. Senior Supreme Court lawyer Kaleeswaram Raj says: “The basic irony of the Ayodhya judgment is that it tries to honour the actions which the court found illegal and unlawful.” Mob violence and hooliganism have been sanctified and liberty has been undermined. Read in the political context, the judgment shows the Supreme Court “as part of an illiberal state which is a dangerous trend for democracy”. He says the conciliatory approach seen in the judgment reflects the transformation of the country into a majoritarian far-Right polity and hence does not do justice to the tenets of the Constitution. The judgment has come as a “big blow to the constitutional principles, including the rule of law and secularism”.
Critics see in the judgment the victory of faith over law. They say while Hindus got the land on the basis of inadequate evidence, the Muslim side was asked to produce hard evidence in support of its counter-claim. This demand was unrealistic since the mosque was built 500 years ago. And how can Hindus prove that Ram was born on that spot. Moreover, whether this Hindu God was a mythological or historical figure cannot be proven. Of course, such debates do not shake the faith of millions who worship Ram.
Some say that that the concern for peace undermined the court’s commitment to justice. They imply that the court has tried to buy peace at the cost of justice by granting the land to Hindus since their organisations have greater capacity to disturb peace.
Critics include retired judges of the Supreme Court A. K. Ganguly and Markandey Katju. Justice Ganguly says the minorities have been wronged. As a student of the Constitution, he finds it difficult accept the ruling. No one can recreate history, “who owned the land 500 years ago, does anybody know. Now tomorrow some can tear down any mosque. Earlier they got the support of the government; now they are receiving the support of the judiciary also.” Justice Ganguly says the court ruling had actually placed a premium on the demolition of the mosque which it called illegal. Justice Markandey Katju writes: “In substance, the court has said that might is tight and has laid down a dangerous precedent sanctifying aggression.”
According to Justice Katju, after the partition of 1947, the demolition of the Babri Masjid by political vandals was India’s greatest tragedy. The Ayodhya verdict says this demolition was illegal, but in the same breath sanctifies it.The demand for constructing a temple is a kind of revanchism that will polarise society further, serving the political agenda of those who want to keep the sectarian fires burning for getting votes, says Justice Katju.
The Muslims interviewed by journalists say they are dissatisfied by the Supreme Court judgmentbut it should be accepted. They are generally silent and sullen and their low-key response is partly calibrated by the fear of majoritarianism. The police force was deployed on a massive scale in many cities before the day of the judgment.
V. S. Naipaul would have taken umbrage at the response of those Muslims who say the demolished Ayodhya mosque did not mean much to them and what really matters to them is Mecca and Medina. Some Muslims say they are relieved that the court judgment did not go in favour of their community. Had the ruling gone in our favour, they would have become victims of mob violence. This reflects the fear of majoritarianism. A newspaper report on their reaction said: “Elders weep, youth console”. A Muslim commentator writes that the mosque demolition followed by the judgment have confirmed the Muslims’ status as second-class citizens.
The reaction of the main Opposition parties committed to secularism has also been measured. They cannot show disrespect towards the Supreme Court but they also tread carefully when dealing with any issue that hurts the Hindu psyche! The ruing BJP has thousands of activists ready to pounce on any statement by the opponents to damn them as anti-Hindu!
In this situation, more than 40 small organisations of Tamil Nadu announced the formation of an “anti-fascist coalition” to hold demonstrations against the Supreme Court’s verdict that “goes against secularism enshrined in India’s Constitution”.
The legal merits and demerits of the judgment apart, it is the background that makes the judgment even more critical. It comes at a time when a country has been polarised on religious lines by a political party that has reaped the rich political rewards from this strategy. Its propagation of a muscular form of Hinduism has caused an outbreak of fake religiosity that has disturbed communal harmony. A few cases of lynching of Muslims have been reported. Videos have been circulated in which a poor Muslim is stopped and forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram” (victory to Lord Ram). A singer bellows Islamophobic pop songs and popularises these on social media.
While it was a civil suit about a piece of land, the Union and the State governments had to take heavy precautionary measures on the law and order front by deploying special forces extensively and restricting the access to social media.The Supreme Court too was aware of the implications of their judgment and that is why the Chief Justice took the unprecedented step of calling a meeting of security officials before delivering it.
Judiciary still enjoys public trust while other pillars of democracy in India are getting weakened. But at times, even judiciary gets seen in an unfavourable light. The Ayodhya judgment has placed this institution under scanner.
The judgment has energised the ruling Hindu nationalist party and activated the Modi Government on the Ram temple front. The BJP leader, L.K. Advani, who rode a chariot to Ayodhya in 1992 to mobilise the people to build a Ram temple on the contested piece of land, says he feels “blessed”. Some extremist Hindu leaders have gone further. They demand that the case against those facing charges in the criminal conspiracy mosque demolition should be withdrawn. The Hindus killed during the temple movement should be declared martyrs! The movement leaders used to shout the slogan that Ayodhya is a trailer and other mosques will follow!
Justice Katju says it is foolish to think that the Ayodhya verdict will bring about communal peace. Appeasement, like the Munich pact of 1938, only whets the appetite of the aggressor. The Hindu protestors will now demand the possession of more Muslim sites. Some fear the Muslims’ subdued response will be interpreted as weakness. That will make the rival community more aggressive which in turn will increase the dominance of the Hindu right-wing in Indian polity.
Some Hindu monks have started fighting among themselves for representation on the proposed trust that would run the temple. The review petition has become controversial even among those who criticise the judgment! The Shia-Sunni divide has been exacerbated over the issue of filing a review petition in the Supreme Court. The spill-over effect that fits well into the BJP’s electoral strategy is the sharp division created between the Shia and Sunnis over the Supreme Court Judgment.
Millions of Hindus are waiting for the day to visit a brand-new Ram Mandir in Ayodhya that will finally obliterate the memory of the “humiliation of Hindus” some 500 years ago. The Ram temple may take a couple of years to come up but devotees from far and near have already started visiting Ayodhya! Such religious fervour has become the ruling BJP’s chief political weapon. The BJP will brag about its promise to the voters!
The sullen silence of the Muslim community has lessened the anxiety of the law-and-order agencies. However, internal security experts fear that in a polarised atmosphere, an unfair administration or judiciary will lead to radicalisation of the rival communities, breeding young terrorists.
The religious-cum-political dispute will drag on till the Supreme Court decides the fate of the review petition. Of course, even after that, the “closure” may not materialise, contrary to what the peace-makers on both sides believe. The sane vices calling for the “closure” do not understand devious politicians. In any case, a “closure” based on an unjust judgment can never be effective. The Supreme Court’s heroic attempt may not be able to kill the dispute. Such disputes, as history tells us, have more than nine lives! Religious disputes become court cases and court cases are turned into religious disputes.
The Supreme Court judgment is bound to have unintended consequences. Disgusted by the repeated violation of Constitutional morality, some Hindus may turn away from their faith tradition. They feel anguished by the atrocities committed in the name of God. They say that their religion has been hijacked by politicians. The BJP calls such Hindus anti-Hindu. It asks all Hindus to shout with fervour: “We are proud to be Hindu”. But since the demolition of the Babri mosque, it is not uncommon to hear some saying that they are ashamed of being Hindu!
Now that Lord Ram’s existence has been recognised by the highest court, some doubting Hindus may shed their disbelief! Their transition from rationality to faith will be historic mass conversion! Lord Ram now knows, thanks to the Supreme Court, that he was born as a mortal among the mortals.The judges have ended His existential crisis. When the Supreme Court was hearing the case, some had claimed to be Lord Ram’s descendants. Will they now start an intra-family dispute over the ownership of the plot in Ayodhya?
(An abridged version of this article appeared in Open Democracy)
The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a freelancer.