In the 15 years or so that the controversy over the Babri Masjid has been centrestage in Indian politics, I have managed, somehow, to offend nearly every side in the dispute.
It is easy to see why my views should be at variance with the sangh parivar’s. I’ve never bought the line that a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya can — or should — be the centre of a grand national resurgence. I’m uneasy when political parties emphasise the divisive aspects of religion to win power. And I think there is something intrinsically pathetic about a party that is obsessed with a medieval mosque when it should be grappling with the challenge of leading India through the new century.
But this is not to say that my views on the subject have pleased hard secularists or anti-mandir liberals either.
For a start, I believe that liberals made a huge mistake by basing their position on archeology. For over a decade now, we’ve had liberal historians and archeologists telling us that those historians who say that there ever was a temple on that spot are sangh-parivar lackeys and therefore, deserving of contempt.
The liberal position has been that no temple was destroyed to build the Babri Masjid simply because there never was a temple at that spot. Any archeologist who says he has found evidence of such a temple is a fraud. Any historian who says that he has found mentions of a temple in medieval texts is a liar.
I’m not an archeologist or a historian so I have no way of judging whether the liberals who say that there was no temple there are right. But I’ve always thought that they were making the wrong point.
The sangh parivar says: a temple was destroyed on this site to build a mosque. So, we must destroy the mosque (achieved ten years ago) and build a new temple (yet to happen).
The liberal retort is: nonsense, there never was a temple. So how can you claim the land on which the mosque was built?
This begs the obvious question: suppose that there really was a temple on that spot several centuries ago. Would the parivar then have the right to demolish the mosque and reclaim the land?
Liberals never satisfactorily answered this question but the unnecessary emphasis on archeology and history suggests that they would have to say that yes, if there was once a temple, then Hindus had some right to the spot.
In fact, the correct answer should have been: it doesn’t matter if there was a temple there many centuries ago. All the archeological and historical evidence is irrelevant.
If we are to be guided by the principle that all property belongs not to its current owners but to anybody who can lay claim to any structure built on it over thousands of years, then the entire basis of our society would collapse.
Do you know what stood at the spot where your house, is four hundred years ago? Do you believe that descendants of the family that owned it in 1662 have a greater right to it than you do?
This argument is as true of religious structures and public places as it is of private property. Christianity started out as the religion of a small sect in Palestine. Over centuries, it spread to Europe and supplanted the pagan religions that had preceded it. Do the pagans have the right to demolish every church or to reclaim every place of worship on the grounds that it might have been holy to pagans hundreds of years ago?
The same is true of India. After the time of Ashoka, Buddhism became the dominant religion in part of North India. Over time, Hinduism gradually reasserted its supremacy and Buddhist monasteries and temples were either taken over or abandoned — often due to the opposition of Hindu kings. If we are to discover that there once stood a Buddhist shrine at the site of a Hindu temple, do we then demolish the temple and build another Buddhist place of worship?
The truth is that if we keep going back in time to find out what lies beneath, nothing in the present will ever seem secure.
That’s why it always seemed to me to be such a waste of time for archeologists to go on and on about the origins of the Babri Masjid and what preceded it. Even if liberal historians are right about this spot — that there never was a mandir here — does anybody seriously believe that no Muslim ruler ever demolished a temple? Can we really claim with authority that no temples were ever built on the sites of mosques?
Once you enter into the what-lies-beneath controversy, there is no end to it. Even if the Babri Masjid was built on virgin land, are we now going to have to prove that every mosque in India is built on a site that was never used by Hindus for worship?
That was my first problem with the liberal position on Ayodhya. (And the manner in which the archeological excavations now have liberals scrambling uneasily suggests I was right to have my doubts).
My other problem was with the rigidity of the liberal position. When the Ram movement started, I was taken by surprise. Few of us had imagined that an ancient dispute over the ownership of a mosque in Ayodhya would so grip the Hindu imagination. But, as passions began to be inflamed, it became clear that the dispute was not about history (hence the irrelevance of archeology) or even, about the mosque itself. It was about Hindu dissatisfaction with the excesses of hard secularism.
The brilliance of L.K. Advani lay in the manner in which he presented his case. This was, he said, the birthplace of Lord Ram. Or, at the every least, Hindus believed that Ram was born here. On this spot, there stood a disputed masjid at which namaz had not been said for decades and which was probably built after destroying a Ram temple. All Hindus were asking was: could Muslims agree to shift the mandir a short distance away (not demolish it) so that a temple could be built on the Ram Janmabhoomi.
As the Ayodhya movement gathered steam, I offended most of my liberal friends by saying that even though I disapproved of the use of Ram for political benefit, I thought that Muslims should sit down with the VHP, and perhaps with Advani himself, and work out a deal.
They should allow themselves to be accommodating and agree to rebuild the mosque a short distance away. But they should insist on an undertaking from Advani and the parivar that this was a one-off and that the same principle would not be extended to other disputed mosques. Given his rhetoric at the time, Advani would have been obliged to agree.
I conceded that there was a danger of a domino-effect (similar demands over Kashi, Mathura etc), but this was less of a danger than what would certainly follow a Muslim hardline response: a Hindu backlash that would shake the foundations of our secularism.
My friends thought I was naïve or mad or both. The liberal media demonised Advani. The Muslim community decided on a hardline response: not one brick of the mosque will be moved. And politicians convinced Muslims that the Babri Masjid was the symbol of their security. (To this day, V.P. Singh tells Muslim audiences “Meri Sarkar giri par masjid nahin gira”.)
We know what followed. Today, Hindu-Muslim relations are at their lowest ebb since Partition. And the Masjid was demolished by sangh parivar vandals anyway.
My view is that perhaps it is still not too late. Ayodhya is an issue that derives all its power from alleged Muslim intransigence. Liberal abuse of the parivar and archeological evidence will make no difference. (Only a fool would think that the issue would go away if archeologists can’t find a temple beneath the ground.)
Perhaps the Muslim leaders could say: “Look, this land has no special significance for us. Take it and build your temple. But let us build our Masjid on the undisputed land. And remember that India’s Muslims will always willingly make sacrifices in the national interest — which is more than you guys are willing to do in your pursuit of power.”
If they could, then both secularism and Muslims would be better off.
But of course they can’t. Just as the VHP can’t give up the Ayodhya agitation, Muslim leaders can’t abandon their hardline positions.
And Indian secularism pays the price.