The "Ram temple" drama

Historicising myth and mythologising history.

September 30, 2010 04:03 pm | Updated 04:18 pm IST

Ayodhya had better be seen as a theatre where the mythical lore is translated into modern metaphors, and the metaphorical translations are transformed into various but related action-projects. Having invoked a communal understanding of "national history", established its validity by back-projecting it onto a popular story, and mobilised its adherents through insidious political manoeuvres, the Hindu communalists have set the stage for the actual enactment of their drama. At this crucial juncture, the ideology, the ideologues, and their cherished dream come together. This potent mix occupies the centre stage and the entire drama begins to revolve around it. The name of the drama is Ram Temple.

For most of the pre-Independence era, the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya did not simply exist for the majority of Indians. The mosque emerged as the most bitterly contested terrain since Partition primarily because the issue was built up carefully by the Hindutva forces with an eye on appropriating it for use in contemporary politics. The controversy is more mythological than historical, and hence it is a matter more of faith than fact. Since the issue stands on popular culture and not on recorded history, it becomes even more prone to manipulation and politicisation. The Hindutva groups have turned the disadvantages of the unspecificities and ambiguities of the legendary problem into clear advantages. The conflict cannot be considered more concrete even from 1528, when the Babri Masjid was actually constructed, because the Hindutva groups claim that the mosque replaced an existing Ram temple for which there has never been any tangible evidence.

Although much has been written about this controversy rather recently, some of these works are drenched in "Hindu" piety and bias, and some other works are the Hindu communalists' own propaganda. Being a secular voice, Gyanendra Pandey's chronological scheme1 could be followed to explain and describe the Ayodhya controversy. A brief discussion of Ayodhya and the legends surrounding it would be an appropriate start. It is not just the symbolic significance of the Babri Masjid but also the larger mythical context of Ayodhya that provides a perfect setting for this communal drama. Ayodhya is considered a holy place by both Hindus and Muslims. While for Hindus it is the birthplace of Ram, Muslims believe that it is in the cemetery by the Saryu river in Ayodhya where Shea, the grandson of Adam, is buried.2

The Ayodhya of Ram is believed to have existed in the Tretha yuga 3 of the Hindu calendar, that is, some 900,000 years ago. According to traditional history, Ayodhya was the capital of the kingdom of Kosala, and with the rise of Buddhism in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, it was displaced as the capital city. Scholars agree that Ayodhya was identical with Saketa, where the Buddha is said to have resided for some time4Ayodhya is said to have been "rediscovered" by "Vikramaditya", who is identified by many scholars as Skandagupta of mid-5th century CE, when Buddhism began to decline as a result of a brahmanical resurgence5 While Romila Thapar maintains that "Chandra Gupta II took the title of Vikramaditya or Sun of Prowess,"6 Sher Singh ascertains that the claim that Skandagupta shifted his capital to Saketa (Ayodhya) is baseless.7 No matter how contentious the historicity of Ayodhya is, it is nonetheless one of the seven holy places of "Hindus" because of its association with Ram. Of the 6,000 Hindu shrines in Ayodhya, more than 4,000 are connected with Ram.8 This religious importance coupled with contemporary political significance leads the Hindu communalists to conclude: "Ayodhya is the centre of our Hindu nationhood, and Lord Rama our national leader. Without Ayodhya, this nation cannot be a nation in the fullest sense of the word, just as there can be no Christendom, which is what Europe is, without the Vatican."9

YET another controversy is over the exact location of Ayodhya. Archaeological excavations at Ayodhya, which is on the right bank of the Saryu river in Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh, reveal that "the earliest settlement at Ayodhya did not go back prior to the early stage of the Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW), Culture", which could be assigned to circa 700 BCE. Thus if the Ramayana episode is historical, it could not have taken place earlier.10 Based on Valmiki's Ramayana and a few other sources, Sher Singh contends that if Valmiki's description of Ayodhya is correct, it must be some 22 km south of the river Saryu in Nepal.11 The traditional lack of interest in cartography in India is not helpful in solving this riddle in any way.

The "Muslim conquest" sets the next and most important stage in the controversy. Emperor Babar's general, Mir Baqi, is believed to have destroyed a Ram temple and built the Babri Masjid on the same spot around 1528 CE. Whether there really existed a temple before the mosque was built is the core of the controversy now. B.B. Lal, who initiated and headed an archaeological survey of Ayodhya since 1975 and never once mentioned any evidence of a temple at the dispute site, made a surprising claim in the Rashtriya Swayam-sevak Sangh (RSS) magazine Manthan in October 1990 of having found the pillar-bases of what may have been a temple at the site. 12 As historical and archaeological "evidence" fail to tell us anything concrete or even remotely convincing, so do the voices of faith. As Rajeev Saxena asks, if there was an actual demolition of a Ram temple, how come the famous poet Tulsidas, who sang the glory of his beloved Ram during the early part of the 17th century, kept silent on this issue. After all,the poet wrote about secular subjects such as massive deaths in Banaras due to epidemic and unemployment, his arthritis problem, Brahmins' attack on him for his "low caste" status and so forth.13

In the 18th century, Ayodhya once again became a major centre of Hindu pilgrimage under the patronage of the Nawabs of Avadh, Shuja-ud-daulah and Asaf-ud-daulah. Hindu revivalism, which took root in Avadh, consolidated its position after the British takeover of Ayodhya. At this time the Nirmohis, a Hindu sect who had their establishment at Ram Ghat and Guptar Ghat, lay their claim over the Babri Masjid. They contended that the mosque stood on the spot of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple, which was destroyed by Babar. These claims led to the violent conflict of 1853-55. 14 In May 1883 the Deputy Commissioner of Faizabad refused permission to Hindus to construct a temple on the chabutara (platform) just outside on the left side of the gate following objections raised by Muslims. In 1885, Mahant Raghubar Das filed a suit in the court of the sub-judge at Faizabad seeking permission to build the temple and in March 1886, the sub-judge turned down the plea for permission to construct a temple and appeals were dismissed.15 Tensions mounted and Muslim shaheeds (martyrs) gathered in the fortified Babri Masjid and their Hindu counterparts thronged the nearby Hanuman Garhi. Following a battle that left some 75 Muslims dead, Hindus took the Babri Masjid.16

It is only in the 19th century that the temple-demolition/ mosque-construction story gets recorded. In 1822, Hafizullah, an official of the Faizabad law court, claimed that "(t)he mosque founded by emperor Babar is situated at the birth-place of Ram" and then the story gets into the records such as P. Carnegy's historical sketch of Faizabad (1870), H. R. Nevill's Faizabad District Gazetteer, and as a footnote in Mrs. A. S. Beveridge's English translation of Babur's Memoirs (1922).17 The British often referred to the mosque in their files as the "Janmasthan Mosque of Ajoodhia" and put up a notice board in front of the iron railings calling the monument wiwad grast (disputed). When the mosque was under the control of Muslims through the 1920s and 1930s, it was mismanaged and neglected, and the Waqf (Muslim endowment board) Commissioner of Faizabad condemned the muttwalii as an opium addict in a report dated September 16, 1938.18

The installation of idols inside the mosque on the night of December 22, 1949 led to the attachment and closure of the building for both Muslims and Hindus by an administrative order. Contrary to the "Ram's miraculous appearance" theory, the First Investigation Report of the Station House Officer of the Ayodhya police station, dated December 23, 1949, stated that three individuals (Abdy Ram Das, Ram Shukla Das, Sudarshan Das) and some 50 to 60 people had "desecrated (napak kiya hai) the mosque by trespassing (sic) the mosque through rioting and placing idol in it. Officers-on-duty and many other people have seen it." Later some 5,000 to 6,000 people tried to enter the mosque raising religious slogans and singing kirtans but were stopped.19

A civil suit was filed on January 16, 1950 by an individual, Gopal Singh Visharad, for a declaration of the right to worship. The judge restrained the removal of the idols and ordered no interference with the puja (worship). The State of U.P. filed an appeal against the injunction on April 24, 1950. According to historian Sushil Srivastava, "from 1951 to 1986, things remained relatively quiet in Faizabad." 20 Just as there was a lull between 1886 and 1950 without any street or court battles, the period between 1951 and 1986 passed without any major incidents. Although the All India Hindu Mahasabha and the Bharatiya Jan Sangh had included Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi on their programmes ever since their inception, the present-day Sangh Parivar stumbled upon the powerful symbols of Ram, Ram Janmabhoomi and Babri Masjid only in the late 1980s. Throughout 1983, for instance, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), along with leaders of some 85 major sects of Hinduism, was drifting aimlessly with the Ekatmata Yagna (integration rite), which projected the picture of Bharatmata (Mother India) and the kalas (brass vessel) of "holy" water from different rivers.

In October 1984 the VHP tried to make the mosque-temple question a national issue through its Sri Rama Janma Bhoomi Mukti Yajna Samiti. The Samiti was formed on July 27, 1984 with the sole aim of "liberating" the disputed site. A 130-kilometre march was started on October 8, 1984 from Ayodhya to Lucknow, the State capital. The yatra (march) participants reached Lucknow on October 14, organised a public meeting, and called on the Chief Minister "to fulfil the long outstanding demand of the Hindus." The next day a "Sri Rama Janaki Ratha" (Ram-Sita chariot) began to tour major U.P. towns so as to mobilise public opinion and to administer a "Janmasthan Mukti Pledge" to the public. Although the "ratha" reached Delhi on October 31 to join a "Hindu Convention" on November 2, Indira Gandhi's assassination forced the cancellation of the programme.21

As the Shah Bano controversy22 was raging across India in late 1985, the District and Sessions Judge of Faizabad, K. M. Pandey, ordered that the locks of the mosque be opened, and he indirectly allowed the priests to enter it. The padlocks were removed on the order of the District Judge on February 1, 1986. After giving in to Muslim fundamentalism on the Shah Bano case, the Rajiv Gandhi Government was keen on playing the "Hindu card" for presumed electoral gains. N. Ram contends that the assurances given to the Hindu communalists before the court decision and the failure to appeal against the order revealed the collusive hand of Rajiv Gandhi's Government.23 An explosive situation emerged almost all over the country with Muslims protesting and VHP elements celebrating and criticising the "Muslim objection to the judicial order on the Babri Masjid." Rajiv Gandhi's Minister for Wakf, Rajindra Kumari Bajpai, advised Muslims to "take recourse to law and not to create disturbance." 24

The Sangh Parivar's "National Thinkers Conferences", organised in various places across the country in 1987, and the Bharatiya Janata Party's Palampur Resolution of June 1989 consolidated the Ayodhya movement. The most critical stage of the conflict, however, was the build-up to the 1989 elections, which witnessed the preparation and mobilisation to demolish the mosque and build a Ram temple with consecrated bricks brought from all over India and other countries. As N. Ram points out, just a few days before the 1989 general elections, the desperate Rajiv Gandhi regime allowed the VHP to perform shilanyas (laying of the foundation stone) for the Ram temple on November 9, 1989 on the disputed land which was temporarily declared to be undisputed. This action boosted the VHP-BJP-RSS combine to advance its Ram Janmabhoomi campaign through changes of regime.25

The November 22-24, 1989 general elections witnessed the worst ever communal violence in independent India's electoral history and took a massive toll of 800 lives in the Hindi belt. V. P. Singh became Prime Minister with the support of the BJP, which won 88 seats in the new Lok Sabha. The V. P. Singh regime ushered in the judicial process by getting a special Bench established at the Allahabad High Court on January 8, 1990 and pleading for a ban on construction until the title to the disputed site could be decided and the site plan approved. The Special Court called upon the U.P. Government to clarify the status of the site. A Hindu priest filed a writ petition seeking permission to construct the temple at the spot of the shilanyas that was performed on November 9, 1989. Having been directed by the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court to file a counter-affidavit, the Central Government maintained that no construction could be allowed unless all the civil suits pending before the special bench of the High Court were decided.26

On January 12, 1990, the Supreme Court allowed the "Hindu" representatives to raise a preliminary issue before the full Bench of the High Court that the suit by the Sunni Waqf on behalf of Muslims was not maintainable. The Bench, however, decided that it would not interfere with the October 23, 1989 order of the Lucknow Bench before taking evidence for the trial of all the five suits which were 28 to 39 years old in their pendency in the District Court. The VHP appealed to the Supreme Court that the Sunni Waqf suit filed on December 18, 1961 be dismissed on the grounds it cited.

Meanwhile, the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee (AIBMAC) revived its earlier demand made at its December 25, 1989 meeting that if a negotiated settlement failed, the dispute should be decided by High Court judges "of some South Indian State, none of whom should be either Hindu or Muslim." The RSS mouthpiece, Organiser of January 14, 1990 took exception to this revived claim and V. P. Singh's meeting with Muslim leaders and claimed that it "was not a case about the title of a place but of undoing a historical wrong and for that matter no court could decide it." They would rather follow the guidance of the Dharmacharya Sammelan (gathering of religious heads) to be held on January 27-28, 1990 at Allahabad.27

The "auspicious" February 14 was chosen to begin temple construction, and V.P. Singh managed with great difficulty to get the date changed by pointing out the grave situation in Kashmir and Punjab. As the Hindutva groups' June 8 deadline passed without any settlement plan from the Government, the VHP meeting in Hardwar decided to begin construction from October 30.

With this backdrop, V. P. Singh introduced the reservation bill in the Lok Sabha on August 7, 1990 and "upper caste" Hindus rose in revolt. With Brahmin youth immolating themselves in northern India, L.K. Advani set out in September on his 10,000-km "rath yatra" (chariot procession) to carry out the Ayodhya construction and to force the Government to hand over the site to the Hindutva forces. When Advani and his cohorts were arrested in Bihar on October 23, the BJP withdrew its support to the Government and the V. P. Singh Ministry fell on November 9.

Chandra Shekhar, who was Prime Minister from November 1990 to early March 1991, made a breakthrough by bringing both the VHP and the AIBMAC to the negotiating table. Representatives of the two organisations met first on December 1, 1990, presented the "evidence" of their sides to the Union Government on December 23, obtained copies of the "evidence" of the other side from the Government, and met again on January 10, 1991. At that meeting they decided to set up four committees of experts nominated by both parties to examine the historical and archeological evidence and revenue and legal records collected as evidence. The VHP released the summary of its "evidence" to the public, turned down the demand of the other side for more time to study and evaluate the "evidence" , and made it known that it was not interested in an amicable solution. 28

The ultimate stage of the conflict was the Narasimha Rao Government's inaction even after the virtual announcement by the Hindu communalists in late October 1992 of their plan to demolish the mosque.

As N. Ram puts it: "If there is one 'theory' that this devotee of drift has contributed to national political life, it is the non-secular rule of not opposing 'Hindu religious sentiment' under any circumstances and of avoiding 'confrontation' with the saffron gentry and their lay allies."29

According to P.V. Narasimha Rao's statement on Ayodhya, which he was not allowed to make in Parliament, about 70,000 kar sevaks (volunteers) had assembled at the Ram Katha Kunj for a public meeting and 500 sadhus and sants (religious figures) at the foundation terrace for pooja. Between 11.45 a.m. and 11.50 a.m. some 150 kar sevaks managed to break the cordon on the terrace and pelted stones at the police. About 1,000 kar sevaks broke into the Babri Masjid structure and some 80 of them managed to climb on the domes of the mosque and started demolishing them. In the meantime, they had damaged the outer boundary wall.

At around 12.20 p.m. about 25,000 kar sevaks had gathered in the complex and by 2.40 p.m. a crowd of 75,000 was surrounding the structure, and many in it were engaged in demolition.30 Cases were registered against Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati of the BJP (all of whom are now Ministers in the Union Government), Ashok Singhal and Vishnu Hari Dalmia of the VHP, and Vinay Katiyar of the Bajrang Dal. They were all arrested and remanded to judicial custody.

In an elusive statement on December 8, Advani retorted: "(When) an old structure which ceased to be a mosque over 50 years back is pulled down by a group of people exasperated by the tardiness of the judicial process, and the obtuseness and myopia of the executive, they are reviled by the President, the Vice-President and political parties as betrayers of the nation, destroyers of the Constitution and what not! ...I wish to caution the Government against this approach... Their pronouncements against kar sevaks are only strengthening the movement.31 Quite evidently, the Babri Masjid demolition was part of the Ayodhya movement.

The Narasimha Rao Government passed the Acquisition of Certain Areas at Ayodhya Act 1993, a belated measure that preserved the post-demolition status quo. The ordinance stipulated, among other things, that the disputed land would be handed over to a trust formed only after the promulgation of the Act. On October 24, 1994, the Supreme Court delivered its judgment on the presidential reference upholding the acquisition of the disputed 67 acres of land in Ayodhya and empowering the Government to delegate a trust to manage the property and to enable Hindus to worship in the makeshift temple on the basis of the "comparative user" principle (namely, Muslims were praying less often than Hindus in the disputed structure before demolition). However, the judgment struck down as unconstitutional Section 4(3) of the Ayodhya Act which abated any pending "suit, appeal or other proceeding". This decision revived the proceedings pending in the Allahabad High Court, which will decide if Muslims had the right to worship in the disputed area.32

S.P. Udayakumar is Research Associate and Co-Director of Programmes, Institute of Race and Poverty, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, United States.

1. See Gyanendra Pandey, "Ayodhya and the State," Seminar 364 (December 1989). p. 40.

2. M. J. Akbar, Riot After Riot: Reports on Caste and Communal Violence in India. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1988. p. 133.

3. In the Hindu cyclic theory of time, the cycle was called a kalpa equivalent to 4,320 million earthly years. The kalpa is divided into 14 periods; each of these periods is divided into 71 Great Intervals; and every GI is divided into four yugas (period of time), krutha, tretha, dwapara, and kali. The yugas contain 4,800, 3,600, 2,400, and 1,200 god-years (one god-year being 360 human years) with a corresponding decline in the quality of civilisation. We are at present in the seventh of the 14 periods of the present kalpa and in the fourth yuga called kaliyuga when the world is full of evil and wickedness. Although we have several millennia before the end of the world, it is nonetheless imminent. Romila Thapar, A History of India (Volume I). Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin, 1968. p. 161

4. "The Babri Masjid Dispute," Spotlight on Regional Affairs 10/7-8 (July-August 1991). p. 8.

5. Pandey, 1989, p. 40.

6. Thapar, 1968, p. 140.

7. Sher Singh, "What History Says About Ayodhya," in Asghar Ali Engineer, Babri-Masjid Ramjanmabhoomi Controversy. Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1990. pp. 79-80.

8. Spotlight on Regional Affairs, July-August 1991, pp. 7-9.

9. Jay Dubashi, The Road to Ayodhya. New Delhi: Voice of India, 1992. p. 57.

10. See "B. B. Lal's Report on Archaeology of Ramayana Sites Project," in Asghar Ali Engineer, Politics of Confrontation: The Babri-Masjid Ramjanmabhoomi Controversy Runs Riot. Delhi: Ajanta, 1992. pp. 268-9.

11. P. S. Sridhara Murthy, Rama, Ramayana and Babar. Bangalore: Dalit Sahitya Akademy, 1988. p. 30.

12. The excavated site has been filled in and a re-excavation of the same site has become very difficult as the filling has disturbed the sequential layers. See "On Archaeological Evidence of Demolition of 'Mandir': Joint Statement of Thapar, Gopal and Panikkar of JNU," in Engineer, 1992, pp. 273-4. See also "Romila Thapar on Archaeological Finding in Ayodhya," in ibid., pp. 277-8.

13. See Rajeev Saxena, "Tulsidas' Silence on Ram Mandir at Ayodhya," Mainstream, January 9, 1993. pp. 33-4.

14. Sushil Srivastava, The Disputed Mosque: A Historical Inquiry. New Delhi: Vistaar Publications, 1991. pp. 43-4.

15. K. L. Chanchreek and Saroj Prasad, eds., Crisis in India. Delhi: H. K. Publishers, 1993. p. 77.

16. See Akbar, 1988, pp. 126-134.

17. Harbans Mukhia, "Ayodhya Dispute: Historical Evidence and BJP's Aim," in Engineer, 1992, p. 19.

18. Akbar, 1988, pp. 126-134.

19. J. C. Aggarwal and N. K. Chowdhry, Ram Janmabhoomi Through the Ages: Babri Masjid Controversy. New Delhi: S. Chand & Company Ltd., 1991. pp. 81-2.

20. Srivastava, 1991, p. 17.

21. "Vishwa Hindu Parishad's Liberation Agitation," in Asghar Ali Engineer, ed., Babri-Masjid Ramjanmabhoomi Controversy. Delhi: Ajanta, 1990. pp. 228-30.

22. When the Supreme Court ruled that the divorce of a Muslim woman, Shah Bano, on the basis of Islamic custom was not valid, it gave rise to anger and resentment among Muslim groups. In May 1986, the Rajiv Gandhi Government introduced the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill in order to please and retain its Muslim vote bank.

23. N. Ram, "The Great Catastrophe", Frontline, January 1, 1993. p. 23.

24. "Events of February 1986-Seizure of Babri Masjid," in Engineer, 1990, pp. 201-4.

25. N. Ram, 1993, p. 23.

26. Spotlight on Regional Affairs, July-August 1991, pp. 82, 85-6.

27. Ibid., pp. 86-8.

28. The VHP gives its own account of the talks in History Versus Casuistry: Evidence of the Ramjanmabhoomi Mandir Presented by the Vishva Hindu Parishad to the Government of India in December-January 1990-91. New Delhi: Voice of India, 1991. pp. i-iv. For the VHP's evidence, see pp. 1-75. A member of the VHP team engaged in the dialogue with the AIBMAC, Harsh Narain, has come up with more "evidence"'from Muslim historical sources for the alleged "existence and desecration" of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple and its replacement with the Babri mosque. See Harsh Narain, The Ayodhya Temple-Mosque Dispute: Focus on Muslim Sources. Delhi: Penman Publishers, 1993.

29. N. Ram, "Hindutva's Challenge," Seminar 402 (February 1993). p. 25.

30. Chanchreek and Prasad, 1993, p. 109.

31. ibid., p. 250. For the official stand of the BJP, see BJP's White Paper on Ayodhya and the Rama Temple Movement. New Delhi: BJP, 1993.

32. Christophe Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. pp. 544-46.

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