Exactly 30 years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the Gyanvapi mosque dispute offers less déjà vu and more striking contrasts in the two scenarios. Like architecture distinguishes clearly between rubble and ruin, we must look clearly at the differences between the Ayodhya matter then and the dispute over Varanasi’s Gyanvapi mosque in 2022 now. The differences are stark.
There is an Act now
The first dissimilarity is the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 which did not exist when the political movement for Ayodhya caught steam. Also, Ayodhya was out of its ambit. The Supreme Court verdict in 2019 went on to underline the importance of the 1991 Act in 10 pages (pages 116-125) and how it “protects and secures the fundamental values of the Constitution”. Agreeing with the rationale of the law, the five-judge Bench said; “The Places of Worship Act imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism under the Indian Constitution.”
In not framing the matter in the letter and spirit of its own order just three years ago, and instead, trying to ‘balance’, the law and its interpreters are enabling a significant and worrying change in India. It is not a Babri moment, as Babri was to be an exception with the law applicable to all other such matters. If this goes on, it will open a Pandora’s box. Similar and multiple cases are bound to begin mushrooming; the plea to remove Mathura’s Shahi Idgah and dig around the Qutub Minar have reached the courts. As Sarvepalli Gopal writes in the introduction to Anatomy of a Confrontation, such conflicts bring into “sharp focus since 1947, a sickness which free India has not been able to shake off”. If the idea of the 1991 Act was to insulate the Republic from the implications of Babri, allowing the Varanasi issue gain momentum suggests exacerbating the “sickness”. The intention was to draw a line under 1947 and bring quietus after the Ayodhya dispute. Thirty years on, despite witnessing the ruptures that Babri led to, if Gyanvapi is allowed to fester, it would signal that India is re-opening issues that the Constitution had settled. That can only signal more upheaval.
An institutional collapse
What also distinguishes the present moment from Ayodhya is the state of India’s institutions. What separates democracy from a mobocracy is the presence of modern institutions. It is only through their independent functioning that the promise of the Constitution is honoured. The job of independent institutions in a democracy is to keep asking questions of the executive and ensure that it acts in accordance with the Constitution it has sworn by. But India has seen a dramatic decline in institutional independence. This decline underlies India’s sharp democratic backslide. India is classified as an ‘electoral autocracy’ (V-Dem Institute), ‘partly free’ (Freedom House), scores ‘at the level of 1975’ when a formal Emergency was in place (International IDEA) and it is now among the 30 worst countries of 180, as far as freedom of the press goes (RSF). The World Values Survey and the Pew Research Center tell us that it is in India that support for civil rights as a feature of democracy and even democracy has fallen the most, since 2015. In such times, if Gyanvapi was to be a start of something else, then there would not even be counter-pressures from institutions like 30 years ago. The Justice J.S. Verma report, (when he was National Human Rights Commission chairman) about violence in 2002 is unimaginable today.
Another difference from 1992 is that economic liberalisation had yet to play itself out then. It was an ‘old India’ if fans of liberalisation are to be believed. There was a view that altered economics would help destroy India’s regressive social mores. This was touted as the big change — post the Berlin Wall and post the Soviet Union — that general economic uplift would deal a death blow to old identity issues and liberate its people. But 30 years on, the promise of quick economic progress has not been able to fell identity politics. Considerable academic research would nudge us in the opposite direction. A hardened and narrower understanding of identity politics has gripped the world. Today, well after liberalisation has resulted in more economic inequality and record levels of concentration of wealth and cronyism, India finds itself asking fraught questions with ferocity. The economic crisis facing India today, apart from steep and widening inequalities, also has grim unemployment figures to reckon with. None of the expectations that the 1990s held for India — whether imagined or real — are now in the air. Gyanvapi being fanned now would do so in a world where the hopes of economic liberalisation as a panacea are behind it and the fortuitous global conditions of the early 1990s are not there.
Ideological, not just political
There was a strong political incentive behind the mass movement and the Rath yatra that propelled the Ayodhya issue onto centrestage in the late 1980s. It yielded durable benefits to the political party which led it. Currently, to see it as mere instrumentalism would be missing the significance of what 2022 is about. With two successive electoral majorities, this is not about distracting the voter from the state of the economy or noise to garner support for elections. This is part of a core ideological belief of the ruling dispensation. Ideally, it would want courts to just award it to majoritarian mobs, minus a mass movement or mobilisation. For the ruling regime, this path is not seen as a crisis but as part of a desired end. So it is unlikely that the government in office will feel compelled to tell off mobs and people who are raising issues, long thought settled.
The opening up of Gyanvapi is not about history. Indian history is too complex to be reduced to a two-dimensional Hindu versus Muslim framing. For thousands of years, India has been witness to a spectrum of stories of both coexistence and conflict; Shaivites facing off with Vaishnavites, Brahmins making a case against Shramans, Buddhists and Jains versus everyone else and disputes across many more lines. Events here were not very different from how medieval Christianity and Islam played out. The Gyanvapi dispute is about reclamation and is central to the larger supremacist project. This cannot be divorced from frenetic name-changing, the anti-conversion and cattle laws, lynchings, changes in official history, amped up hate on mass media and other bids to scrub out Muslims and distort India’s rich past.
Well before Islam found its way to Kodungallur (Kerala) or came across the Hindukush, India was a place with complex inter-community ties between various sects and people who called it home. It is an established historical fact that multiple migrations made India. As Firaq Gorakhpuri (also known as Prof. Raghupati Sahay) said: “Sar zamin-e-Hind par aqwam-e-aalam ke, Firaq, Kafile aate rahe aur Hindustan banta gaya (Many caravans came into these parts and went onto constitute India)”. The year 1950, with Indian composite nationalism at the centre, was a far-sighted attempt at drawing a line under a million mutinies, especially after 1947.
India’s Constitution offered everyone emancipation. Ideological predecessors of the present regime made no bones about not sharing those values and believed in India as a nation-for-Hindus only, in the mirror image of what Muslim separatists managed to secure with Pakistan. Eight years after 2014, it has been hard for the Government to claim brownie points globally for being ‘exceptional’, as bad news of events on the ground have been hard to keep hidden. As ‘exceptionalism’ gets sucked out and India unspools into being known as another South Asian ethnic supremacist venture, it can only shrink the India story, and certainly not help it achieve ‘greatness’.
A road versus alley
It is possible that because we now have the benefit of hindsight from 1992, we choose differently. But that would mean for the ruling party and followers, to jettison Golwalkar’s objective for non-Hindus; “claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizen’s rights” (Golwalkar, We, or Our Nationhood Defined, 1939: page 62). Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Godse’s hate and violence, must be loudly denounced again by those who have political power. The path of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Sunni Muslim nationalism in Pakistan, Sinhalese supremacism or Myanmar’s journey must serve as a warning and not a manual for India. Gyanvapi, which means the ‘fount of knowledge’ or wisdom, offers a choice now. We could pull back and take a long sip. Thirty years after Babri Masjid, we know the dark alley the other option leads to. It may be far too narrow a path for India to quickly reverse out of.
Seema Chishti is a journalist based in Delhi