Respecting our multicultural heritage

We cannot afford backward-looking or unidimensional narratives that cannot really capture India's sensational success story as an economy and as a democratic republic.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:44 pm IST

Published - October 04, 2010 12:17 am IST

Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, being demolished on December 6, 1992.

Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, being demolished on December 6, 1992.

It is to the credit of India's mature civil society and political system that despite the contentious nature of the Ayodhya judgment which ordinarily might have activated the usual fault lines and sparked communal tensions, the aftermath has been remarkably peaceful. It would appear that the exhortations by political and community leaders to ensure that the Ayodhya dispute was seen as past baggage that needed to be speedily put away and that “India has moved on from 1992” have had real effect on our collective consciousness.

The horrifying story of the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992 by Hindu chauvinist vandals who sought to preempt a judicial resolution of the ownership of the disputed Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site on which the 500-year-old mosque stood, by reducing it to rubble, was one of the darkest chapters in our history. It also severely dented India's image as a pluralist democracy committed to the secular character of its public space.

Fortunately, with the phenomenon of Hindu cultural nationalism receding from the centre of India's political discourse in recent years, it has become possible to rebuild the faith of minority communities in the capacity of India's political and judicial system to deliver justice. The Supreme Court's direction in March 2008 to set up a special investigation team to probe afresh a bunch of cases pertaining to the 2002 post-Godhra riots in Gujarat was a significant intervention. It signalled to the minority communities that the judiciary would strive to uphold the principles of the rule of law and equality before the law as mandated by the Indian Constitution.

A major reason for the retreat of Hindu cultural nationalism in recent years is the recognition by large sections of the Indian middle classes that the aspiration to make India a power to reckon with globally in terms of economic clout would require an underpinning of a secular public culture in which personal identities are consciously subdued. It is also clear that this aspiration, in which many young Indians have invested their hopes and dreams, requires a national narrative scripted in an idiom of modernity.

Religious clashes drawing upon imagery of tridents battling crescents are clearly out of place in this unfolding narrative which requires an emphasising of identity as an Indian citizen rather than any other affiliation. This is why the recent Ayodhya judgment with its implied reaffirmation of concepts that have no place in a modern democracy founded on the rule of law is deeply unsettling.

It has opened the backdoor for the return of the Hindu cultural nationalist narrative with its strong majoritarian political overtones. A judicial pronouncement which includes an assertion that “the disputed site is the birthplace of Lord Ram” and that “the place of birth is a juristic person and is a deity” not only admits Hindu mythology into the public arena but also accepts unquestioningly the claim that the disputed site is indeed the Ayodhya mentioned in the Ramayana epic, belongs more in a theocracy than in a modern democracy.

Also reinforcing the impression of theocratic overtones was the observation by the special Bench of the Allahabad High Court that the portion under the central dome of the three-dome structure of the demolished mosque where the idol of Ram Lalla had been placed was the birthplace of Lord Rama “as per faith and belief of the Hindus”.

As leading historian Romila Thapar has pointed out in this newspaper (October 2) “the verdict has created a precedent in the court of law that land can be claimed by declaring it to be the birthplace of a divine or semi-divine being worshipped by a group that defines itself as a community.” Noting that the deliberate destruction of the medieval mosque found no mention in the summary of the verdict, Dr. Thapar has also expressed concern that “there will now be many such janmasthans wherever appropriate property can be found or a required dispute manufactured.”

This is the core of the Hindu cultural majoritarian challenge to India's democratic framework. The rallying of mass sentiment on the Ayodhya issue, which hinged on the metaphor of Ramjanmabhoomi, essentially utilises Hindu sacred geography to build a political movement around religious pilgrimage centres. Ayodhya, Mathura, Varanasi, are metaphors designed to evoke primordial religious fervour and channelise this into a political movement. By making Hindu sacred geography the landscape on which the Indian nation is to be imagined, it becomes much easier to exclude those who are not Hindus and render them second class citizens.

The second premise of Hindu cultural majoritarianism that had perhaps unwittingly been given credibility by the Ayodhya judgment is the fallacious concept of prior antiquity. The sharply contested findings of the Archaeological Survey of India's excavations suggesting the ruins of a 10th century temple lay underneath the mosque's rubble, a point repeatedly highlighted by the Hindutva temple agitation, have been given credence by two judges of the Special Bench who observed that the mosque was built after the demolition of a temple.

Given that the Babri Masjid had been razed to the ground precisely to avenge an act presumed to have been done centuries ago, to provide any link in juridical terms between the ruins of the temple, the razed mosque and the proposed temple of the future, would be setting a dangerous precedent in a democracy governed by modern civil laws. Basically, the idea that shrines existing today can be knocked down on the basis of unproven claims that they stand on the ruins of temples destroyed centuries ago is to suggest that prior antiquity of shrines, even if not really proven, can be a ground to tear down present day structures.

It was the Narasimha Rao administration which had first given respectability to the Hindu cultural majoritarian argument that if the prior antiquity of a temple's existence could be established, it would be sufficient ground to insist that the mosque be shifted from the contested place. This specious concept which seemed to have no time bar and could span over centuries was placed on the agenda of the negotiations between the VHP and the Babri Masjid Action Committee that were held under the aegis of the Prime Minister's Office. The saving grace was the Supreme Court's refusal in 1993 to legitimise this line of inquiry. It categorically rejected the Presidential reference put to it under Article 143 on this issue of whether a temple pre-existed a mosque or not, thereby ensuring that this idea lost all credibility as a point in the negotiations.

Ayodhya as an issue appeared to dwarf all other concerns in the agenda of Hindu cultural nationalists because it became a point of competitive contestation between the Congress and the BJP. Since 1986, by a series of gestures intended to rally a vote-bank of Hindu voters, the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi gave substantive credibility to the temple agitation. Of course it was the BJP and L.K. Advani whose Rath Yatra pitchforked the Ayodhya issue into the public spotlight, which made the temple issue the centre piece of the resurgence of Hindu cultural nationalism in the 1990s.

It is possible to argue that Ayodhya is an exception, particularly so because of its historical circumstances, and that the momentum has ebbed from the political tide of Hindu cultural nationalism and that the issue is indeed moving to closure, even if it goes to the Supreme Court. It is also heartening that there is the Places of Worship Act (1993) which is a strong legal bulwark against similar disputes erupting over other existing shrines elsewhere in the country.

Yet what we need to guard against is the reemergence of a narrative that harks back to an imagined past and draws from cultural and mythological traditions of a particular community. This is not to suggest that in our own homes and in the private sphere, we do not have a right to celebrate our own cultural or religious identities. The danger manifests when we assert that these identities have political rights attached to them.

The ascendancy of cultural majoritarianism and its attendant narrative would only be at the expense of the entitlement of every Indian citizen to have equal cultural space in India's democratic framework. For those of us who take pride in the idea of India as a rising power, we cannot afford backward-looking or unidimensional narratives that cannot really capture India's sensational success story as an economy and as a democratic republic. We must script a new narrative that puts the Indian citizen in the forefront as its central protagonist.

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