Distantly Close | The way forward with the Islamic world lies in the past

By Vinod Sharma
Jun 09, 2022 12:47 PM IST

Institutional memories don’t change with the change of governments. It’ll be useful to recall and learn from what followed the razing down of the Babri mosque over three decades ago.

A flashback to the troubled nineties which saw the first flush of the now fashionable Hindutva in the demolition of the Babri mosque, won’t be out of place as India of a ‘different mind’ fields a welter of protests from the Islamic world. The opprobrium’s against blasphemous references to the Prophet by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s designated spokespersons who’ve since been chastised but continue receiving massive online support from hardened right-wing troopers.

What India had lost post-Babri was precious. Gone with the rise of the Hindu zealot was the moral high the country always had as a non-denominational secular State as opposed to the Islamic Republic that’s Pakistan. (HT Archive) PREMIUM
What India had lost post-Babri was precious. Gone with the rise of the Hindu zealot was the moral high the country always had as a non-denominational secular State as opposed to the Islamic Republic that’s Pakistan. (HT Archive)

Institutional memories of countries don’t change with the change of governments. It’s useful therefore to recall and learn from what followed the razing down of the mosque over three decades ago. When Babri which later came to be referred to as a “disputed structure” was demolished in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, the Congress was in power in Delhi and the BJP in the Opposition. Having devoured the VP Singh regime on the very same issue in 1990, the centre-right party had moved ‘far to the right’ in pursuance of its Ram Janmabhoomi movement with its attendant divisiveness.

At the Indian diplomatic mission in Islamabad, the unexpected turn of events was received with deep self-doubt and disbelief. Our foreign secretary of the time, J N Dixit was India’s envoy in the Pakistani capital before picking up rank. He was remembered there for his oft-repeated assurance that the disputed mosque couldn’t be safer as harming it would harm the country’s unity and integrity.

While on a visit to Islamabad a little over a year later for the near-barren January 1994 foreign secretary-level dialogue, Dixit admitted being disproved by what transpired at Ayodhya but insisted that the “resilience of the Indian people” helped the country tide over the crisis. The veteran diplomat kept brief his comments before emplaning for home after the talks where Islamabad lectured Delhi on building a ‘propitious’ climate in Kashmir for progress in bilateral engagements.

A low point it undoubtedly was for Indian diplomacy.

The moral high that India lost

What India had lost post-Babri was precious. Gone with the rise of the Hindu zealot was the moral high the country always had as a non-denominational secular State as opposed to the Islamic Republic that’s Pakistan. It was the pluralistic nature of our democracy, especially the joint electorate system, which buttressed our claim on Kashmir. A country that did not place any one religion above another afforded space for all, including the “disputed” Muslim-majority province. The syncretic edifice so painstakingly built since Independence was razed to dust with the disputed mosque/structure at Ayodhya.

For these reasons and more, a palpably despondent air enveloped the Indian mission on the morning after December 6. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) had given a call for a countrywide strike on December 8 and the High Commission, led by Satinder Lambah who had succeeded Dixit, was busy working on a diplomatic ‘defense of the indefensible’ besides ensuring that his men and the mission remained out of the harm’s way in an increasingly volatile environ.

With Pakistan promoting the narrative of an intolerant, bigoted India, be it Ayodhya or Kashmir, it was an extremely difficult period for our diplomatic corps. On running into an incensed Jamat-e-Islami (JI) delegation at the gates of the Indian mission, this writer’s response to their badgering was: Ayodhya isn’t as much a Hindu-Muslim question; it’s a tussle between the dominant secularist viewpoint and the religious right’s quest for centre-space from the polity’s fringes.

“That’s plain nonsense,” retorted Liaquat Baloch, the delegation’s leader who headed the JI in the Pakistan National Assembly. “It might not make sense to you,” I replied, “but look towards my country and you’d known that Indian Muslims repose greater trust in parties led by non-Muslims.”

The conversation ended with Baloch leaving in a huff after submitting a protest note at the Mission’s out-gate. The testy exchange got reported ad verbum the next day in the mass-circulated Urdu daily, Jung. Displayed prominently on the newspaper’s front page, the report was widely noticed, including by our diplomats who tended to agree with this writer’s off-the-cuff interpretation of the Temple-Mosque conflict. “You could say it as a journalist. The way you put it was good,” a senior Mission official told me later.

Babri could be explained, not the insult to the Prophet

The crucial difference between Ayodhya and the challenge India currently faces is that Babri wasn’t a prominent place of worship for Muslims and the actions of the BJP, which wasn’t in power in 1992 could be explained (to foreign interlocutors) as domestic politicking spinning out of control. In comparison, the provocative references to the Prophet (through whom Allah speaks) vilify the very sanctum sanctorum of the faith of over two billion people.

“Even the most powerful and autocratic among the leaders of Islamic countries cannot ignore their citizenry’s religious sensitivities,” explained an Indian diplomat. He said the ruling BJP would be playing with fire if it persists with the kind of narrative it has promoted for electoral gains: “The world hereon will watch us more closely and easily, thanks to the internet.”

By some quirk of luck after Ayodhya, the PML (N) sponsored agitation went out of control, what with the ruling party cadres using bulldozers to demolish or damage inert and active Hindu places of worship across Pakistan. The retributive action got big play in the Indian, Pakistani and international media, affording our diplomacy the breathing space it direly needed. Had it not been so, Islamabad would’ve used its then formidable clout in the OIC, known at the time as the Organization of Islamic Conference and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to force an “oil squeeze” on Delhi.

That debilitating possibility could be avoided as the Narasimha Rao regime, which has failed to protect the mosque, moved thereafter with alacrity to dismiss the BJP governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal. The action helped salvage some diplomatic ground to obviated wider global fallout from Ayodhya. From that standpoint, the response of the Narendra Modi regime has been less than salutary with the PM maintaining silence and his party making a second-tier official reprimand and announce disciplinary action against the spokespersons in the dock.

Narasimha Rao’s template the BJP can replicate

Widely respected for his grasp of international affairs, Rao moved quickly on the diplomatic front to bring about a hugely successful official visit to Iran within months of the Ayodhya episode. The highlights of his visit: the Indian premier became the first non-Muslim to address the Iranian Majlis after the 1979 Iranian revolution; was received by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini; had a private meal with President Rafsanjani at his residence and was accorded a reception by Khomeini’ son at the renowned Qom seminary.

The optics India needed to live down 1992 were there. Few people know, but Rao undertook the visit after having LK Advani briefed by a senior foreign ministry official. The BJP leader took a “matured” line for his part, asking the official to report to the PM that his party supported the initiative “in national interest.”

By some coincidence, the first foreign dignitary to visit India after the Islamic blowback is the foreign minister of Iran, the very country to which Rao reached out after Ayodhya. The BJP’s iterations to inclusivity, to respect for all faiths are a throwback as much to the pre-2014 period. In order not to come across as a “serial offender” on issues of faith, the party will need to travel back in time to find the way forward. The one daunting task it has towards that goal is the bottling back of public forces unleashed by its exclusive socio-cultural constructs which weren’t ever in sync with its global and economic ambitions.

HT’s veteran political editor, Vinod Sharma, brings together his four-decade-long experience of closely tracking Indian politics, his intimate knowledge of the actors who dominate the political theatre, and his keen eye which can juxtapose the past and the present in his weekly column, Distantly Close


The views expressed are personal

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