A statue of Ram in Ayodhya, the day after the Supreme Court verdict (Photo: AP)
In June 1989, at its national executive meeting in Palampur, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formally announced the construction of a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya as its core ideological agenda. The party had to survive the tyranny of reputations along the way to reach the historical Palampur pledge. Navigating the trip wires of Nehruvian secularism was no mean political achievement. Palampur brought Ram to the vanguard of the BJP’s nationalist campaign. Legal disputes on the Ram Janmasthan had been festering since 1858 and it was put on the front burner when idols were placed at the disputed site in 1949. Till the BJP projected the temple demand as a nationalist expression, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) was the only Hindu organisation that had championed the cause.
Palampur drove home the point that Ram Janmansthan remained locked because of the unconcern of the Congress and other secular parties for the civilisational grievance of the Hindus. This was the first assault on the intellectual (that is, left-liberal) consensus of Nehruvian India.
Under Nehruvian absolutism, the Hindu sentiment was incompatible with the secular socialist ideal. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the context of rebuilding the Somnath temple, which he thought was a form of dangerous ‘Hindu revivalism’. Not only was Nehru disapproving of the support of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel for the reconstruction but he was also of the opinion that ‘Hindu revivalism’ would tarnish the country’s international image. “If it wasn’t for Sardar Patel, Somnath temple would not have been constructed. Nehru did not want it,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said recently.
The ancient Shiva temple at Somnath was ravaged in 1026 by Mahmud of Ghazni, who looted its legendary treasures and destroyed the idol of the deity, triggering a sense of collective Hindu grief. In his Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right, Swapan Dasgupta says that the controversy over the Somnath temple reconstruction was revived with then President Rajendra Prasad’s decision to be there at the inauguration and consecration of the jyotirlinga, something that did not go down too well with Nehru who felt that the head of state should not, in a secular state, associate himself openly with such ceremonies. Prasad did go, however, and asserted there that this wasn’t about “rectifying history” but “to proclaim anew the attachment to the faith, conviction and values on which our religion has rested since immemorial ages”.
Neither Rajendra Prasad (and Sardar Patel) nor Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee wanted a theocratic state; they just wanted the state to protect the interests of Hindus. This is borne out further by others, such as Koenraad Elst, who contend that Hindutva, as espoused by the Jana Sangh and later the BJP, under the baton of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), did not subscribe to the capture of state power but that its focus was on the nation’s culture and tradition. That balance, though, was tilted radically during the time of Rajiv Gandhi with the Shah Bano episode, Dasgupta maintains. Despite his brute majority in the Lok Sabha, Rajiv Gandhi’s regime meekly acquiesced to the pressure from the clergy and enacted a law to reverse the court’s order granting maintenance to a divorced Muslim woman, Shah Bano. At that time, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board had asserted that the Shah Bano case was a threat to Milli Tashakkhus—a separate and distinct community identity. The capitulation of the Rajiv Gandhi Government before the orthodox clergy practically legitimised protests against the appeasement of minority communalism and gave a fillip to Hindutva.
The tyranny of Nehruvian intellectuals continued even after Nehru. The reputation of these leftist intellectuals was sanctified as part of a grand power deal, brokered by Indira Gandhi’s education minister Saiyid Nurul Hasan. This saw leftists conferring legitimacy on the Indira Gandhi regime—either winking at or acquiescing to the excesses of the Government in lieu of a free run on the country’s campuses, something that continues even today.
Legal disputes on the Ram Janmasthan had been festering since 1858. It was put on the front burner when idols were placed at the disputed site in 1949. Till the BJP projected the temple demand as a nationalist expression, the VHP was the only Hindu organisation that had championed the cause
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While the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) report on Ayodhya, based on excavations at the disputed site, confirmed a local Awadhi belief that the Babri Masjid was constructed on the site of a pre-existing structure, possibly a temple, leftist historians dismissed this as ‘imagined history based on faith’. The controversial historians’ report of 1991 to the nation, in the form of a letter, bore the names of RS Sharma, retired professor of Delhi University and first chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research; M Athar Ali, retired professor of Aligarh Muslim University and former president of the Indian History Congress; DN Jha, former professor of history at Delhi University; and Suraj Bhan, professor of archaeology at Kurukshetra University. Jha did not sign the report and only Bhan was examined as an expert witness for the Sunni Waqf Board before the Allahabad High Court.
Referring to the ‘study’ titled ‘Babri Mosque or Ram’s Birthplace? Historians’ Report to the Indian Nation’, the Supreme Court bench asked whether it was commissioned by the government or voluntarily submitted by the historians. In the cross examination, Bhan had admitted that only Sharma and he had gone to Ayodhya prior to the study. He admitted having no knowledge of the Puranas and said, “We were given only six weeks for the entire study. Pressure was being repeatedly exerted; so we submitted our report without going through the record of the excavation work by BB Lal.”
In ‘The Buckling State’ (Ayodhya and the Future India), Arun Shourie had detailed the role of historian Irfan Habib: ‘Prof. Irfan Habib, who is known amongst his fellow historians as a great scholar of medieval India, ended up making a great professional howler. He announced that he had dated the artifacts found in the Ayodhya excavations, by the carbon dating technique, and found that these artifacts were of rather recent origin. And it so happened that an officer of the Archaeological Survey reviewed the procedures of Prof. Irfan Habib and found that if Prof. Habib’s dating procedures were to be followed then one would come to the conclusion that the reign of Emperor Akbar is yet to begin: It shall begin in 2009 A.D.!’
Now the Supreme Court has called the bluff of these ‘historians’ and other ‘eminent intellectuals’.
In its recent unanimous judgment on Ayodhya, the Supreme Court accepted the ASI’s report that contained the following findings:
– Archaeological finds in the area of excavation reveal significant traces of successive civilisations, commencing with the age of the North Black Polished Ware traceable to the second century BCE.
– The excavation by the ASI has revealed the existence of a pre-existing structure dating back to the 12th century. The structure has large dimensions, evident from the fact that there were 85 pillar bases comprising 17 rows each of five pillar bases.
– On a preponderance of probabilities, the archaeological findings on the nature of the underlying structure indicate it to be of Hindu religious origin, dating to 12th century.
– The mosque was constructed upon the foundation of the pre-existing structure. The construction of the mosque has taken place in such a manner as to obviate an independent foundation by utilising the walls of the pre-existing structure.
– The layered excavation at the site has also revealed the existence of a circular shrine together with a makara pranaala indicative of Hindu worship dating back to the eighth to 10th century.
Despite the fact that the ‘eminent historians’ did not have any expertise in archaeology, they had so far been maintaining that if there was an Ayodhya, it could be in Afghanistan. Because of their reputation, their views—which hearings in the Supreme Court suggested were political propaganda—had thus far prevailed over factual evidence.
A people’s origins and identity lie in a living past. Without a sense of the past, the future is a soulless country. Indian intellectuals under colonial rule thought deeply about why India, once home to mighty empires, fell to foreign rule. A consensus of sorts was reached that it was the weaknesses in Indian society, including the manifold divisions on the basis of caste and tribes, regions and sub-cultures, which had led to that state of affairs. But no sooner had independence been gained than historical understanding on the nature of the past underwent a drastic change. Instead of history as a tool to understand the past, it became a political project for the present, even for the future. Historians are careful to ensure that the gap between what can be known and the interpretation they offer should not defy belief or lead to questions on credibility. In India, for a very long time, interpretations ran on a very different set of rails that bore a much tighter link with political priorities than with truthful analysis of evidence from the past.
The first problem for secular politics after Independence was to soften the blows of the past. How, for example, could historians reinterpret the vandalism of Islamic conquests so that the past did not come in the way of secular politics? Then began a quest for ‘moderate’ or even ‘secular’ Islamic rulers: Akbar was singled out as an exemplar and Aurangzeb’s role underplayed. Dara Shikoh was highlighted as a celebrated prince who could have changed India’s history while the role of the average Islamic ruler was downplayed. The process was like a film—some characters were superimposed in such a manner that the background paled into insignificance.
It was as if history came to an end on August 14th, 1947. The scholarly reason cited for this reluctance to write independent India’s history was that events were too close at hand to pass judgment. The result was that the history of events, such as India’s secessionist episodes, the breakdown of democracy in 1977 and the nature of Muslim appeasement and its roots after Independence, was never really written. They are being written now, gingerly, after a safe distance has been covered between political demands and what happened. It goes without saying that this kind of history-writing will be a debased enterprise.
The Supreme Court’s judgment in the Ayodhya case is certain to accelerate the decolonisation of the Indian mind. Ever since these eminences managed to rubbish the work of RC Majumdar and Jadunath Sarkar as ‘communal history’ that suited the British project of divide-and-rule, they had resisted every attempt to question their supremacy over the argument. What they said or published was gospel truth and the academic world indulged the extreme perversity of their statements like ‘Do you have a birth certificate of Ram? Who was the midwife present at his birth?’
But a challenge is already emerging with the advent of social media and the loss of primacy of their handlers in the political sphere. The democratisation of information has already loosened the stranglehold of the intellectual elite. Although they are yet to be dislodged, a strident counterpoint is gaining acceptability.
The political primacy of the nationalist BJP is another factor challenging their clout. For too long, thanks to Nehruvian indoctrination, nationalism was a dirty word. No longer. The political changes within India and elsewhere point to a rightist rejoinder to the authoritarianism of reputations.
The diffidence that deterred those on the right from articulating their opinion is certain to end. The self-professed superiority of the left-liberal intellectual establishment will be challenged. Despite their claims of adhering to democratic traditions and the spirit of enquiry, there is now the acknowledgment that what leftists produce is a monochromatic intellectual stream wherein complex events are seen only through a prism that is static and immutable. An alternative narrative has come to dominate and influence the national mood.
India is changing politically as well as culturally and Narendra Modi is the totemic representation of change. The Supreme Court’s verdict has not merely achieved the reconstruction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. It has marked the rise of a new argument for the nation on the wreckage of the leftist shibboleth.