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Imagining an alternative scenario in Ayodhya

An amicable solution could have been reached through social, rather than judicial, intervention

September 15, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 12:05 pm IST

Workers prepare stones for the construction of a Shri Ram Janmbhoomi temple, at a workshop in Ayodhya.

Workers prepare stones for the construction of a Shri Ram Janmbhoomi temple, at a workshop in Ayodhya. | Photo Credit: PTI

In its final judgment on the Ayodhya dispute, delivered on November 9, 2019, the Supreme Court accepted the argument of several historians that no temple, much less a Ram temple, had been demolished to construct the Babri Masjid. It held the demolition of the mosque illegal and sought the prosecution of leaders responsible for it.

A brief history of the dispute

However, it is also a fact that at least since the 19th century, there has been a popular local tradition associating the site with Lord Ram in different ways, and disputes arising from it have led to incidents of violence as well as compromises. On the cold night of December 22-23, 1949, small clay idols of Ram Lalla were stealthily placed inside the mosque with the complicity of the District Magistrate, K.K. Nayyar. These stayed there with the connivance of the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, G.B. Pant, a Congress strongman, despite Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s instructions to remove them. The mosque was then locked up for nearly 50 years and there was relative quiet on that front.

Things began heating up in the late 1980s, partly when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi allowed the opening of the gate of the mosque up to the site in a corner where a Ram chabutra (plinth) lay, in order to balance his disastrous handling of the Shah Bano case. Later in the decade, the Bharatiya Janata Party took up the challenge thrown to it by Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s sudden announcement of the implementation of Mandal Commission’s recommendation of reservation of 27% seats in Central government services and educational institutions for the Other Backward Classes by raking up the Ram Janmabhoomi issue; it picturesquely came to be known as the ‘Mandal-Kamandal’ contest. The BJP put all its energies into mobilising people for the cause of the Ram temple.

There was no violence on the scene. Several attempts were made to resolve the dispute over the land on which the Babri Masjid stood, without violence. However, by then, the dispute had shed its colour of a political tussle between the BJP and the V.P. Singh government and had become a Hindu-Muslim imbroglio. The Hindu side offered to have the mosque, with its structure and foundation intact, respectfully moved to another site. The shifting of the whole structure was technologically feasible and had been accomplished in Egypt some years earlier when an old monument was similarly moved on rails to a neighbouring site in order to widen the Suez Canal; the shifting could only be done within a short distance of one or two kilometres. But the offer was spurned, for God’s site was not open to bargaining.

Things moved fast after that. The Muslim side relied on the historical evidence that favoured them and the impartiality of the judiciary; the Hindu side relied on mass mobilisation through L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra and violence in its wake. The judiciary tried out some sort of compromise with the Allahabad High Court dividing the disputed piece of land between the two sides, if unequally — a solution that pleased neither.

Opening a Pandora’s Box

In the end, the Supreme Court determined that no evidence of temple demolition existed. It should logically have restored the site to the Muslims, for this was entirely a property dispute. But by a queer inversion of its own logic, it gave away the site to the Hindus. The judgment has lent huge power to the Hindu side, represented by its various arms — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP as a party and its various governments, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, etc. — to seek ‘justice’ in innumerable instances by filing cases about just any mosque having been constructed over the debris of an old temple. It would also have the advantage of seeking the ‘righting’ of past wrongs through peaceful, judicial means, putting opponents on the defensive for not demonstrating respect for the judiciary.

Also read | Golden Shikhara for Ayodhya Ram Temple from Karnataka

A Pandora’s Box is now wide open. This also consolidates the hold of Hindutva over the body politic for the next several years by placing centre stage the urgency of recovering old temples from the ravages wreaked on them by medieval Muslim rulers, the responsibility for which must be borne by present-day Muslim inhabitants; issues of the economy, education, health, freedoms, etc. can wait. Above all, the history of the dispute and the resort to judicial verdict has turned the two sides into two implacable adversaries in which the emboldened Hindu side finds the solution in more heightened aggression.

Let us now imagine an alternative scenario back in the 1980s. As the dispute grew in dimensions, peaceful solutions were still being sought. What if the Muslim side had firmly articulated the historical veracity of their claim that no temple was demolished to erect the Babri Masjid, but had also taken cognisance of the widespread belief among the Hindus of the Awadh region of the existence of a Ram Janmasthan (the Ram chabutra) within the complex and a Sita rasoi (kitchen) within a few yards of it and thus, having asserted their property rights over the 2.7 acres, ‘offered to donate’ it in honour of Ram? Ideally, this could have been done by accepting the proposal to move the mosque within the vicinity of the new grand Ram temple. But even otherwise, this ‘donation’ had the potential to avert the pitching of the Hindus and Muslims as implacable adversaries. Muslims might have earned goodwill among the Hindus and the old slogan of Hindu-Muslim ‘bhai-bhai’ was likely to have received an energising shot in society. This would have made it extremely hard for the Hindutva rabble-rousers to succeed in their endeavour or for the BJP to rise to such heights. Above all, this solution could not have been seen as a victory or defeat but an amicable solution through social, rather than judicial, intervention. If anything, it had the potential of being seen as a great moral victory for the Muslims; after all, it is the sense of victory after the Ayodhya judgment that has made the votaries of Hindutva so aggressive. This would also have been in tune with the legacy of India’s composite culture.

Making space for one another

So much has changed now that the future holds little promise for the demonstration of bonhomie between both communities by joining each other’s festivals. Ways have to be found, even invented, of sharing substantial spaces between and indeed among communities. The primary requisite for this is to look beyond our own exclusivist straitjackets and make space for the inclusion of others along with their religious sentiments. Participation, rather than exclusion, is the way out.

Harbans Mukhia taught History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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