The Ayodhya issue has probably been the most divisive issue in the history of independent India. When Bharatiya Janata Party veteran LK Advani launched his rathyatra in 1990 to push for the construction of a Ram mandir where the Babri masjid stood, it was meant to be divisive. It was designed to recreate and consolidate on an unprecedented scale a Hindu majority constituency for the party, which, at that point, was just moving into the mainstream from the margins of the political-electoral scene.
Advani’s rathyatra played a salient role in bringing the BJP nationwide attention, while the support it extended from outside to the Janata Dal government led by VP Singh, along with the Left, helped it to gain acceptance within the mainstream of India’s formal political life. But the quantum jump for the BJP came undeniably with the razing of the Babri masjid on 6 December 1992 by a frenzied Hindutva mob egged on by Advani and other Sangh parivar leaders.
That event not only changed the public political discourse, but for a significant section of the population in north India, changed private lives as well, especially in the arenas of religious practice, especially worship, and faith. This was true not just of Hindus, but Muslims as well.
Let us begin with matters of immediate concern before moving to the long term, less easily discernible, issues connected to the 9 November verdict. In judicial terms, the verdict was egregious. Many including former Supreme Court judge Ashok Ganguly have pointed out that the actual verdict is at loggerheads with the reasoning and the context, framed principally by the ongoing cases against those involved in the illegal destruction of the Babri masjid. In effect, this judgment provides the Supreme Court’s imprimatur to the destruction.
Second, it is bizarre that not only should the highest court in the country blandly accept that a historical figure called Ram, a supposed incarnation of a god called Vishnu, actually existed (around 700 BCE), but should also accept that this literary figure was born precisely at the spot where the Babri masjid existed. Any historian of ancient ‘India’, that is, the geographical entity that is the Indian subcontinent, would tell us that available material cannot support such a precise hypothesis for a supposed event that occurred over 2,500 years ago.
Politically and historically, the Supreme Court order validates the wave of majoritarianism ignited in 1990, first given a fillip by the vandalism of 1992 and then by another fundamentally significant event in the life of the nation in 2002—the genocidal violence in Gujarat against Muslims, unchecked, indeed aggravated, by a dispensation headed by then chief minister Narendra Modi.
It can be no one’s case that a temple cannot be built in Ayodhya, perhaps even on a part of the disputed 2.77 acres of disputed land, but the unqualified judicial imprimatur for vandalism has confounded the rule of law and sent the message that the majority community has the right to call the shots and that one of the core strands in the ideology of Hindutva—that all Indians are Hindu by culture and must, therefore, submit to its exigencies—is valid. We are not that far away from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS’s) goal of a theocratic state.
These are the immediate elements of the context, substantiated by a combination of explosive and creeping changes in the quotidian lives of India’s citizens and, consequentially and incrementally, the life of the nation.
Let us begin with the questions of faith and worship, particularly of the perfect man who is also by way of being an incarnation of one of Hinduism’s uncountable gods and goddesses. The worship of Ram as a divine figure is not particularly new. Historians of ancient India have identified five stages in the evolution of the Ramayana epic and correspondingly of Ram, the character in the epic.
One specialist in its study says that Ram evolved from a merely heroic to a divine protagonist only in stages IV and V of the epic. Stage IV ran chronologically from 300 to 1100 CE, marked by the entrenchment of the Varna system, urbanisation, temple—or public—worship and pilgrimage. Stage V, 1100 CE onwards, saw the strengthening of these features of social organisation and it is now that the divine form of Ram is established. It is not very clear when exactly the worship of Ram became a standard feature of the Brahmanical religion, but we can safely assume it was substantially before 1100 BCE. In other words, Ram has been worshipped for well over a millennium.
But the worship of Ram was never connected to any militant form of Hinduism. When, in the colonial era a form of Hinduism began to be practiced mainly in the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) that came to be described as ‘muscular’, it tended to be associated with the worship of Hanuman. In any case, the politicisation of religion and the emergence of communal politics on the Hindu side was never overtly related to either the idea of faith or worship, which remained mainly a private matter. Communal division certainly used ritual symbols, but they were of a different order: playing music while passing mosques, chucking beef into temple premises, clashes during Muharram processions, on the one hand, and Navratri celebrations, on the other, were more common.
The salutation ‘Jai Shri Ram’ was a standard social format, until the BJP and its ideological brethren weaponised it after the destruction of the Babri masjid as an instrument of majoritarian mobilisation. Faith and worship became an intrinsic part of this mobilisation on a widespread scale only after the destruction of the Babri masjid and the increasingly strident demand for building a temple right at that spot. Thus the Supreme Court has allowed the Sangh parivar to fulfill one of its longstanding promises—‘mandir wahin banayenge’.
It was in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri masjid and the escalation of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement that faith became a decisive marker of public action. In today’s India personal faith can be, and often is, invoked to curtail people’s liberty to speak, write and otherwise express themselves. This may be in the form of court cases claiming that a petitioner’s sentiments have been hurt. Courts at all levels are increasingly prone to entertain surreal claims based on ‘hurt sentiment’. But it is not just the courts, it has become increasingly common even for liberals to stigmatise those who are critical of anything connected to any religion.
This has created a social climate in which thugs, goons and assorted hooligans have been emboldened to vandalise property and attack people because their sentiments have been hurt, which is another way of saying that no one can do anything that goes against their faith without facing the consequences. This is why art exhibitions, cinemas and libraries have been trashed and, equally, women beaten up for drinking in a bar, smoking, wearing clothes deemed inappropriate or couples have been roughed up for canoodling in public on Valentine’s Day.
This social climate has been building up for three decades. And it is precisely this ambiance that has enabled the Modi (or Modi-Shah) regime to encourage the vigilante Raj that has gripped, mostly, northern India. Thus in the current climate it is justifiable to lynch people on the suspicion of possessing beef or transporting cattle for slaughter. Impunity is created by the fact that heavily-compromised police forces first act against the victims and then against the perpetrators, if at all, as an afterthought.
There are also people, who are on the face of it sane and adjusted, who defend such vigilantism, within the political establishment and outside of it. This is a direct consequence of the frenzied demolition of the Babri masjid by hooligans and the mass murder of Muslims in Gujarat, followed, it has to be said, by the equally psychopathic immolation of innocents in Godhra.
If Ayodhya has practically and politically desensitised large sections of the majority community, thereby doing it a huge disservice, its effect on the Muslim community has been no less deleterious. By promoting, or radically enhancing, a siege mentality within the minority community, it has promoted within it the influence of precisely those who should be marginalised: the fundamentalists who disseminate obscurantist versions of Islam with the sole aim of enhancing their ‘spiritual’, social and political hold on the community. The demolition of the Babri masjid and the post-Godhra riots have also helped radicalise Muslim youth, making it literally a no-win outcome.
As the citizens go about their daily lives they can barely escape the shadow of Ayodhya. For the faithful, of all religions, who do not want to allow politicians to hijack their belief, there is now the understanding that they have been deprived of the choice of being faithful and sane, not communal. And the agnostics and atheists can only look on in dismay as they see India take several sharp turns towards theocracy.
The author is an independent journalist and researcher. The views are personal.