Ayodhya churns up the right

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Consolation counsel Security forces escort the Sunni Waqf Board lawyers after the court verdict
Photo: Reuters

BJP VETERAN Lal Krishna Advani has sent feelers to his supporters that the party should try to mobilise public opinion on the Ayodhya verdict because it doesn’t have any other major issue. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat snubbed any such plans, saying the legal course is progressing favourably for the Sangh Parivar. Vishwa Hindu Parishad chief Ashok Singhal, insiders say, was unequivocal in conveying that the BJP, especially Advani, needed to stay out of the matter and leave it to the lawyers and the religious leadership. There has been no direct communication among them on this.

Advani told his followers to consider ways of rallying public opinion around the Allahabad High Court’s Ayodhya verdict, perhaps even plan another yatra. He mentioned roping in Uma Bharti, expelled from the party in 2005. Advani had invited her to accompany him to Somnath on September 25.

Some others in the BJP are also upset at the RSS thwarting any effort to make political capital of a golden opportunity. The RSS had instructed its cadres that if the court verdict would be unfavourable, all protest must be peaceful and symbolic. Whether or not it would have managed to keep the Sangh Parivar reined in is a matter of conjecture.

It will take a while to read more than 8,200 pages and figure the legal meaning of the verdict on Ayodhya. It diffused the anxiety of communal clashes by carving up into three the 11,700 sq feet of contested land — 130 feet wide and 90 feet long, it housed the inner and the outer courtyards of the Babri Masjid.

Muslims, especially in Uttar Pradesh, feel shortchanged. There is the option of appeal in the Supreme Court and the consolation of a third of the disputed land, even though their claim was dismissed. Are we looking at a similar situation a few years down the road, when the apex court gives its ruling? Would the matter die away if left to legal inertia for another 60 years?

Unlikely. Most Hindus grow up with narratives of Muslim invaders destroying temples. It doesn’t matter to them that it is impossible to prove that Ram was born where the Babri Masjid was built. The fact that Archaeological Survey of India found a temple under the site only enhances that feeling, although it may be impossible to prove that this was a temple or that it was destroyed to build a masjid.

Likewise, India’s Muslims grow up with accounts of how an idol was sneaked in and their mosque defiled on 23 December 1949. To them, it does not matter whether the mosque was built against the tenets of the shariat, or that it is not possible to prove who built the masjid — Babur, Aurangzeb, or somebody else — or why it did not have a minaret and provisions to perform the mandatory wuzu before the prayer. These sentiments got fuelled further by the vandalism of 6 December 1992, and the inaction and complicity of the administration then.

These social narratives have not disappeared. Young people still grow up with them. Which is why when the media says young India has moved on to a point where the Ayodhya dispute is not that emotive, it is only a part of the story.

Truth be told, a section of India has moved on. In fact, this section has existed for a long time; it has grown and captured the media and become more visible. It didn’t care when the VHP converted a local dispute into a national campaign in the 1980s. This section does not recognise other parts of India where communal narratives are real. It sits up and takes note only when there is a major upheaval, like a communal riot. This part of India is sure modernity and economic growth will replace narrow communal thinking and the identity politics that makes a small plot of land in Ayodhya so important. It regards Hindutva as a revivalist ideology that will eventually go away.

Advani told his followers to look for ways to rally public opinion, saying it was time for another yatra

What it forgets is that Hindutva is a product of modernity. Vinayak Damodar ‘Veer’ Savarkar, an atheist who went on to become the president of the Hindu Mahasabha, wrought the ideology about 100 years ago. It was a result of an educated, high-caste Hindu elite wanting to cut itself away from what it disliked about traditional Hindu society. It aims to create a potent, masculine society capable of defending itself militarily, along the lines of European nationalism.

We need to remember this because television news anchors do not repeat it. Reactions in the media can’t be taken seriously on this because how people react to Hindu-Muslim relations depends on who is asking; responses are measured. (Except in studio panels, where anchors and experts know each other’s positions and only strive to perpetrate them.) The media, lest we forget, is driven by a herd mentality. Most newspapers say the disputed site is 2.77 acres, when it is actually a much smaller 0.26 acre; the 2.77 acres is what the Kalyan Singh government acquired in 1991, which was cancelled the next year, but remains stuck in the media’s memory. Is this the media we are to trust for reading the pulse of the nation?

In Ayodhya, there is fatigue with this vexatious subject, with the media circus playing out on streets

IT IS only when you sit down to talk that the visceral comes out. And a question gets asked of the interviewer: Are you secular or pro-Hindu? Those are the two positions. Once the rehearsed lines are gone, it becomes apparent: most Hindus want a temple, most Muslims want a mosque. Right there. How they want to build it varies from person to person. And it is not only the uneducated and the poor. Journalists, academics, policemen, lawyers — in fact, the educated argue their emotional position with greater conviction and historicity, believing their evidence is empirical, indisputable.

Hashim Ansari, 90, is the oldest surviving litigant in the Ayodhya case. He has adjusted well to what the media demands. Sometimes he speaks with passion about the composite culture of Awadh, about how Hindus and Muslims actually stick together and how it is politicians who make them fight. Other times, the insecurity of belonging to the minority takes over. Then he complains of the injustice, of a masjid surreptitiously occupied in 1949 and demolished in 1992; he abuses the politicians who play on the insecurity of Muslims.

In Ayodhya, there is fatigue with this vexatious subject, with the media circus playing out on the streets. “We’ve been made into a caricature. This is Peepli [Live],” says Yatindra Mishra, a writer from the erstwhile royal family of Ayodhya. His uncle, Shailendra Mohan Mishra, distinguishes Ayodhya’s Maryada Purushottam Ram, who lives by a code of ethics, and the aggressive, vengeful Ram of the Sangh Parivar. But when you ask about the temple, pat comes the reply: “For Muslims, it is just a masjid Babur built. For us it is not just a temple. It is our lord’s birthplace. It means to us what Mecca means to them.”

So, can Advani summon up a frenzy like in the early 1990s. No. People have seen the BJP profit from the dispute and do nothing to resolve it. “If Baba Ramdev were to launch himself politically, this would have been the right time,” says a senior BJP leader. “He has credibility among Hindus.” Ramdev cannot do that because he relies on the network of the Arya Samaj, which shuns idol worship.

The immediate political benefits of stoking religious fervour outweigh the effort required to find a solution that gives dignity to both the communities. Two decades ago, there were mediators, people who had standing and credibility on either side due to associations fostered over time. For example, Syed Shahabuddin remembers his meeting with the erstwhile Paramacharya of Kanchi, because he asked Shahabuddin to pray at the mosque adjacent to the Kanchi math. Ansari’s friendliness with the late Param hans Ramchandra Das, president of VHP’s Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, is well known.

Such people are not around now. This is a problem of modernity. The composite culture of Awadh was a product of community life, of festivals celebrated together. Modern life allows little time or space for community. An entire generation of people knows only one Indian language; it is neither familiar with India’s cultural variety nor has the inclination for it. The polyglot politicians and public figures of yore are gone.

The political benefits of stoking religious fervour outweigh the effort required to find a negotiated solution

YET, MODERNITY has not transformed India so much as to ascribe popular sensitivity to such religious matters. It may happen at some distant stage, it does not seem possible right now. So, is a compromise possible? Mediators had backed off as nobody was willing to talk, hoping for a favourable verdict. Now, there are several statements calling for negotiations to begin. The Nirmohi Akhara has proposed a modest temple, as opposed to the grand temple the VHP wants.

Muslims have shown character in their conduct after the verdict. It is now up to the Congress — as also the BJP — to show generosity and assure the Muslims that the verdict does not weaken their position in Indian society. Regardless of the Supreme Court hearing, the parties will have to show political commitment for a negotiated solution, the kind of flexibility they used over the Nuclear Liability Bill. And the RSS will have to keep a tight leash on BJP’s political opportunism.

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