Harsh Mander

Barefoot: Battle for the idea of India

On a winter morning in 1992, a frenzied mob of young men assaulted and triumphantly razed the three domes of a medieval mosque. I wept then, as did large numbers of my countrymen and women. Eighteen years later, the three judges of the Special Full Bench of the Allahabad High Court, hearing a 60-year-old title suit over this bitterly contested property, could have corrected these immense wrongs, and restored to Indian public life principles of justice, secular democracy and rationality. But they have failed us comprehensively.

Today once again I feel dismayed and betrayed. And again I am not alone.

The campaign demanding that a grand Ram Temple should be built on the site in Ayodhya where the Babri Masjid stood is often understood to be a clash between Hindus and Muslims. There is indeed no such clash, and there never has been. It has always been a dispute between two alternate visions of India; between Hindutva and secularism; between a minority of persons unreconciled to the secular democratic idea of India, and the majority of Indians of every faith who believe in and live this idea.

The vision of India developed during the freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi was of a free country which would be a safe, tolerant and egalitarian home to people of every major religion in the world. It would be respectful of people's right to their religious convictions, and to propagate their beliefs. But the State and all its institutions would not have any religion; instead the State would be fair and just to persons regardless of their religious beliefs. The majority of Indians, of all creeds, have remained faithful to this idea of India in the six decades of freedom. This is reflected in the ways they vote, and in the secular democratic Constitution that the people of India gave to themselves.

Interrogating the Constitution

But organisations and political parties which were opposed to this vision invented a powerful symbol with their campaign to build a temple at the site of the mosque in Ayodhya. This was a battle for the idea of India itself. It prised open again the question about the terms on which people of minority faiths would have to relate to cultural domination of the religious Hindu majority. It interrogated the guarantees of the Indian Constitution, which pledged equal rights and equal protection of all persons, regardless of their religious persuasion.

The disputed claim of Hindus to the land on which the mosque stood is based starkly on two acts — one of stealth and the other of naked aggression — and on the alleged ‘faith' of the majority. For 500 years, Muslim people had worshipped routinely in the Babri Mosque, built in 1528 by Mir Baqi, general of Mughal emperor Babar. Hindus worshipped at the Ram Chabootra in the open area adjacent to the mosque, in a spirit of mutual communal goodwill. In 1949, overnight, statues of the deity Ram were placed surreptitiously in the mosque under its central dome. A furious Nehru directed the District Magistrate Nayyar and Chief Minister G.B. Pant to have these removed, but they desisted. (Nayyar significantly later resigned from the ICS and became an MP of the Jan Sangh, predecessor to the BJP).

It was then that Hindus began to worship for the first time within the mosque, and Muslims stopped prayer because of court directions. Civil suits were filed, the gates locked, but Hindu worship continued (in contravention of court orders). In 1988, Hindutva organisations led by the RSS organised the largest mass campaign in post-Independence India. 200,000 bricks from around villages and towns country-wide were consecrated and transported, for building a grand temple exactly where the mosque stood. They claimed that the mosque stood at the precise site where Ram was born, and that Emperor Babar had destroyed a Ram Temple to build a mosque there. ‘National honour' required the demolition of the mosque, to correct this historical affront.

Poisoning relationships

I was serving in districts in Madhya Pradesh at that time, and witnessed first-hand the sudden and precipitous decline in communal relations that this movement accomplished, by capturing the popular Hindu imagination with hate for the ‘other', ‘foreign', ‘aggressing' community of Muslims, symbolised in the mosque. Each procession of bricks was charged with aggressive slogans of hate and the display of naked weapons. BJP leader L.K. Advani journeyed on a Rath Yatra across India. Fear and rioting followed in the trail of both the bricks and Advani's Yatra. For 15 years, India was transformed into a country divided by hate on religious grounds. The movement climaxed in the demolition of the mosque in 1992 by a rampaging mob, applauded by leaders of the BJP who were swept to power in state and central governments; and in gruesome communal blood-letting, including in Mumbai and Gujarat.

Eighteen years after the demolition, the Allahabad High Court has concluded that the mosque was indeed located at the site of Ram's birth, and that the mosque was built at the site of a temple which preceded it. Justice Agarwal ruled that the ‘area covered under the central dome of the disputed structure is the birthplace of Lord Rama as per faith and belief of Hindus'. Justice Sharma was even more categorical that ‘the disputed site is the birthplace of Lord Ram'.

It is utterly extraordinary that the Court passed judgement not on the basis of material fact and evidence, but on questionable belief of faith. What is more, even this ‘belief' is not held universally by all Hindus. In Ayodhya itself, there are hundreds of temples which claim to be the place where Ram was born. Tulsidas, author of Ramcharit Manas, was an adult at the time when the Babri Mosque was built, and he never mentioned that this was the site at which Ram was born. The ‘faith and belief' referred to by the Judges is not of Hindus but of Hindutva organisations that subscribe to an alternate political ideology of a theological Hindu India, that contravenes the Indian Constitution.

The Judges rely on questionable archaeological evidence collected when the BJP was in power in 2003, and contradicted by most independent historians, to conclude that the mosque was built at the site of a temple. But the issue of whether a temple existed in ancient times at the site was irrelevant while adjudicating a title suit according to modern law, and not medieval sentiment.

Sense of injustice

I am amazed by commentators who endorse the judgement as balanced and just. They recommend ‘moving on', failing to acknowledge that closure is impossible until justice is seen to be done. It is true that this case was not fixing criminal liability, but its rulings endorse ideologically all the major premises of the Ram Temple movement. On grounds of dubious history and ‘ faith', and adverse possession derived by deceit and aggression, the Judges awarded title of the land under the central dome of the demolished mosque to Hindus to construct a Ram temple. The war cry of the movement for the Ram Temple was ‘Mandir wahin banayenge' (‘We will build the temple at that very spot'.) With this judgement, a movement which challenged India's secular Constitution and took hundreds of lives, and fostered fear and hate, has triumphed.

I believe we have lost this battle, but will not — cannot — lose the war. I celebrate that young people who were not yet born, or were children when this movement was at its peak, today refuse to be mobilised in medieval hate campaigns. But it is not enough for them to be apolitical. There is too much at stake. They must ask again — and answer — the questions with which those who fought for our freedom grappled. Is this to be equally a nation for all? Or are some destined to become and remain children of a lesser god?

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 6:08:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Harsh_Mander/Barefoot-Battle-for-the-idea-of-India/article13375267.ece

Next Story