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.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Land and mineral rights must belong to private people

The multi-billion dollar Vedanta bauxite mining project in Orissa has been been mired in controversy. Recently the Ministry of Environment and Forest issued show cause notice to the company for violating various provisions of the Forest Rights Act, and suspended their mining permission. Following is my latest oped on this issue. I look at the debate from the perspective of land and mineral rights, and say that these should belong to the people who live there. This article was published in the Wall Street Journal under the title, "Landing India's Next Big Investment", on September 8, 2010.

Endemic poverty amid environmental riches has been the fate of most indigenous tribes in India for generations. There are perhaps 90 million so-called "tribals" in India today, 80% of whom live in the central belt from the states of Orissa in the East to eastern Gujarat in the West, to Madhya Pradesh in the North and Andhra Pradesh in the South. Most of these people live in and around forested areas and are extremely poor. And a recent government decision to block a British company's investment shows why they're likely to stay that way.

Last month the central government suspended London-based Vedanta's permission to mine bauxite in Orissa and issued a "show cause" notice for violation of forest laws. The committee that reviewed the proposed $8 billion project noted that the lifestyle of two tribes—the Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh—might be disrupted by interruptions to water supplies and other natural resources. The committee also said the tribes consider the hills sacred, although the exact location of the holy site isn't clear. Vedanta's co-investors withdrew their support for the project on possible human-rights violations.

Never mind that these two tribes consist of 8,000 people, of whom about 20% are believed to have been adversely affected. Or that the mining project lies in the 250-square-kilometer Niyamgiri Hills—of which only seven square kilometers of one hilltop were supposed to be mined. Or that none of the tribes were expected to be displaced.

The problem is not necessarily that tribals might object to this particular mining project. Rather, the trouble is that a lack of clear property rights makes it impossible for anyone to determine whether the tribals truly do object—or whether other special interests are cloaking their own causes in the mantle of tribals' rights. This lack of clarity helps crony capitalists to muscle in with state patronage.

Under colonial rule, the British failed to recognize the land rights of tribal people, denying them the ability to own or sell their property or profit from its resources. Now, some 60 years after independence, tribals still don't legally own their property, either individually or as part of a village's common land holdings. The problem is compounded by the fact that minerals and other underground natural resources by law belong to the state, not to the people who work and live on the land.

One result is that an investments like Vedanta's become more politicized than they otherwise would. Where mining interests seek ready access to resources, anticorporate activists find an easy target to campaign against. But if individual tribals were granted land ownership rights, they could decide for themselves whether to accept a development project or not. Rather than being forced off their property, thanks to the abuse of eminent domain by the government—as often happens—they would be able to shape their own destiny. By the same token, they would be free to pursue projects they truly wanted. Only then could land owners and capital providers negotiate as equals and explore areas of mutual interest.

Delhi is trying to strike a balance, but as usual the politicians may make matters worse. The government is considering a draft mining law that proposes to give 26% equity of mining projects to local populations. The mining industry is vehemently opposed to this idea, mostly because giving equity may lead to greater uncertainty over management control. In addition, the tribal population would have to share the risks associated with such projects that stem from the wide fluctuations in commodity prices. Most importantly, though, without clear ownership and objective valuation of assets, it would be impossible to determine the value of the local people's equity holdings, leading to possible legal disputes.

Rather than muddy the waters in this way, Delhi would be better served to consider more fundamental changes. It is time to recognize not only individual and community land rights, but the right to the minerals lying under that land too. In addition, there must be a greater recognition of property rights over village common land and the associated forests on which its residents depend.

There are already precedents for doing this. In the United States, for instance, the right to minerals, including oil and gas, belong to the land owners. These mineral rights can be sold, leased or subdivided, and these mineral rights can also be separated for different minerals found in the same property. An estimated one million landowners in America enjoy these rights.

The Dongria Kondh tribe, at the heart of the present controversy in Orissa, is officially classified as "primitive." Its members practice slash-and-burn agriculture and are among the country's poorest citizens. They are too deprived—socially, economically and educationally—to be able to reach the rarefied heights of salaried employment in India; only 10% of India's workforce has that privilege. The current Chief Justice of India once pitied them as "living on grass."

How ironic, then, that because of the archaic laws of India, promoters of a multibillion-dollar mining project cannot directly negotiate with the people who are on the land. And how tragic that this project's closure is being celebrated by NGO activists as a "victory." It is just the opposite.