Ayodhya and the challenge to equality 

In elections to three State Assemblies of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh late last year, candidates of the Muslim faith won 11 of the 520 seats in play. That would seem a modest tally, by no means evidence of disproportionate political influence.

The myth of a pampered minority, though, refuses to die. On the campaign trail last November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused the Congress party of pressuring Supreme Court judges, on pain of impeachment, to delay a final decision on the Ayodhya title suit. The charge stems from a lineage of propaganda invented by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which holds the Congress guilty of the cynical politics of Muslim appeasement.

Secularism in India has been variously characterised, though few of these have done justice to the vigour with which the issue was debated in the Constituent Assembly. In the aftermath of Partition, seen as the outcome of the community-based template of political competition introduced under British rule, secularism was an article of faith across the ideological spectrum, though only in a limited definition as a seamless sense of national identity.

A superfluity

Minority representation was discussed at length and set aside as a superfluity. There was no case for assured representation on communal lines, since the guarantees of equality before the law and access to public services and employment would ensure fair outcomes for all.

Ananthasayanam Ayyangar put it thus, addressing an interlocutor from the minority community in the Constituent Assembly: “I am a Hindu and if you allow me to represent you, I will come to you at least every four (sic) years. Similarly a Muslim man can come to Hindus. Ultimately, we will all come together.” For Sardar Patel, the possibility of both separate communal electorates and assured representation was unthinkable, no less than an incentive for certain citizens to “exclude” themselves and “remain perpetually in a minority”.

Equality embraced the right to be different, though not a difference in rights. Exceptions would be granted only where classes of citizens were known to have suffered a deficit of social and cultural capital on account of discrimination through history. The construct of a “minority” segued into a notion of social and educational backwardness, remediable over generations through procedures of affirmative action.

These were formulations steeped in unwitting upper caste privilege, a sense that the Constituent Assembly — elected on a very narrow franchise and voided of its more eloquent minority spokespersons by Partition — spoke for a true nationalism at risk of dilution by sectarian demands.

A narrower identity

In the real world of dislocation and trauma, Partition witnessed a number of local vigilante efforts to inscribe a narrower identity on the incipient nation. The surreptitious introduction of idols into the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, where a dispute over building rights on an adjacent site had simmered since the late19th century, was one such act, though by no means the only one.

It is on record that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote insistently to the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh at the time, Govind Ballabh Pant, insisting that the idols smuggled into the Babri Masjid should be removed. Less known is his suggestion in a 1949 letter to the Minister, Mehr Chand Khanna, of a wider problem involving the expropriation of a number of Muslim places of worship.

Nehru’s insistence on the reversal of these intrusions gradually receded from the attention span of governments at the State and local levels. Ayodhya, like numerous other incidents from the time, would have faded into the distant recesses of memory had not the politics of waning upper caste hegemony and the decline of the Congress provided occasion for it to spark back to life.

If equality was a constitutional promise impossible to reconcile with upper caste hegemony, identity was a serviceable alternative. From about the 1980s, the seamless spirit of the Indian nation that was so much a concern of the Constituent Assembly, gave way, at least in electoral competition, to the construct of a nation of multiple identities, contending for influence over the whole.

The U.P. strategy

From its birth in the 1980s, the Ayodhya campaign has been a metaphor for a minority faith’s disenfranchisement. And nowhere is this story told more eloquently than in India’s largest State, Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims constitute over 19% of the total population, and hold a mere 24 seats in a 403 member Legislative Assembly. This tally from the 2017 election is the lowest since 1991, when Muslim representation in a somewhat larger State Assembly, prior to the hill districts being hived off, stood at 21.

That year, when the BJP first won power in U.P., marked the prelude to the climactic act of destruction at Ayodhya. But political energies were spent once the offending 16th century monument was effaced. The BJP was unable to mobilise the same fervour in elections that followed, never gaining a majority of its own till the sweep of 2017.

Analysis by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, at Sonipat’s Ashoka University, shows that the BJP’s electoral strategy in U.P. was built on a 60 versus 40 calculation. With Muslims and two other caste groupings — Yadavs and Jatavs — making up roughly 40% of the State’s electorate, the BJP strategy targeted the remaining 60%. Key to the BJP’s sweep of the U.P. elections was its success in drawing in a critical mass of votes from strata that had reason to feel aggrieved at their exclusion from the dominant coalitions shaping politics post-Ayodhya.

Too loose a standard

The endless turmoil caused by Ayodhya compels a reexamination of other fundamentals of the Constitution. Articles 27 and 28 have been read as reproducing, though in a weaker fashion, the guarantee of secular statecraft of the U.S. First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of any religion by law.

Though the Indian state is enjoined to neutrality, religion is allowed an active role in the public sphere under Article 25, which assures every citizen the freedom to “profess, practise and propagate” any faith.

By definition, every religion enters the fray with a claim to universality; no religion is willing to accept a domain of application limited in time and space. The unfettered exercise of Article 25 rights in this sense puts the general will at risk of being bent to a majoritarian assertion. The restraint of “public order” mandated by the Constitution is too loose a standard to prevent the intrusion into politics of religious majoritarianism.

In his recent book, A People’s Constitution, Rohit De speaks of how in the early years of Indian independence, “electoral minorities”, i.e., communities of caste and religion that were unlikely to “represent themselves through electoral democracy”, were overrepresented in litigation invoking the writ jurisdiction of newly established constitutional courts. Clearly, the Ayodhya petition claiming the restitution of a monument commandeered in the name of another faith was one such instance.

With electoral compulsions now acquiring increasing urgency, the BJP government has demanded that the Supreme Court unfetter a large part of the land held in trust pending a final settlement of the case. Party spokesmen have also mused aloud about issuing an ordinance as an act of executive will to preempt an adverse judicial finding. This attempt to dismantle the last remaining restraint to the majoritarian will is sure to fuel a new fervour in the upcoming general election, putting further pressure on the institutions of governance and challenging their capacity to uphold constitutional integrity.

Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 11:26:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/ayodhya-and-the-challenge-to-equality/article26196687.ece

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