When the grand Ram temple is finally built on the site reclaimed from an invading army, the restoration of national sovereignty—the essence of the struggle for independence—would have been completed
Swapan Dasgupta | 15 Nov, 2019
Bank of the Sarayu river, Ayodhya, November 11, 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
Although never bereft of the filmmaker’s clear biases and his inclination to make those he doesn’t agree with appear as fools, Anand Patwardhan’s documentary Ram ke Naam should be obligatory viewing for those too young to experience the turbulent days of LK Advani’s Rath Yatra and the first—and, indeed, bloody—kar seva in Ayodhya in October-November 1990. Apart from documenting facets of the Hindu mobilisation at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was nowhere as powerful and dominant as it is today, the film provided a snapshot of the political rhetoric of the times.
A particular scene I found fascinating was a political rally organised by the Communist Party of India (CPI) at the Gandhi Maidan in Patna in opposition to Advani’s Rath Yatra. The film gives a lengthy extract of a speech delivered by CPI leader AB Bardhan to a modest-sized gathering. The speech is interesting on many counts but particularly noteworthy was Bardhan’s categorical insistence that his party was not opposed to the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The problem they had was with Advani’s insistence—and the then BJP president had repeatedly stressed this throughout the Rath Yatra—that “mandir wahin banayenge”. Why, argued Bardhan in line with other secularists of that age, should the temple be built by displacing a Muslim mosque when the whole of Ayodhya belonged to Ram?
The Ayodhya controversy was not about the construction of a Ram temple per se; it centred on the demand that a structure described as a ‘symbol of national humiliation’ must be replaced by a temple that reflected the spirit of a new India. The demand for reclaiming a site that was apparently lost to the local community in the 16th century began as an assertion of religious rights. What was locally referred to as the ‘janmasthan’ was held sacred by the Hindus of Awadh as the site of Lord Ram’s birth. Despite the presence of a modest-sized and largely underutilised mosque, the local Hindus had continued to press their claims on the site. It was the spot that was deemed sacred. This was the basis of the clashes and the litigations which accompanied the annexation of Awadh by the British in 1856.
The nature of the dispute changed after Independence. In 1949, local Hindus reclaimed the site following the installation of Ram Lalla idols inside the mosque. This was followed by a complete takeover of the shrine by the Ram bhakts. However, administrative and judicial orders ensured access to the temple-in-mosque was restricted. These restrictions persisted till 1986 when a Faizabad court accorded full access to Hindu worshippers. This prompted demands for a proper Ram temple and set in motion a chain of events that culminated in the demolition of the Moghul structure on December 6th, 1992, and its replacement by a heavily barricaded makeshift shrine that persists to this day. The Supreme Court verdict of November 9th has sanctioned the construction of a Ram temple on the site.
Yet, while the Supreme Court chose to deal with the claims and counter-claims as a property dispute, the issue has become far more wide-ranging in nature. The question of competing religious rights is, of course, there as it was since the day the mosque was built by a Moghul general whose defiance of local feelings was probably blended with his self-image as a conqueror.
What happened in Ayodhya during the brief reign of Babur was an outrage. But it was a localised outrage and probably not comparable in offensiveness to Aurangzeb’s demolition of the Kashi Vishwanath mandir in Varanasi. Aurangzeb, whose zeal for demolishing Hindu shrines was known all over India, not only built a mosque at the site of the temple but left the outer walls of the old temple standing as a cruel reminder to Hindus of their subordination.
It took longer for the Ayodhya dispute to assume a national character. When it did—in the mid-1980s—it got inextricably linked to India’s troubled history and, more important, the recovery of national sovereignty after centuries of subordination. Today, the proposed Ram Janmabhoomi temple is more than a place of worship on a sacred site; it has been elevated into the status of a monument to the recovery of popular sovereignty.
Explorations into India’s medieval past have been at the heart of the dispute. When the opponents of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement spoke about building a Ram temple at a place other than where the Babri Masjid once stood, they were doing much more than affirming the virtues of multi-faith existence. What governed the taunts over the historicity of Lord Ram and the sermons to the masses for their inability to distinguish between local folklore and ‘scientific’ history was a wider political philosophy that used history as a tool.
The demolition of 1992 was in many ways akin to the storming of the Bastille. It was driven by raw anger and frustration over the determined bid by an ancien régime to deny the popular will. However, the demolition was also followed by a bout of vicious reaction that resulted in a total stalemate
Having marshalled the services of those Arun Shourie once dubbed ‘eminent historians’, the defenders of the so-called secular order questioned popular perceptions of the past. It was claimed, without necessarily taking the help of archaeology, that no pre-Islamic place of worship existed at the site of the Babri Masjid. If something did exist, it was possibly an abandoned Buddhist stupa. It was further claimed that popular narratives of the destruction of temples by Muslim rulers from the days of the Delhi Sultanate to the death of Aurangzeb were exaggerated and needlessly given a religious complexion. According to this version of history, temple destruction, where it occurred, was invariably driven by the need to assert state power against hostile chieftains. The faith of the opponents was incidental and Muslim rulers were prone to entering into alliances with Hindu chiefs to consolidate their positions.
Some of these wider assertions were undeniably valid. However, they were also accompanied by a refusal to acknowledge that the destruction of iconic temples—the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi and the Krishna temple in Mathura are two prominent examples—and their conversion into mosques were perceived as offensive and hurtful. Cow slaughter and temple destruction were the two greatest factors that contributed to Hindu-Muslim tensions across the ages. However, in their bid to detect syncretic culture everywhere, the historians glossed over the irritants, even when they had deeply scarred the Hindu psyche. The omissions were deliberate: history was being used as an instrument to redefine the common sense of India.
It is worth considering the possible consequences had the historians who wrote resolutions debunking the claims for Ram Janmabhoomi and suggested that the Ayodhya of the Ramayana could be located in Afghanistan, or something equally outlandish, actually acknowledged the authenticity of BB Lal’s archaeological findings and made an honest attempt to recognise Hindu grievances and balance it with the politically hazardous consequences of targeting today’s Muslims for the sins of their co-religionists in the past. Would Hindu rage have been more controlled? Would the legendary Hindu sense of passive acceptance—using philosophical loftiness as a pretext for inactivity—have resurfaced and quietened things down?
That conversation, unfortunately, was missing as devout Hindus with a sense of anger over the past were dismissed as bigots and cretins. In 1989, at the Indian History Congress session in Gorakhpur, historians took pride in walking out of a talk by Mahant Avaidyanath, the local MP and, more important, the head of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas. They didn’t believe he merited a hearing, even as they passed a resolution rubbishing the Hindu case for a Ram temple in Ayodhya. For India’s left-liberal establishment, the ‘other side’ was held to be beneath contempt.
This arrogance played a very important role in creating an unbridgeable distance between India’s ‘modern’ intellectuals and more traditional-minded Hindus. Both sides began hating each other with an unrivalled passion. Matters took an uglier turn when the entire clutch of ‘eminent’ historians chose to openly identify themselves with Muslim organisations opposing the building of the Ram temple. It is a different matter that most of their depositions in court were remarkably misleading and subjected to very sharp comments by the Allahabad High Court in its 2010 judgment. Indeed, the court left the academic reputation of many of those who flaunted their credentials as experts in complete tatters.
The Ayodhya controversy was not about the construction of a Ram temple per se; it centred on the demand that a structure described as a ‘symbol of national humiliation’ must be replaced by a temple that reflected the spirit of a new India
The fact that they were not publicly disgraced owes considerably to the media that chose to gloss over one of the most important conclusions of that judgment: the fact that the Babri Masjid was built over a structure that looked too much like a Hindu temple. In the two decades preceding the Allahabad High Court judgment—whose conclusion, at least in this respect, was upheld by the Supreme Court—this was not how the editorial class presented the history of Ayodhya to its readers. For nearly 27 years, hardly any questions were asked about the findings of the Archaeological Survey of India or the artefacts that were recovered from the site of the demolished shrine and stored in inaccessible godowns. India’s intellectuals never wanted the historical truths about Ayodhya to come out and sour a happy but largely imaginary story.
To the complications that resulted from the injection of an expedient and largely doctored history into the public debate were the issues of popular sovereignty. A simple question that was often asked by the less sophisticated advocates of a Ram temple was: if a Ram temple could not be built in Ayodhya, where else should it be built? This was less of a question as a plea for a natural claim of the Hindus to be upheld. But it was a plea that also helped underscore the fact that despite independence, national sovereignty had not been fully restored in India.
By the beginning of the 1990s, it was clear that what was fuelling a bitter conflict was not a demand to negotiate the status of some 3,000 or so shrines that had been changed to Muslim places of worship by a succession of rulers from the 8th century to the 18th century—as was insisted by the pamphleteers and writers of modern ballads. That demand belonged to the handful of absolute crazies who believed in nothing short of the transportation of India’s entire Muslim community to Pakistan.
At one time it seemed Ayodhya was the curtain raiser of conflicts to rebuild the old Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi and a temple to mark the Krishna janmasthan in Mathura. Both these shrines had been destroyed by Aurangzeb and mosques built in their place. However, even before a legislation in 1991 froze the denominational status of all places of worship (with the exception of Ayodhya), Advani had publicly stated that Hindus would cease all their claims if the demand on Ayodhya was accommodated.
Ideally, this was an offer many in the Muslim community would have readily accepted as the price of enduring peace and an end to battles over the past. But then, the battle for Ram in Ayodhya was never a simple gladiatorial battle involving Hindus and Muslims. Had it been so, the country’s largest religious minority would not have stood a chance. India didn’t become a denominational state like Pakistan after Independence, not because the religious balance was inimical to dominance, but because India’s Hindus chose a multi-faith existence.
There were, however, issues that didn’t quite fit the bill and stretched the bounds of the secularism as is understood by the West. Cow slaughter—whose ban finds a mention in the Directive Principles of the Constitution—was one such issue. It set the faultlines well before the mass mobilisations of the 20th century and continues to be a point of sectarian tension today.
The desire to correct the wrongs of history was the second issue. The sharp exchanges between Jawaharlal Nehru and the more ‘Hindu’ members of his Government over the reconstruction of the Somnath temple in Gujarat could have set the ball in motion. However, what existed in Somnath was a ruined and abandoned mosque and no claimants for the dodgy legacy of Mahmud of Ghazni. And so it moved to Ayodhya.
At stake was an issue that was more fundamental than India’s secular status: defining the limits of popular sovereignty. In effect, it involves a vicious conflict between the emotions of the people and the guardianship of an elite.
Nor is this exclusively a postcolonial phenomenon. The UK has witnessed an unseemly battle after the people defied the wisdom of the Establishment and voted in the referendum of 2015 to quit the European Union. There has been an organised and determined bid to ensure that the attempt to claw back national sovereignty from the unelected bureaucracy in Brussels is scuttled.
At the time of the demolition of the Moghul shrine in 1992, Girilal Jain, a former editor of The Times of India, suggested that the kar sevaks had quite unwittingly helped remove an ambiguity. ‘The structure as it stood,’ he wrote, ‘represented an impasse between what Babur represented and what Ram represents. This ambiguity has been characteristic of the Indian state since Independence… [In] my opinion, no structure symbolised the Indian political order in its ambivalence, indecisiveness and lack of purpose, as this structure. The removal of the structure has ended the impasse and marks a new beginning.’
Jain was mostly right but a little ahead with his conclusion. The demolition of 1992 was in many ways akin to the storming of the Bastille. It was driven by raw anger and frustration over the determined bid by an ancien régime to deny the popular will. However, the demolition was also followed by a bout of vicious reaction that resulted in a total stalemate. Both sides lacked a bit of something to push forward. Anointed the final arbitrator, the judiciary lacked the will to either take on popular sentiment or endorse the old elite’s determination to somehow keep the fragile Nehruvian consensus alive. It required two election victories by Narendra Modi and a very determined Government to finally end this ambiguity. The Supreme Court responded to the popular mood with an approach that deliberately went beyond narrow legalism.
When the grand Ram temple is finally built on the site reclaimed from an invading army, the restoration of national sovereignty—the essence of the struggle for independence—would have been completed. Ayodhya was a test case and, as of last week, the popular will has prevailed quite emphatically.