The political class must be careful
Few issues in India bring together history, politics, faith, law, public emotions, and inter-communal relations as the issue of the Babri Masjid-Ram Temple. The Supreme Court has decided that there is no need to refer to a larger bench the question of whether mosque was integral to Islam. Instead, the title suit, on the land dispute, will proceed from October 29. What this means is that the new Chief Justice, Ranjan Gogoi, will first constitute a three-member bench on the case, and, by the end of this month, the arguments will kick off. And then depending on how quickly the bench wants to proceed, the case will head towards closure.
The court will confine itself to the question of the land. But this case is intensely political. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has made it clear that this is a question of the faith of millions. The very fact that the case will be discussed in the court, and in the public sphere, brings the issue back into the discourse in the run up to the 2019 elections. A favourable verdict will, undoubtedly, help the BJP in the crucial state of UP — where it potentially confronts a united opposition. The Congress, which has, to quell the charges of minority appeasement, made a conscious attempt to show that it is as Hindu as the BJP over the past few years, has said it will respect the verdict.
But the political class must be careful whichever way the verdict goes. The destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 remains a dark spot in Indian history. The riots it spawned across cities represented a breakdown of trust between communities and an abysmal failure of the law and order machinery. India cannot afford political mobilisation based on religious faith, which, in turn, is based on challenging the faith of another community. All parties and communities will and must respect the judicial verdict. But this must be done in the spirit of reconciliation, not triumphalism; it must be done with gestures which enhance the sense of belongingness of the other faiths, and not enhance the sense of exclusion; and it must be done with the law of the land held supreme. As the government of the day, and as the party which has been at the forefront of the issue, the BJP has a special responsibility to navigate India through this critical case, with statesmanship and not partisanship.