India’s plural soul

An assassination, a demolition and a portrait’s unveiling together spelt the polarisation of India

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:24 pm IST

Published - December 06, 2017 12:02 am IST

The partitioning of India broke us, shamed us. It is estimated that nearly two million were slaughtered during the weeks around Partition, almost no Muslim surviving in East Punjab and no Hindu or Sikh in West Punjab. About 7.5 million Muslims left India for the newly formed state of Pakistan and about 7.5 million Hindus trekked to the new India from Pakistan. Both sets of displaced persons were seeking the security of a religious majority, their majority.

Gandhi’s scorching presence, the new government’s unwavering commitment to pluralism and the humanity of millions of ordinary people saved the tragedy from becoming a cataclysm.

The triptych of an agenda

After that traumatic year, three dates, three events, shook Indian pluralism again. Gandhi’s assassination — January 30, 1948; the Babri Masjid demolition — December 6, 1992, and the unveiling of V.D. Savarkar’s portrait in Parliament House — February 26, 2003

The first of these three saw a believer in the criticality of India’s pluralism being put to death. The second witnessed a pre-eminent Islamic monument reduced to rubble. The third valorised a man who believed India was meant to be a Hindu Rashtra. The first was murder, the second vandalism, the third a celebration.

Those three form a triptych.

All three occurrences singed India’s plural soul.

Their “work” is still on. It is still affecting ways of thinking, acting, reacting.

The assassination was a carefully planned plot by people who owed allegiance to the concept of a Hindu Rashtra. Its aim was threefold: punish, by murder, one who believed India to be the home of all the faith traditions in it, reverse Gandhi’s idea of “Ishvar Allah Tere Naam”, pronounce the primacy and power of Hinduism in India. It was meant to tell the Muslims of India that they were here by leave of the Hindus and that all talk of Hindu-Muslim unity and equality was sentimental and meaningless.

Gandhi’s killing traumatised the country. It devastated Muslims in India. Who would, hereafter, be its rakhvala (protector)? Nehru said that evening: “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.” For India’s Muslims who had said “no” to Pakistan and stayed back in India because they had faith in Gandhi’s India, that darkness was real. Along with the light, the oxygen of confidence in the air fled, too.

Several years and countless Hindu-Muslim riots later, the unhealed wound on India’s plural ethos was violently cut open once again.

Another dateline

Ayodhya, December 6, 1992 is a dateline, a hate-line, a fate-line.

Babri Masjid, the 16th century mosque was built spitefully, it is said, on the exact spot in Ayodhya, where Rama was born. In fact, the pious say, a temple stood where the mosque came up. The mosque had, over the years, become a contested site, a Hindu v Muslim akhara. And on that day, Hindu muscle power asserted itself. Watched by unwitting, unsure or captive seniors of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and with a police force unable or unwilling to intervene, 1,50,000 delirious Hindu kar sevaks brought the mosque down.

In the rubble lay all hope for Hindu-Muslim concord. In it lay shattered Muslim trust in India’s secular future. And in it lay tattered, the Constitution’s guarantees about the freedom of religious belief.

The broken stones said more: Here rises, at long last, they proclaimed, Veer Savarkar’s dream of a Hindu Rashtra.

India partitioned was now India polarised.

Savarkar’s spirit must have felt more than fulfilled.

Moving over to Parliament

A decade later, the BJP in power at the Centre, decided that for Savarkar’s fulfilment to be complete, due ceremony was in order. It decided to place in Parliament House’s Central Hall, along with portraits of the Greats of India’s freedom struggle, a portrait of this freedom fighter as well. Savarkar was, of course, a fighter for India’s freedom. On his terms, in his own light. With Mohammed Ali Jinnah, also a freedom fighter according to his own terms and his own lights, Savarkar believed that Hindus and Muslims formed Two Nations. Jinnah realised his goal with Partition. Savarkar did not, could not, for India insisted, through its Constitution, its laws and public policy pronouncements, that it was secular. Asoka’s Lion Capital was, after all, the Republic of India’s new emblem.

Savarkar’ dream remained un-realised until the unveiling of the portrait. That completed the triptych.

The unveiling in Parliament House did three things. First, it placed against the Indian Republic a conceptual alternative — Hindu Rashtra. Second, it made demolition the exact co-relative of construction. Third, it made Veer Savarkar, the precise opposite number of Mahatma Gandhi. And thereby, his peer, alternative and equal. It juxtaposed the Two Nations theorist against the One Nation preceptor.

An agenda at work

The assassination, the demolition and the portrait’s unveiling, together, go to spell a long word with a short agenda: polarisation.

The ghastly terrorist attacks in Mumbai of 1993, in Parliament House of 2001 and again in Mumbai in 2008 may or may not have been retaliatory for Ayodhya. I believe the attacks would have happened, Ayodhya or no Ayodhya. For such is the blind bloodlust of terror, such the radicalisation of unemployed, callow youth in Pakistan. And such the mutually nourishing agenda of polarisation.

That agenda, as I said, remains at work. The Ayodhya dateline etched hate, stretched fate — the fate of secularism — to its limits. It continues to do so.

The demolition in Ayodhya was the first step. Like a bhumi-puja. The second step is the building of the temple. The third, its consecration. And there will be as many more steps as the rites of polarisation require.

The building of a Ram temple at the site of the Masjid is not going to be easy. But keeping the idea of that building alive is all too easy.

For polarisers, better than a temple built is a temple that is waiting to be built. It keeps spirits up, tensions high. It keeps terrorists on the other side activated. And it keeps cadres on this side motivated.

December 6, 1992 is not a fading date in history; it is marked ochre red in the future calendars of the Hindu Rashtra. For those who hailed it, the 25th “anniversary” of the demolition promises future sport. For those who were aghast by it, it promises future struggle.

The struggle to keep polarisation at bay will be unrelenting for the memories of Partition and the mayhem of terror will keep churning up hate, fear. Bigots face each other, unblinkingly. Their bigotry feeds each other, untiringly. The higher the Hindu bigotry in India, the happier the Islamic zealotry in Pakistan. Polarisation is their common nourishment.

But hate and fear are not a normal condition; fanaticism not a natural emotion. Plain common sense and Gandhi’s miraculously still-alive spirit have staved off communal frenzy. Never more effectively than when bloodthirsty terrorists sought to mutilate life in Mumbai in 1993 and then to maim the House of India’s Parliament in 2001. All of India could have erupted then into communal frenzy, but it did not. Likewise, when Gujarat 2002 could have spread, but did not.

The India of Asoka, Akbar, Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar is strong but pinioned under the blades of the Two Nations theory. It is for the inheritors of their India to match the date-lines of hate and the fate-lines of death with the life-line that Gandhi made from the essences, the intangible susman of his belief that India is One Nation and Ishvar Allah two names, among other ones, for the One.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and Governor

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