Ayodhya & the paradox of Indian polity

LIKE ALL paradoxes, this paradox too is absolutely breathtaking. The Sangh Parivar, forever on the lookout for proclaiming its `nationalism' with drumbeats, has made it clear from the word go that it would not honour any judgment of the Indian Judiciary on the Ayodhya dispute if it goes against the Hindus. Among the many members of the carefully nurtured multi-tongued Parivar, the VHP, which goes furthest in making claims to being more staunchly nationalist Hindu and Indian than the others within the Parivar or outside, is also the most strident in announcing its hostility to the Judiciary. It is followed closely by the RSS, the darling of the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and many others at the helm.

The flip side of the claims to being staunch nationalists is the implication that no other group, least of all a community, comes anywhere near it in its commitment to the nation's territorial integrity, its culture and institutions. The Muslims in the Parivar's estimate top the list of those wanting in this commitment; therefore even killing them by the hundreds is an act of patriotism. Yet, it is the Muslim community's orthodox leadership that has repeatedly and unreservedly declared its faith in the Indian Judiciary and has announced its commitment to honour the verdict even if it goes against them. This is when none of the judges hearing the case is even a Muslim (not that that by itself would have altered the outcome) and the jurisprudence under which the case is being adjudicated is the secular Constitution of India and not the shariat. Is it easy to imagine anything with a greater irony embedded in it?

The archaeological excavations at the site have thrown up what anyone with the slightest sense of history would have guessed: a mixed lot of evidence, conclusively proving nothing. From the evidence of historical texts and documents it was clear long ago that sustaining the theory of the existence of a Ram temple demolished to build the Babri Masjid in 1528 would be very hard. Twenty-four historians of the JNU had made this very point in 1986 in a very brief, popular pamphlet entitled `Political Abuse of History'; the pamphlet had raised the issue in public and this had led to some debate in the newspapers. Since then several other bits of writing on the issue have reinforced the historians' doubts. But when have doubts and debates among historians ever been able to prevent politicians from launching forth in rath yatras if the yatras were expected to lead to ministerial chairs?

In some ways, the Ayodhya dispute is a good pointer to the making of historical `facts'. While Ayodhya itself is mentioned in medieval Indian texts and while a connection between Ayodhya and Ram is also recorded, for example in the Ain-i Akbari of the historian Abul Fazl, written at the end of the sixteenth century, no one in medieval India has spoken of the existence of a Ram temple demolished to make way for the Babri Masjid. Babur himself records his visit to Ayodhya twice on the same page in his memoirs, the Babur Nama, but does not mention a Ram temple nor the mosque built in his name by his general Mir Baqi.

Nor do later historians, some of them very dogmatic Muslims, some others devout Hindus. Nor indeed do poets and writers, either Hindu or Muslim, speak of either a Ram temple or the Babri Masjid. Not even Goswami Tulsi Das, Ram's greatest devotee, a resident of Ayodhya and almost an eye witness to the building of the masjid. Nor is there any record of a popular tradition growing in the region linking a particular site with the birth of Ram, earlier than perhaps the eighteenth century. For we have a court document of 1822 in the Persian language, submitted to the Faizabad law court by its superintendent, one Hafizullah, testifying that the masjid was built at the site of Ram janmasthan. This is the first evidence establishing the link. Clearly, a tradition had begun to evolve sometime prior to its recording. However, the document still does not speak of a temple, much less of a Ram temple. In the nineteenth century by and by the story of the existence of a temple there came into circulation and by the 1870s the identification of the temple with Ram had been established. The link between Ram temple and the masjid has a history of no more than 150 years behind it. It has nothing to do with Babur's demolition of an existing Ram temple which the Parivar wishes to restore to salvage the Hindus' national pride or at least to fetch votes. And now archaeology has put paid to whatever doubts might have remained on the score of historical records.

However, as the dispute hotted up in the late 1980s, the VHP put up stalls outside the precincts of the Masjid and hung garishly coloured tin boards with blood curdling tales, written in grammatically atrocious Hindi, about how every time Babur's masons sought to put a dome on top of the masjid it would collapse. In the end, some mysterious voice spoke to Babur demanding the shedding of the blood of a couple of lakhs of Hindus for the dome to get stabilised. This was duly done and hence the masjid came to be erected. The stories were meant for the benefit of the crowds of visitors, the potential kar sevaks as well contributors to the VHP funds; clearly the authors did not need to pitch the stories at any higher level of intelligence, or even grammatically correct language. History was in the making! Perhaps if the Parivar had fetched enough majority by itself in the Lok Sabha, this kind of history teaching would have become obligatory in the schools and colleges as well.

In the end of course it is votes that matter, not history. Since it is getting clear that Ayodhya wouldn't fetch votes any more — it is very doubtful if it did the last time either — the BJP is willing to become moderate and jettison the strident voices within the Parivar, the VHP in particular. Sibling rivalry at its worst; even so it is good news. For all its bluster, the VHP has no popular support as was evident after the arrest of two of its leading lights in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, when not a blade of grass stirred. The bluster works only under the protection of state power.

Those who understand Indian culture and history — and the VHP is not among them — know that extremism is completely alien to all its religions, be it Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism or Indian Islam. Occasional bursts of extremist action in these religious communities notwithstanding, no community has a history of sustained support to militant ideology and consequent prolonged violence. It is to this history that India needs to return, not the kind that was inscribed on those garish tin boards at Ayodhya and which VHP leaders like Praveen Togadia and Ashok Singhal still seem to spew at every available opportunity, particularly if there are TV cameras around. The next time you watch a debate on the TV just watch out for the body language of representative participants. The paradox will hit you hard; it would even have been amusing if it were less tragic for the nation.

(The writer is Professor of Medieval History, JNU.)

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