Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ayodhya awaits court ruling: Indians’ have already given their verdict on the temple-mosque dispute

This week India would be awaiting the verdict of a court in a title suit.  But it is much more than a property dispute. It is a contest between rule of law and politicisation of religion. The dispute has come to symbolise different visions of India. Should Indians today be burdened by the past, or should India move forward, drawing the proper lesson from the past, while preparing for the future.

In contrast to the frenzy surrounding this dispute twenty years ago, the prevailing disinterest in this issue is a sign of progress, and an illustration of how far the people have moved on.

A shorter version of this article, "India Has Moved on From Its Mosque Controversy", appeared in The Wall Street Journal Asia on SEPTEMBER 21, 2010

At one level, it is a dispute over land, which is quite a common occurrence. After all it is said that 80% of court cases in lower judiciary relate to land. The verdict is coming sixty years after the original suit was filed. But that too is not unusual, given that 30 million cases that are pending at various levels, judicial wheels are known to turn distressingly slowly in India.

Yet, this no ordinary title suit. This is a debate that has simmered for a few centuries. Over the past two decades, the dispute has come to symbolise two contesting visions of India. Twenty years ago, a political campaign to claim the site sparked off most vicious riots across half the country, that had raised the most serious doubts about the viability of a muti-religious, multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic sub-continent that is India.

The dispute surrounds a piece of land in the small town of Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. This town of 150,000 people, share the name of the mythical capital of Lord Rama, the heroic prince in the oldest Indian epic, the Ramayana. Rama is believed to be the incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu, who was born to end the regime of a demon king.

In the 16th century, the founder of the Moghul dynasty in India, Emperor Babur had built a mosque in Ayodhya. Some Hindus believe that the Lord Rama was born at the very site on which the Mosque stood. Others believe that a temple existed on the spot where the mosque was built. There had been reports of Hindu - Muslim conflict over this spot in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Then in 1949, some idols had mysteriously been placed inside the mosque. And that started the present legal dispute over ownership of the property. Petition was filed in the name of the residing deity that the property belonged to Lord Rama. Members of the Muslim community contested the claim, and held that the property was a mosque. The disputed site remained locked up for fifty years.

In late 1980s, the BJP had mounted a political campaign to build a temple on the disputed site. The campaign brought rich political dividend for this marginal party, which had won just 2 seats in the 1984 general election, The social and political mobilisation on the issue of the Rama temple during this period was among the largest in post-Independent India. In response to the rising sentiments, and accusations of playing vote bank politics with different minority religious groups, the Congress government led by Rajiv Gandhi allowed partial access to Hindus to offer prayers in the hope of diffusing the tension.

Not unexpectedly, the political machinations only helped further boost the Hindu extremist groups, and contributed in no small way to the rise of the BJP. Their numbers in Lok Sabha jumped to 84 seats in 1989, and became a major political force and staked claim in the name of Hindu cultural nationalism. Ten years later, in 1998, BJP became the single largest party in the Lower House with 182 seats out of 545, and led a coalition government in Delhi for the first time. They repeated their success in the mid-term election of 1999, and lasted the full term till 2004.

From being dormant, the politicisation of the dispute came to define the political agenda of India in the 1990s. The highlight of the movement was BJP leader, Mr L K Advani’s 6000 km drive across the country, in 1990 to mobilise support in the name of the Lord Rama and the promise of building a temple. Although, the mobilisation did not enable the BJP to come to power in Delhi in the 1991 general election, it did shape the political agenda of the day. The movement climaxed on 6 December 1992, when tens thousands of Hindu zealots gathered near the disputed site, and stormed the old mosque to raze it to the ground. During this period, communal riots repeatedly flared up in different parts of the country that led to about 2000 deaths.

Twenty years later, the Allahabad High Courts is scheduled to give its verdict on September 24. There is a distinct change in public mood. And the two contesting side seems to have sensed the change.
In the past few decades, five suits have been filed, four by Hindu organisations, and one by a Muslim organisation. They have all been consolidated in to one, and now judgment day is near. There are three key elements in this suit are,
  • did a temple exist at the disputed site, before 1538
  • did the Muslims perfect their title through adverse possession
  • is the suit filed by one of the Muslim organisations, in 1961, barred by limitation
If the court goes to look in to issues surrounding the mysterious appearance of idols inside the mosque in 1949, that could be seen as matters of faith, and pose the biggest challenge to the judges who are best suited to decide on matters of fact. On the other hand, if the court looks at adverse possession, and decides on any pre-existing temple at the site of the mosque, and overrules any time limitation, that could open the Pandora’s box, with the prospect of igniting fresh disputes over many other religious sites. The best course of action for the court would be to limit the scope of their verdict to the legal issues surrounding the title of the land.

With the prospect of possible communal discord in the aftermath of the verdict, the government is appealing for calm. Even more importantly, all the organisations involved in the legal dispute have been repeatedly affirming that they will abide by the verdict, and adopt constitutional and legal measures in response to the verdict. All sides retain the freedom to appeal the verdict in the Supreme Court. This is a far cry from the belligerent claims by both the sides twenty years ago that matters of faith cannot be subject to judicial rulings.

What is even more significant is that since 1992-93, there have been many communal flash points in different parts of the country. Yet, hardly any has spread to other areas. Even the most serious communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, which left about 2000 people dead, did not spill beyond the province. The diminishing political returns from religious polarisation are clear, at least for now.

Even the BJP when in government, had to put the issue of temple on the back burner, for the sake of the coalition partners who supported the government. It is this moderating impact of electoral calculus that is perhaps the most understated strength of Indian democracy.

Popular mood has shifted away from sectarian issues, and political parties are being forced to recgnise this change. This provides a good opportunity to take a fresh look at the idea of India.

How has the idea of India or Bharat survived centuries of military conquest and political turmoil? It seems that given the diversity of the population, and a lack of political or religious or social structure and authority that could have a sway across the sub-continent, authority and social customs evolved locally. For instance, every practicing Hindu would have a temple in his or her own home, and had the freedom to choose from the plethora of gods, without much inhibition. Consequently, the invaders and conquerors could defeat the local rulers on the battlefield, or destroy a few places of worship, but not the ideas that prevailed in almost every home. In the civilisational sense, it was quite futile to destroy  religious or temporal structures, in an attempt to subjugate the population.

The rich mythologies and the epics of India provided guidance, without requiring a structure. This best explains the survival of the civilisation that is India over the past two millennia. As the poet Rabindranth Tagore had noted a century ago, invaders rarely went back, instead got absorbed and added to the richness of the mosaic of India. This explains the many instances of different religions living in close proximity with each other. Today, a Muslim flower seller meeting the needs of Hindu devotees, or a Muslim artisan making Hindu deities or Hindus visiting the tomb of a Muslim saints hardly raise any eyebrows.

In this sense, the fundamental questions that the disputed site in Ayodhya raises are how Indians should look at historical wrongs. Should historical evidence of a temple pre-existing at the disputed site in Ayodhya be found, would it automatically require reestablishment of the temple? Would it then follow that other such religious sites where conquerors had left their imprint be corrected too? Should India attempt to correct these alleged historical wrongs, or should India take a leaf from its own history, and try not to repeat the same mistakes again?

After all, historical wrongs can never be corrected. Any such efforts inevitably lead to compounding of the wrongs, and perpetuation of misery for ordinary people. If India’s survival as a civilisation did not depend on correcting historical wrongs, now that India is emerging on the international horizon, it has no reason to try and do the impossible.

Twenty years ago, India was a very different place. It was characterised by scarcities, and government was the principal source of patronage. Today, many Indians have got a glimpse of the possibilities, as the Indian economy and society have opened up. Increasing number of Indians are no longer satisfied being frogs in the well. 

Like the rest of the country, the people of Ayodhya have moved on, too. The town is said to have 20,000 temples and three mosques. But the young people are flocking to the numerous institutes that have sprung up to teach English, prepare them for various entrance examinations for engineering, management, and medical schools, and to cyber cafes. The ubiquitous cell phone towers dominate the skyline, over temples and mosques. The future beckons the young in Ayodhya, as elsewhere in India. It would be a far greater injustice to try and sacrifice the youth of India to the past in the name of correcting history.

In India, religious freedom matters, not religious structures.

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