Ayodhya dispute: A saga that shaped history nears end

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Jul 12, 2020 01:29 AM IST

Political parties have taken decisions making Ayodhya dispute the most contentious issue at certain times; at certain others, they have carefully chosen to underplay it.

For almost all of Independent India’s history, the Ayodhya dispute has been a feature of national life.

A general view of Ayodhya City.(ANI Photo)
A general view of Ayodhya City.(ANI Photo)

It has been pronounced at times; it has been dormant at other times. Political parties have taken decisions making it the most contentious issue at certain times; at certain others, they have carefully chosen to underplay it. It has caused the most violent riots in the country at key moments; it has also held out the hope that it could well become a symbol of communal amity at other, admittedly fewer, ones.

It has been a site which has tested India’s resilience as a secular constitutional democracy. It is a site which has caused the most fundamental political rupture in the country in the past three decades. It is a site which is the symbol of faith and national revival for many who believe that a historical wrong is being corrected. And it is a site, for others, of what the politics of hate, communalism, violence and going beyond the confines of law can do to a nation.

 Watch | Ayodhya dispute: 40-day marathon hearing ends, India waits for SC verdict


As the Supreme Court concludes its hearing on the title dispute in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, there will be a dissection of the legal arguments which have been presented in court. There will also be a dissection of the legal basis on which the court will finally deliver its verdict, expected within the next four weeks.

But fundamentally — irrespective of what side of the debate one is on with regard to the case — this is not about technicalities of law. It is a political question of how India sees itself.

The roots of the dispute may be traced back to the 19th century, or even back to the construction of the mosque in the 16th century. But just to get a sense of how long it has affected post-Independence political life, think about this. An Indian citizen who is today 70 was not even born when a controversy first broke out in December 1949 about the installation of the idol of Ram inside the mosque precincts, or what the Hindu faithful consider, the Janmabhoomi. An Indian who is 33 today was not even born when Rajiv Gandhi decided to open the locks of the site in 1986. And an Indian citizen who is today in his late 20s would have no, or a very hazy, recollection of the frenzy that marked the Ram Janmabhoomi Andolan and the Rath Yatra of LK Advani in 1990, the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and the subsequent riots it triggered across the country.

Yet, 1949, 1986, 1990, and 1992 are as relevant today in shaping what India has become.

It was this process that explains, till today, the fault lines in Indian politics. It gave a fresh lease of life to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had been reduced to two seats in the 1984 election but decided to adopt the issue as a core political agenda during its Palanpur national executive in 1989. It mainstreamed the idea of “pseudo-secularism”, as a description for those who held secularism as a principle but paid heed to minority sentiments and ignored the sentiments of the majority — an idea which has increasingly gained currency in the political milieu, putting traditional secular parties on the defensive. It contributed to the BJP’s eventual elevation to power (admittedly by adopting a more moderate stance) in the 1990s. And it gave rise to a new generation of leaders in the party who were socialised in the movement and unapologetic about their espousal of it.

One such leader was Narendra Modi, who managed the Gujarat leg of Advani’s yatra. Ayodhya would continue to figure in Modi’s political life. Devotees who were returning from Ayodhya were burnt in a train in Godhra in 2002, which led to the Gujarat riots, and cemented Modi’s political base. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the issue is approaching its closure when Modi leads the BJP-led government, which is explicitly ideological about its beliefs and agenda, at the Centre.

But the issue had as deep an impact on the other parties. It was the politics around Ayodhya which caused a deep crack within the Congress, for the demolition happened under PV Narasimha Rao’s government, amid speculation that he did not do enough to stop it. Rao’s most accomplished biographer, Vinay Sitapati, however, believes that the then PM did not deliberately let the demolition happen — and his constitutional options were limited. Irrespective of that, 1992 shattered the Congress’s political and electoral prospects in north India, as its traditional constituents began moving away — the “upper castes” went to the BJP, and Muslims went to “social justice” formations such as the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh and the Janata Dal, and later the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad in Bihar. The decay of the Congress in the heartland, and the rise — and now ebb — of these regional formations can be traced back to Ayodhya.

But at some level, the impact was even more fundamental in the social realm. A large section of Hindus began, consciously or subconsciously, embracing the idea of a “Hindu rashtra” — where centuries of suppression by “Muslim invaders” and then the British would now be corrected. Muslims, on the other hand, began to feel deeply insecure. They began to question the secular architecture of the polity and their own place in it. Riots broke out across the country in the aftermath of the demolition. And there were serious questions about India’s ability to deal with religious diversity within a plural setting.

To be sure, the Ayodhya issue has intensified, or been buried, depending on the political exigencies of the moment. There have been times when the BJP has found it useful to raise it as a key issue. But there have been other times when the BJP has decided not to raise it during elections as a key theme, for many within its own fold had begun questioning its commitment to the cause. The older “secular” parties, too, raised the demolition as a key plank to question BJP’s commitment to the Constitution in the 1990s, but as the memory of the demolition faded, and as the perceived public support for the temple grew, they, too, began to become muted about the issue.

It is in this historical and contemporary backdrop that the Supreme Court will deliver its final verdict on Ayodhya. The BJP and its supporters are relatively confident that the verdict will give the disputed property to the Hindu parties, thus paving the way for the construction of the temple. The SC’s verdict must, of course, be respected in letter and spirit. But if this happens, the BJP would do well to mark it as a closure of one of India’s most contentious issues — rather than as an inauguration of another phase of political mobilisation around the issues of perceived historical wrongs and Hindu consciousness.

It will be a moment that will require extraordinary statesmanship by PM Modi, for he must then reach out to the minorities and allay their insecurities. There has been a growing view within the Muslim community that if the temple is so important for the Hindu faithful, they should accommodate this concern. The community, too, should see such a verdict in that spirit. The preparations by the UP government in deploying its field officers, and even imposing Section 144 in Ayodhya, is important, because violence must be avoided at all costs. And for this, it is important that a favourable verdict is not accompanied by triumphalism and bitterness. This verdict should also not come in the way of the other case which is pending at the trial stage — of the alleged conspiracy behind the demolition of the mosque. The mosque’s demolition raised serious questions about the rule of law in India, and accountability for it is distinct from the verdict in the property case.

If the verdict favours the Muslim parties, or is not entirely in favour of the Hindu parties, once again, the issue must be seen having gone through due process. The verdict should be respected. Status quo should prevail for the time being till, if at all, a compromise is found between communities, with the state acting as a neutral facilitator rather than a partisan player.

Ayodhya has become synonymous for all the key debates of Indian public life: secularism, Hindutva, the nature of the Indian Constitution, intercommunity ties, the rule of law, and historical injustices and political movements around identity. A chapter of Indian history is approaching its end.

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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