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Site step to go forward

Communal disputes must be delinked from the past and resolved by mutual reconciliation.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2003 15:58 IST

The lingering dispute over Ayodhya is not doing the nation any good. Not only has it cost the country heavily in terms of life, property and resources, but the manner in which the imbroglio periodically dominates national concern doesn’t show the ruling coalition in a favourable light.

Periodic skirmishes within the Sangh parivar project the image of the BJP as a bunch of fanatics willing to listen to everything but reason. The Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court might have given a new twist to the issue, but even this is unlikely to ‘resolve’ the issue, as parameters of the ‘resolution’ remain embedded in a framework on which there is little unanimity.

Instead of seeking a solution through a route laced with clichés — ‘judicial verdict must be respected’ or ‘dialogue is the only alternative’ — there is need for a dramatically fresh approach on the issue that is delinked from the past, both immediate and distant. The need is acute because the issue is no longer confined to Ayodhya. Going beyond the list of other shrines that the VHP wants to ‘reclaim’, the conflict has now spread to new locales like Bhojshala in Madhya Pradesh. The political discourse that the Ayodhya agitation sparked off has gone beyond its original ‘correcting history and restoring lost Hindu pride’ themes. It now also encompasses questions like renaming the nation and the question of identity of religious minorities.

Unfortunately, there has been no rational debate based on methodological assessment on any of these issues. Rather, we witness rigid postures based on traditional belief or political benefit.

It’s no longer a question of ‘mandir kahan banega’. After all these years, there is little doubt that sooner or later ‘mandir waheen banega’ and that the Babri masjid shall never be rebuilt. December 6, 1992, and subsequent actions of the P.V. Narasimha Rao government presented the nation with a fait accompli on this count — the only question being the opportune time and the political party that would gain political mileage for delivering the Ram temple. But for this question to become accepted by various sections of society — above all, the Muslims who feel that they have been wronged — a process of political reconciliation has to be set in motion.

There is need to reconcile differences between various communities not only on Ayodhya, but on an entire range of issues. We must accept that religion has become the single-most divisive element in Indian society and adherence to any faith has become intrinsically linked to the issue of national identity. Indian pluralism, once a matter of pride for the nation, is now the proverbial albatross we are carrying. We disagree on how to assess our past, interpret our history and identify our icons. We disagree over minor things ranging from culinary habits to sartorial styles and allow them to hijack the political discourse. Unless these irksome issues are reconciled, we as a nation would continue to waste our energy on trivial issues.

Compare the amount of time spent on discussing contemporary issues like declining subsidy on LPG and resizing electoral constituencies with debates firmly entrenched in issues drawn from the past. One will find that more time is spent on determining who we are and what our attitude should be towards each other than on questions that have a direct bearing on the quality of life.

It is time to pave the way for the formation of a National Reconciliation Commission — perhaps modelled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Though the TRC was established to investigate crimes committed during the apartheid era, its aim was not to hold any particular section of society responsible as it was assumed that the past had left no section unscathed. The task, however, would be much more gigantic as our span of conflicts is much longer than the 34 years the TRC examined.

There are several other models of reconciliation commissions which we could draw a leaf or two from, but the approach needs to be what TRC chairman Desmond Tutu believed its basic task to be: to promote national unity and reconciliation and not to achieve it. Any such exercise can just lay the framework for consensus.

Reconciliation in India should strive to bring various antagonistic sections into harmonious existence, ensure that today’s ‘enemies’ become ‘friends’ in the future. It should also attempt to turn bouts of cacophony into reasoned debates. The ideal form of reconciliation should steer away from resolutions arrived at after subjecting one of the antagonistic groups into submission. We have seen the result of that strategy when a phase of Islamic terrorism was a direct corollary of the events that took place in December 6, 1992.

It might be easier, though, to reach this ‘ideal’ stage through a middle path — by forging a truce on contentious issues and enabling diverse groups to live in harmony, if not exactly as ‘friends’. Over time, common interests in improving the quality of life and ensuring better dignity could pave the way for a more mature relationship.

How can we reach such a state of reconciliation? For starters, an element of political forgiveness not restricted to any particular community must be introduced. One must accept that if Hindus have grievances rooted in the medieval past, then Muslims might feel more strongly regarding some wrongs done to them in the recent past. Similarly, if Hindus are resentful of ‘aggressive’ Christian missionary activity, then Christians should not feel targeted only because they are part of a minority group. Political forgiveness cannot be a one-way street. There has to be an element of give-and-take.

In today’s turbulent India with Ayodhya clouds looming large once again, all this appears a tall order. But the time has come for taking some tough calls. Who can do this better than the party that has prided itself on providing the most communally harmonious governments in states and the Centre. The Centre can take the initiative and call on political parties to build a consensus on a single point: that there is a need to resolve this issue with finality. The next step can be taken after consensus is forged on the need for forming a National Reconciliation Commission. Its composition, size and character can be determined in the next phase. The listing of issues that need to be reconciled can be done thereafter. But we must be clear from the very start that no contentious issue is left out.

Such an exercise would, of course, require some legislative steps because current disputes have to be put on hold — be it Ayodhya, Bhojshala or any other issue. But once a consensus is forged on the need to hammer out reconciliation, such legislation should not be difficult to pass in Parliament. This is not the time to continue taking potshots at rivals for electoral gains. Unless we set in motion a radical strategy to cleanse Indian polity of its contentious disputes, we as a nation will be doomed to resolving conflicts rooted in the past. Which means having little control over our present and our future.

First Published: Mar 08, 2003 02:42 IST