The last two decades of the 20th century changed India like never before. As Booker prize-winning author Arundhati Roy said in an interview some time ago, two gates were opened during that phase: the gates of the Indian economy were opened to global finance capital and the gate of the Babri Masjid was opened to Hindus. Both were done during the reign of the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who succumbed to the pressures of Hindu fundamentalist organisations led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the growing ideological climate of neoliberalism across the world.
In opening the doors of the Babri Masjid, Rajiv was trying to do a balancing act after his government gave in to the demands of the Muslim fundamentalists in the Shah Bano case. The Supreme Court had ruled that Bano, the 60-year old woman, was entitled to maintenance from her estranged husband. But the Congress government enacted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act in 1986 to override the Court’s verdict, drawing flak both from Hindu fundamentalist groups and those who swore by secularism. By allowing Hindu devotees inside the Babri Masjid, the government, many thought, was trying to appease the Hindu fundamentalists and ward off its image of being pro-Muslim.
Rajiv’s decision was a shot in the arm for the BJP and other groups affiliated to the RSS, which were trying to polarise the electorate on religious lines to take power. The government’s soft approach enabled a steep rise in the virulence of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign that involved all Sangh Parivar outfits, including the BJP, and was aimed at building a temple at the very spot where the Babri Masjid stood. On the other hand, the Congress party’s ploy to retain the support of Hindus backfired. Rajiv lost the 1989 Lok Sabha election and a coalition government under VP Singh took power at the Centre with the support of both the BJP and the Left parties.
And then all hell broke loose when Singh announced his government’s commitment to implement the Mandal commission report, to empower sections of society that were being discriminated against by upper-caste Hindus for centuries. This political masterstroke brought to the fore the division within Hindus who the Sangh Parivar was seeking to project as a unified religious group. The only way the RSS and the BJP could beat back this major challenge to the very foundation of their politics was by stirring the pot of Hindu religious sentiment. And that is exactly what they did by aggressively pursuing the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. The bugle call came with veteran BJP leader LK Advani embarking on a Rath Yatra to Ayodhya from Somnath in Gujarat.
The Ram chariot left a trail of blood and gore wherever it went, barring a few states such as Bihar under Lalu Prasad Yadav. And in Bombay (renamed as Mumbai in 1995), the Bal Thackeray-led Shiv Sena was gunning to reap the harvest of the communal frenzy that shook the country.