The record of politicians in the Ayodhya dispute has been shameful and scandalous on previous occasions. The conflict was continually stoked by all major parties and became a divisive national issue only because the BJP used it to resurrect its fortunes.
Nor have politicians cared about collateral damage or injury to innocent citizens. LK Advani’s Rath Yatras raised communal tensions and contributed to riots. And, of course, the demolition that took place on his watch tore India apart. Mulayam Singh Yadav used Ayodhya to unsettle Muslims and revive their insecurities. And the Congress government of Narasimha Rao behaved disgracefully from 1991 to 1996.
Rao failed to protect the mosque, adopted a laid-back (or sinister, depending on your perspective) attitude towards the kar sevaks and then lay paralysed while India burnt in the aftermath of the demolition. His government’s inability to protect lives or restore order was reminiscent of Rao’s failure as home minister in 1984 when riots broke out following Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. On that occasion, Rao pinned the blame elsewhere but in 1992/93, his callousness and ineptitude were cruelly exposed.
Contrast the behaviour of our politicians two decades ago with the way in which they responded this time. The prime minister and the home minister did an admirable job of guaranteeing security to those who felt under potential threat in the aftermath of the judgement and the government launched a massive campaign — co-opting mass media and drafting movie stars — to cool passions in the run-up to the verdict.
This time around, the BJP also reacted with moderation and caution. Senior leaders continually urged their supporters to respect the verdict of the court and many BJP heavyweights went on TV to issue appeals for peace.
The second thing to be noted is that the India of today is a very different place from the India of the 1980s when the dispute first took centrestage. I blogged last Sunday that India had moved on and that no matter what the verdict was, the Ayodhya issue had lost its resonance with most Indians.
Even as I wrote that piece, I wondered if I was being unduly optimistic. Had both communities really moved on that much?
In the end, I decided to put my optimism on record. My view was — and is — that Ayodhya was a response to the mood of failure that haunted India in the late 1980s. It had been a tough decade for our country — with insurgencies, riots and assassinations — and all of us were angry and defeated.
When a system is seen to be failing, people return to the tribal and religious loyalties that preceded the emergence of that system. For the first time since 1947, Hindus began to think of themselves as a political, rather than merely religious, group. Their frustrations with the failures of India were expressed as anger against Indian secularism. Wasn’t it just a way of treating Hindus as second-class citizens in their own country? Didn’t the Congress always defer to the more fanatical elements within the Muslim community because these elements could deliver a Muslim bloc vote? And so on.
Till the mid-80s, the vast majority of Hindus had never heard of the Babri Masjid or of the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute. But by the end of the decade, it became a symbol of the injustice done to Hindus. A mosque stood at the birthplace of Lord Ram! The Muslims were unwilling to return this most sacred site to Hindus! And the government was backing them!
In 1991, India was officially bankrupt, forced to pledge its gold reserves to the Bank of England and dependent on the generosity of foreigners. It was against that background of national collapse and despondency that the Ayodhya movement reached its peak and the Masjid was demolished.
These days, with 8.5 per cent growth and a mood of all-round optimism, it’s hard to remember the despair of that era. But one consequence of India’s success is that we have begun to believe in our country once again. We may still criticise the system but we recognise that we are all children of a new India, not Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, etc. or Punjabis, Tamilians, Gujaratis, Bengalis, etc. The tribal and religious loyalties have receded. And so has the fervour that fuelled the Ayodhya movement.
A nation that is pessimistic about its future finds solace in hatred. A nation that is poised on the verge of greatness, on the other hand, never risks disruption, disorder and mayhem. It knows that it has too much to lose.
That’s why the verdict has meant so little to most Indians.
And finally, the third thing. In the early days of the Ayodhya movement, some elements in the BJP — including, on occasion, L.K. Advani — suggested a way out.
There was no special significance to the Babri Masjid as far as Muslims were concerned, they said. It was just another mosque, one where namaz had not been offered for decades. On the other hand, rightly or wrongly, Hindus regarded the site as the birthplace of Lord Ram, a spot of great religious significance.
Why didn’t the Muslims agree to a compromise whereby the Masjid was shifted brick by brick to a nearby location? In Muslim countries, mosques are shifted all the time when they come in the way of dams, roads, etc. Hindus would help shift the mosque and would guarantee its security. Once the Ram Janmabhoomi site had been vacated, a Ram temple could be built and the dispute would end forever.
Muslims now say that no such serious offer was ever made. My recollection is slightly different and I recall Muslim objections to shifting the mosque: this would be a betrayal of their religion, a surrender to Hindu communalism, the start of a trend that would spread to Kashi, Mathura, etc.
I disapproved of the Ayodhya movement. I understood Muslim concerns and fears. But I still felt that if the Babri Masjid Action Committee or some other Muslim body would show some flexibility and make a grand conciliatory gesture, it would strengthen Indian secularism and finish off the Ayodhya movement before it poisoned the atmosphere and damaged India.
Now that the judgement is in and the court has forced a compromise on both sides, I can’t help wondering: could a better deal have been struck two decades ago when the Masjid was still standing?
If only both sides had shown a little magnanimity and a degree of flexibility in the 1980s, lives would have been saved and India would have been spared a terrible and entirely unnecessary trauma.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)