The Kannada writer U.R. Anantha Murthy likes to say that India lives simultaneously in the 13th and 21st centuries, and in all the centuries in-between. The wisdom contained in that remark is on display in India daily, or perhaps on any two days taken together. Thus, on September 29, 2010, the first ‘Aadhaar’ numbers were rolled out in a remote tribal hamlet on the Maharashtra-Gujarat border. This represents the first fruits of an ambitious attempt to use the best of modern — and post-modern technology — to bring social services to the poorest Indians. On September 30, however, we were taken straight back to the Middle Ages, when the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court pronounced its verdict on a property dispute that, at the very least, dates back five centuries.
The judgement is believed to be more than 2,000 pages long. I write this an hour after it was delivered, and so base myself on the bare summaries offered by the advocates who, on coming out of the court, shared them with the TV channels. From this, it appears that the court’s decision was somewhat in favour of those who claimed that at least part of the site in contention was by custom and tradition believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. Indeed, one of the lawyers, in a positively triumphalist spirit, announced that this would facilitate the building of a grand temple, which, in turn, would lead to the making of a ‘resurgent new’ India.
That this lawyer is also a senior leader of the BJP was surely no accident. Still, one must hope that his feelings of exultation will not be answered by sentiments of gloom and dismay on the part of the lawyers who represent the Sunni Waqf Board, or those who claim (equally fancifully) to speak for the Muslims of India as a whole. This verdict should not be interpreted in terms of victory and defeat, still less communal victory and defeat.
The evening before the judgement, the Home Minister expressed the view that India had, as he put it, “moved on” from the polarising religious politics of the past. Whether we have indeed moved on will not be known for some time yet. For the judgement will go on appeal to the Supreme Court. As that process unfolds, a crucial role in maintaining the peace will have to be played by the Union and state governments, and by the major political parties. But responsibility and caution must also be exercised by freelance activists, whether Hindus or Muslims. Victory marches or angry sermons can and must be eschewed.
The Allahabad High Court itself seems to have vaguely recognised the imperative of communal harmony. Hence the compromise apparently endorsed by two judges, that the land be divided into three parts, one going to a sect long established in Ayodhya, a second to a (presumably new) trust to represent the Hindu god and the third to the Sunni Waqf Board. How this division will actually take place does not seem to have been spelt out. It does, on the face of it, seem an untenable solution and one productive of more conflict. How, for example, will the respective shrines for Muslims and Hindus be built? And how, in a place already marked by so much blood and discord, will worship ever be peaceful and uncontentious?
I write this not just as a historian, but as one who lived through north India from 1988 to 1994, and saw, at first hand, evidence of the lives lost and villages burnt as a consequence of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. My own view has thus been that the land should have long ago been acquired in toto by the Centre, and put to a purpose other than the construction of a temple or/and the reconstruction of a mosque. By that action the government would have equally offended the Muslim bigot and the Hindu bigot, but perhaps struck a chord with the public as a whole. Judging by their statements to visiting reporters, the young students of Ayodhya themselves seem to favour the construction of either a stadium or a hospital. To those eminently reasonable suggestions, a friend has added a third and possibly even better one: why not a park for the citizens of Ayodhya, a town marked — like all such in India — by a conspicuous lack of green and pleasant open spaces?
That this kind of solution has not been seriously discussed, still less acted upon, is due to the pusillanimity of successive central governments. They passed the buck to the courts, who, by offering their undefined and perhaps inoperable compromise, have now passed the buck back to the administration again.
Fortunately for the government, the case will now be argued before the Supreme Court, which means that it may be some (many?) years before a grand Ram temple and a comparable new mosque can come up on adjacent plots in what is already a very crowded city. In the meantime, one must hope that India ‘moves on’ even further, such that the ordinary citizen places greater — far greater — emphasis on demanding decent education, affordable healthcare, and (above all) a dignified means of livelihood rathar than living or re-living the sectarian religious disputes of the recent or ancient past.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. The views expressed by the author are personal