Chanakya: The political aftermath of December 6, 1992
With the rise of Hindu nationalism, the beginning of the alienation of Muslims, and the erosion of the rule of law, India changed fundamentallyUpdated: Oct 03, 2020, 19:04 IST
On December 6, 1992, India changed. Irrespective of one’s views on the issue of the Ram Temple, the act of demolishing the Babri Masjid was criminal. It was a blot on the rule of law. It undermined India’s secular credentials deeply. It damaged Hindu-Muslim relations like no other act since Partition. It led to riots, killings, breakdown of social trust, and grief for families and individuals caught in the violence that rocked the country. And while a range of political leaders may have been acquitted last week for their alleged role in the demolition of the mosque, there is little doubt that the criminal act was preceded by identity-based political mobilisation which created the environment for the actual demolition.
A lot has happened since then. Last year, the Supreme Court enabled the construction of the Ram Temple at the disputed site, and in August, with a brick-laying ceremony, the process to build a grand temple commenced. In what appeared to be a move to compensate them for the loss of the mosque, as well as the loss of the land, the court ordered that Muslim parties were to be offered five acres separately to construct a new mosque. Key political actors who were at the forefront in 1992 in different capacities have either died (the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Ashok Singhal, for instance) or become marginalised (LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar on one side, and Mulayam Singh on the other). Many observers have declared that the issue is now closed, and it is time to move on.
But this closure cannot really happen, for a lot of the current trends in Indian politics can be traced back to that fateful day in Ayodhya. The demolition changed Indian politics in four distinct ways, the impact of which can still be felt.
One, it marked the arrival of Hindu nationalism as a force to be reckoned with. Advani’s Rath Yatra galvanised hundreds of thousands of people directly, but it had an even greater indirect impact. A sense of Hindu political consciousness deepened; a narrative that Hindus had been under subjugation — first from Muslims, then from the British and finally from “pseudo secularists” in Independent India — gained ground. The narrative of Indian pluralism, diversity and its rich — admittedly complex and even occasionally conflictual — tradition of Hindu-Muslim relations gave way to the thirst for correcting historical injustices usually blamed on minority citizens. Suddenly, it was common to hear Hindu professionals and middle-class citizens speak disparagingly of Muslims, perpetuating stereotypes and prejudices about India’s principal minority. The temple movement also helped the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) expand their social base — for this was an emotive issue that Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits could relate to as well. The construction of the “other” — Muslims in this case — proceeded apace.
This may not have yielded immediate electoral dividends for the BJP (it lost state elections after the demolition), primarily because the mandir card (the politics of religion) was neutralised by the Mandal card (the politics of caste). But this process eventually saw the decline of Mandal parties which failed to deliver the justice and progress they had promised to their marginalised social base; simultaneously, the BJP began co-opting backward classes. Smarter Mandir politics eventually defeated Mandal.
Second, while the older leaders associated with the temple movement may have faded away, a new generation of leaders in the BJP emerged for whom the late 1980s and early 1990s served as crucial years of political socialisation.
The most-prominent example is, of course, Narendra Modi. Involved in organising a part of Advani’s Rath Yatra, Modi’s political life was to have a close overlap with the aftermath of the demolition, although it was only in the early 2000s that he took the first tangible step towards where he is now, when he was named chief minister of Gujarat. The fact that the temple construction was allowed when he was PM, and he did the bhoomi pujan for the temple, is also in sync with his older association with the movement. Arguably, if there was no Ram Janmabhoomi temple agitation, the BJP is unlikely to have become the force it has, and Modi may not be where he is today.
Third, the demolition began the process of the alienation of Muslims from the national mainstream. Invested in the promise of India’s constitutional, secular, republican democracy, December 6, 1992, came as a shock to the community. Muslims remained committed to the electoral route, backing parties which they saw as more sensitive to their interests. This yielded dividends for the community — with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, or the Janata Dal (subsequently Rashtriya Janata Dal) in Bihar, or even the Congress nationally benefiting from the support of Muslims.
But the entire electoral logic of minority consolidation propelled a majoritarian consolidation as well, as reflected in the 2014 and 2019 national elections. Muslims today have the least political representation at the national level than at any point in Indian history. The community has been living under a sense of siege. And the recent irrelevance of the Muslim vote has been accompanied with an effort to silence their voices in the public sphere. There may have been no riots after last year’s court verdict on the temple — but make no mistake, the Muslim mood is sullen. And Hindu-Muslim relations are in a deeply troubling state.
And finally, the Babri Masjid demolition seriously eroded rule of law in India, with long-lasting consequences. There is often a tension between popular politics and law. Mass politics does not always comply by strict legal boundaries, and may even seek to change the legal architecture. But laws are in place to ensure that all forces play by the rules of the game. This did not happen that day in Ayodhya — and it has enabled greater impunity for hate crimes and communal violence, especially under political cover, ever since.
There may or may not have been a criminal conspiracy to demolish the mosque. But it was that act on December 6, 1992, which changed Indian politics in fundamental ways.