The character and direction of the Indian state changed for ever 25 years ago this month when the Babri Masjid was destroyed on December 6, 1992. Some see that demolition as a signal for the future. It would be accurate also to call it a repudiation of centuries of Muslim control and a warning that Hinduism is getting ready to come into its own as part of Narendra Modi’s populist vote-catching strategy.
Whatever is ultimately decided about the disputed Ayodhya plot – where some Hindus maintain that the Mughals built their masjid in 1528 after destroying a temple that marked Ram’s birthplace – some things will never be the same in an India whose political vocabulary has been polluted with the phrases “gau rakshaks” and “love jihad”. The prime minister’s diligent efforts to identify Muslims with Pakistan and accuse them of interfering in the Gujarat election indicates that the already tortured relationship between India and Pakistan will become even more unstable. Mr Modi’s poll compulsions, drawing on new-found Hindu exuberance, will not allow the social climate, especially relations with Muslims, to be the same. That includes a certain contempt for the law, especially if it overlaps with what are seen as the majority’s religious rights, as highlighted in the murder in Rajasthan, allegedly by Shambhulal Regar, of a Bengali Muslim labourer, Afrazul Khan. That brutal killing clearly showed how majoritarian rhetoric has not only warped thinking but convinced many Indians that they enjoy immunity from the law if they act on behalf of some Hindu cause.
It’s not only at the lumpen level that the law’s impotence has been exposed. The “demolition suit” against Lal Krishna Advani and others charged with criminal conspiracy has been dragging on for 25 years. Yet the Supreme Court will soon hear the title suit relating to the government’s acquisition of 66.7 acres of land, including the site where the Babri Masjid stood. Section 4 (3) of the acquisition act extinguished all court proceedings over rights to any property in the acquired area, meaning that neither Hindus nor Muslims could claim to own the land. Since the law also guaranteed the pre-acquisition status quo, it meant that Ram puja would continue at the makeshift temple built before the Babri Masjid was demolished. But, the title dispute was revived in 1994 when a Supreme Court bench struck down Section 4 (3) of the act while accepting most other provisions, including continuing puja at the makeshift temple.
The legal dispute dates from 1950, when Gopal Singh Visharad of the Hindu Mahasabha filed a suit in the Faizabad civil court. By 1989, the Nirmohi Akhara, an order of sadhus, the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Board of Wakfs and, Ram himself – represented by Nandan Agarwala, vice-president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Deoki – had entered the fray, claiming possession of the land. In 2010, the Allahabad High Court divided the disputed land into three plots, awarding equal parts to the Nirmohi Akhara, the Sunni Wakf Board and Ram. This was not what the disputants had sought, and all three parties at once challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court. That title dispute will be heard in February 2018 but the trial of Mr Advani and others is still pending in the lower court.
We, thus, have two parallel cases. One relates to the history of the dispute over the Babri Masjid. The other arises from its demolition. They are linked. As Justice M S Liberhan was quoted as saying recently, “The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the appeal in the matter of the Ayodhya title dispute…will adversely affect the demolition suit…If the Hindu side gets it, then the act of demolition becomes seen as ‘justified’ – to reclaim own property.” Imagination boggles at what might erupt in the unlikely event of the Muslim side emerging the winner!
Many Muslims see this sequence as an exercise in hammering home their status as a subordinate minority – no matter what the Constitution says – in a Hindu state. The highlight of this situation was Mr Advani’s dramatic rath yatra from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in September-October 1990. It was seen as a demonstration of Hindu triumphalism as the aged Bharatiya Janata Party leader stood aloft in his chariot, holding a bow and arrow in his hands like a warlike Ram himself. What probably not generally realised is that organised Hinduism feels that it is avenging what it sees as the wrongs of past centuries.
Outwardly, Indians appear to have internalized the Lodi, Mughal and other Muslim dynasties to claim all those monuments with which Delhi is dotted as their own. The Red Fort is treated as a national symbol. Jawaharlal Nehru organized the first Asian Relations Conference in the Purana Qila. The Qutab Minar is as much an iconic structure as the Taj Mahal. Fatehpur Sikri, Golconda and Bijapur are historic sites that yield tourist dollars. But, if there had been a real synthesis, the Delhi Sultanate, a Muslim monarchy based mostly in Delhi but stretching over large parts of the subcontinent for 320 years (1206–1526) and ruled by five dynasties sequentially, would have been remembered with much greater pride. For those who believe in an active and regenerated Hindu civilisation, the monuments and memorials left behind by these dynasties are as much totems of conquest and subservience as Lutyens Delhi or Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial. They rankle in the Hindu mind as bitterly as the forays of Timur, Nadir Shah and Mahmud of Ghazni.
Somnath set a precedent. The temple’s ruins were pulled down in October 1950 and the mosque that had been erected on the site was shifted some kilometres away. In May 1951, Rajendra Prasad, India’s first president, performed the installation ceremony for the temple, saying, “It is my view that the reconstruction of the Somnath Temple will be complete on that day when not only a magnificent edifice will arise on this foundation, but the mansion of India’s prosperity will be really that prosperity of which the ancient temple of Somnath was a symbol.” He saw Somnath as signifying “that the power of reconstruction is always greater than the power of destruction.” Ayodhya is not the only place of reckoning. The Hindutva lobby also has claims on mosques in Kashi and Mathura.
It’s a long buried rankling sense of injustice that is now emerging. Pakistan is incidental to the grievance but seen, by extension, as another manifestation of Muslim success in wounding Akhand Bharat. India, under the BJP, is bent on avenging the past. The blows that Regar aimed at the hapless Afrazul or the lynching of Muslim youths on suspicion of eating or even storing beef represent the power of Hindutva striking down relics of alien conquest perpetuating the culture of foreign rulers.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.