On the cold wintry evening of December 6, 1992, I was working on a routine story at Islamabad’s international telex office. The computer age hadn’t fully arrived in the sub-continent. Punched telex tapes were the best way resident foreign journalists could reach messages back home.
A telephone on the adjoining table came alive with an incoming call. On the line was The Hindu’s Kesava Menon, sounding outraged, unable to say his piece in one go: “Pandit, they’ve done it, they have done the worst.”
I couldn’t immediately fathom the alarm. “What’s it?” I stammered. “They’ve brought down the mosque. They’ve razed it to the ground,” he said.
Beads of sweat dripped down my forehead as Kesava hastily hung up. No, I wasn’t scared. I was shattered. My faith shaken in the system, the secular ethos I’d tout to silence Pakistanis prophesying the Babri’s fall at the hands of Hindu zealots.
What was it, I self-questioned, a Hindu-Muslim conflagration or a secular, non-secular divide? The latter argument served better to keep one’s head up in a grossly indefensible scenario. I propounded the theory a day later to the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Liaquat Baloch outside the Indian High Commission, where he stood with a clutch of supporters to submit a protest memorandum.
“Yeh kya karva diya, Sharma,” accosted Baloch on seeing me get off a cab. “I’ve no moral defence for what has happened,” I said. “But it isn’t a Hindu-Muslim issue. It’s a fight for secular and non-secular India in which secularists will emerge triumphant.”
Secularism is a four-letter word for the rabidly right-wing Jamaat. “What rubbish – kya bakwas baat kar rahe ho,” intoned Baloch. “Look at my country and you’d know that leaders who enjoy the trust of Muslims are all Hindus,” I countered, reeling off names ranging from V.P. Singh to Chandrashekhar and Lalu and Mulayam Yadav.
As an Indian journalist, I was part of a minuscule Hindu minority in Pakistan. That helped me understand the value of these leaders, some of whom I’d criticise for their OBC politics that exposed my upper caste moorings to the ire of Mandal-ites and my secular beliefs to the Brahminical BJP’s disdain. I’d often joke that the sangh parivar treated a non-supportive Brahmin the way the Muslim League treated Maulana Azad!
The Ayodhya outrage also brought home the tyranny of numbers that’s minority-ism; the moral high ground our non-denominational secular state could’ve lost to an Islamic Republic with territorial claim on the Muslim-majority Kashmir. But for the retaliatory destruction of scores of functioning and dormant temples in a government-sponsored strike across Pakistan, our country’s name would have been in the mud internationally. The dubious parity kept Islamabad from mobilising the Muslim world to isolate or ex-communicate India.
Replay of 1990s
In 2002, former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit categorised incidents such as the Babri demolition and Gujarat riots as “significant internal threats” to India’s security and territorial integrity. Who could have known it better than him? He led India’s foreign policy while Ayodhya happened and Kashmir was in flames in the early 1990s.
I witnessed Dixit’s discomfiture on being buttonholed by a Pakistani journalist in Islamabad in January 1994 on his earlier comment that India wouldn’t survive if anything were to happen to the mosque. The veteran diplomat took time lighting his pipe before responding. He said the eventuality he apprehended was averted by the “resilience of our people”.
The wheel has since come a full circle. Kashmir’s again in ferment and the Allahabad High Court’s Lucknow Bench ready with its judgment on Ayodhya title suits. “No matter which way the verdict goes, some people will be upset. We’ve seen mobilisation already by various groups,” said a top security official.
He wondered whether it would help talking to parties inclined to use the verdict’s residuum to expand their electoral base. The answer came from Brajesh Mishra, national security advisor to the BJP-led NDA regime. He placed the onus on all sections – the Government, the Opposition, the RSS and the Muslim leadership – to ensure there was no violence, regardless of the verdict against which anybody could appeal in the apex court. “We have a very serious situation in Kashmir and Maoist-affected areas. Vitiating the atmosphere further on another volatile issue will gravely compromise India’s security,” he cautioned
Identity versus aspiration
Is the dispute over a medieval mosque relevant to today’s India that’s sizably youthful and driven more by aspiration than mere identity? Several BJP insiders admit 2010 isn’t 1992. The party retained power in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and to some extent Gujarat, on the development plank, not the slogan of destroying a mosque or building a temple.
Manmohan Singh’s sweat equity in the UPA’s 2009 victory stemmed from his image as the economy’s best available saviour. Rahul’s youthful promise and the mother’s kitchen Sonia Gandhi promoted through the NREGS fetched the Congress-led alliance its winning formula. In comparison, the BJP looked a dowdy minstrel blaring beaten, old bhajans.
Having slipped in popular esteem with the turn of the century, the saffron family evidently considers Kashmir more potent than its other core issues: Ayodhya and the Common Civil Code. L.K. Advani has talked of restraint and Mohan Bhagwat of “the law and the Constitution” in the event of the verdict going against their expectations.
Difficult to say whether the leopard has changed spots. The answer perhaps is in the compulsions of coalition politics. If Bihar’s out of bounds for Narendra Modi, kar sewaks can’t be breaking barricades elsewhere.
The poll records of the past two decades have set the limits of sectarian politics. Even Lord Rama couldn’t help the BJP ever touch the 200 mark. Its best score: 182/339 when the Congress toppled Vajpayee but failed to give an alternative in 1999.