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Don't look for silver linings

The events of December 6, 1992, conceived, encouraged and cheered on by people who went on to become the ruling elite of this country, were clearly illegal. The consequences — a trail of violence in its wake and making minority bashing and the expression of religious prejudice respectable, even in educated middle-class society — are something we are living with now, and will have to continue to do so. What happened has nothing to do with the concept of secularism, says ANIL DHARKER. It's got to do with the way civilised society is structured and runs itself, irrespective of who you are or what your motivation might be.

OF course it's a coincidence. But no coincidence could be more apt: the 10th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition coincides with the Gujarat elections, an election fought over another kind of demolition. In these 10 years, we have moved a long way. In fact, a very, very long way. And that long journey has been only in reverse gear.

In the tumult of the last decade, many of us have forgotten how old the Babri Masjid dispute really is. In the early 18th Century, with the blessings of the Nawabs of Avadh, Shuja-ud-daulah and Asaf-ud-daulah, Ayodhya became a major centre for Hindu pilgrims.

Trouble began in 1853 when a sect called the Nirmohis, lay claim to the structure, contending that the mosque stood on the spot where a temple had been destroyed by Babar. Violence erupted from time to time over the issue in the next two years and the civil administration had to step in, refusing permission to build a temple or to use it as a place of worship. In 1885 a local mahant even went to court over the matter, but the court turned down his plea.

Déjà vu? The tension, the pulls this way, the pressures that way, continued over the whole century even during British rule; more trouble followed soon after independence, especially when idols were installed inside the mosque on December 22, 1949. After that, although local disturbances continued, none of them became important enough to enter the national consciousness.

This period of relative quiet on the religious/communal front was not just in Ayodhya, but throughout the country. That's astonishing when you remember that independence was followed by the worst communal blood-letting in the history of the world.

Why did this happen? The answer lies in one name: Jawaharlal Nehru. Mahatma Gandhi had already set the agenda through personal example right through the freedom movement and Vallabhai Patel too had shown that whatever his alleged personal views on the subject, as home minister he wasn't going to discriminate between one citizen of India and another because they belonged to different religions.

Nehru was Gandhiji's heir in many senses, but particularly in the area of secularism. His Western education and upbringing plus his declared agnosticism, made his secularism absolute. Through the long period of his stewardship of the nation, India (occasionally reluctantly) moved towards such an acceptance of secularism, that an event like the Babri Masjid demolition was impossible to envisage. Through his strong belief system, Jawaharlal Nehru brought in an atmosphere in which if the middle-classes had prejudices, they kept them to themselves; they became, in fact, ashamed that they had these feelings and so suppressed them. Nehru's famous assertion was that the temples of India were now its dams and its factories, and such was the power of his personality, that we believed him.

That was the direction in which our country was moving, and that is the direction in which we would have continued to move if Nehru had been immortal. But he wasn't. Nor was Indira Gandhi whose own secularism was as steadfast as her father's.

Rajiv Gandhi's was too, but his good intentions couldn't overcome his political inexperience, which made him just days before the general election in November 1989, give permission to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to perform Shilanyas at the site. But real hell broke loose only in September of the following year when a certain gentleman mounted a souped-up and bedecked Toyota van and embarked on a 10,000 km journey starting from the south and heading towards Ayodhya.

No prizes, of course, for guessing the identity of the "charioteer": Lal Krishna Advani, in that one fell swoop (or 10K sweep) had taken Nehru's secularism and crushed it under his Toyota rath's tyres again and again. Two years later, Babri Masjid was destroyed, without doubt, the consummation he so ardently desired.

There are enough photographs, enough eye-witnesses and enough anecdotal evidence to confirm Advani's exultation when the "sevaks" clambered on to the dome of the masjid and hoisted the flag of victory in the gesture known throughout history to both the victor and the vanquished. (There is also the telling photograph, widely published, of a joyous Uma Bharati standing behind an equally happy Murli Manohar Joshi. They are both triumphantly looking into the distance, presumably at the masjid being brought down and she has her arms draped around his shoulders. Interestingly, Joshi told the Liberhan Commission, which is conducting hearings on the demolitions, that Bharati came from behind and "touched his feet").

At one level, the partial destruction of a mosque which was centuries old, should have interested only the archaeologist. It shouldn't have mattered to the Muslims of the area since they hadn't used it as a place of worship for a very long time. Certainly, it shouldn't have mattered at all to the wider circle of Muslims in the country because the structure was neither sanctified nor important in history: it was an old mosque amongst many; lying neglected and unnoticed, soon to have withered away by itself.

At that level, under the guidance of a strong leadership (say like Sardar Patel's), a compromise could have been reached by which a temple would have been constructed on the site.

But that moment disappeared forever when Advani sat in his mechanised rath, left a trail of violence in its wake and made minority-bashing and the expression of religious prejudice respectable, even in educated, middle-class society.

The events of December 6, 1992 form a land mark whose consequences we are living with now, and will have to live with for years to come. This has nothing to do with the concept of secularism; it's also got to do with the way civilised society is structured and runs itself.

One of the first precepts of any civilised society is respect for law and order. That implies following a set of laid down rules irrespective of who you are or what your motivation might be. The Babri Masjid demolition was clearly illegal. Yet it was conceived, encouraged and cheered on by people who went on to become the ruling elite of this country: three ministers, two of them of the highest rank, and one of them not only the Deputy Prime Minister but as home minister responsible for maintaining law and order in the land.

As it happens, and as we all know, the events of December 6 went even beyond questions of law and order. For here were soon-to-be cabinet ministers, soon-to-be responsible for order, education, health and sundry other important matters, soon-to-be administrators in these areas to citizens of this country who are all meant to be equal, showing by their personal participation in those events, that they believed a large majority to be unequal.

Is it any surprise that the carnage of Gujarat, the first instance of state-sponsored rape and murder in independent India, followed 10 years later?

And that it happened in a State governed by the party that cheered the Babri demolition? If Advani's rath yatra was the foreplay and the destruction of the Babri structure the climax, then Gujarat is its off-spring, a monstrous child of monstrous parents.

If you are looking for silver linings, there are none. The fabric that binds society is delicate and needs careful handling. The veneer of civilisation that covers the beast within us is thin and can be damaged easily. It's the duty of any country's leadership to put strong protective arms around so that there's no tearing and scratching of either. But if it's the leadership itself that's doing the damage, who can stop us from running amok and finishing what they started?

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