The high court in Allahabad in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh made an important judgment on 30 September 2010 on the long-running Ayodhya saga, where the ownership of a site sacred to both Hindus and Muslims has been bitterly contested in the courts since the early 1990s. The judgment, a compromise that divides the land in dispute between the religious claimants - and seems thus to create the possibility of defusing the deep-rooted tensions between them - elicited a collective sigh of relief from India’s intellectual elite. But this very reaction tells a sobering story about the nature of the elite and its understanding of modern India.
This understanding is reliant on assumptions drawn from Europe to make sense of Indian state practice, which are then embodied in narrow explanations which simultaneously trap the elite in a siege mentality. By dissecting this elite approach, it is possible to tease out the state’s rationality from its very practices - and Ayodhya provides the terrain.
The alien logic
The starting-point is the Indian elite’s curious interpretation of the Allahabad ruling, The formal issue at stake may be ownership of land where once stood a temple and then a mosque (the latter torn down by Hindus in December 1992 who claimed the site as the birthplace of Lord Ram); but the elite prefer to infuse the judgment with symbolism, so that they can take it as example of the state having weathered a primordial storm.
In this view, the state is presumed to be motivated by an imported rationality - developed in a faraway land, generated a certain set of practices such as parliamentary democracy, transplanted to hostile climes by a vanguard, obliged to be secured by educating the recalcitrant masses, and thus always under threat of extinction.
This elite story about all Indians embodies the notion that the elite are the ones who crafted India and keep it going against the opposition or misunderstanding of millions of others.
This attitude explains the profound insecurity of the Indian elite, which permeates their writings and indeed defines their very being, usually behind high walls in metropolitan areas. They believe that their oases of civilisation are constantly under siege from a population it regards as barbaric, or at best infantile, whose Bharat (the uneducated masses’ term for India) is a very different country from its own, western-influenced one.
Yet this binary story is rendered chimerical by the state’s own practice. True, the Ayodhya verdict can be used to validate the elite assumption that its rationality is irredeemably superior to that of the masses. But things are not so simple, for a closer look suggests that practices imported by the vanguard continue to thrive in India thanks to the survival of a rationality among the masses that is resolutely non-western and firmly local. This puts democracy on a far stronger footing than the elite presumes, and relieves them of their angst and even their self-appointed role of vanguard. But by continuing to assume that only they qualify as civilised, the elite miss the local intellectual foundations of the Indian state.
The universal divine
The Ayodhya ruling, an exemplary case of the state being animated by a civilised local rationality, undermines the elite Indian story about India. The relevant section deserves quoting in full: “This Court is of the view that place of birth that is Ram Janm Bhumi is a juristic person. The deity also attained the divinity like Agni, Vayu, Kedarnath. Asthan is personified as the spirit of divine worshipped as the birth place of Ram Lala or Lord Ram as a child. Spirit of divine ever remains present everywhere at all times for anyone to invoke at any shape or form in accordance with his own aspirations and it can be shapeless and formless also.”
The notion of “juristic person” simply means that a being or object is treated like a real, living human being in terms of the law (thus, states are treated as juristic “persons” under international law). What is striking in the Ayodhya judgment is that it proclaims this juristic person to be a deity, and that the divine is everywhere and may be conjured up by people anywhere and at anytime and as anything - because the divine is everything. This makes for a state animated by an altogether different intellectual realm than that occupied by Christianity and Islam. They assume that the divine created the world for humans’ benefit (and indeed from that occupied by western secularism based on equality and hence toleration, not divinity).
The consequences of the Indian state rendering the mundane divine are phenomenal. The state here views the divine not as extraneous to the material and intellectual world but as inextricably intermeshed with it.
The notion that everything, including ideas, may be divine is itself an idea with deep roots in Indian society. By making this the basis of its judgment, the state observes an ancient and local rationality - and thus presents the possibility of moving beyond European assumptions and understanding because its sources of animation lie within, including in the divine which the masses (and the judges in this instance) still believe in.
The state is here legitimising the traditional respect for everything which is expressed in its extreme by the notion of ahimsa. This is no alien category to Indian politics. It appears in the Mahabharata, which Mahatma Gandhi drew upon to craft Europe’s expulsion from the sub-continent. The Allahabad verdict then is notable less for having reinforced democracy, the rule of law or secularism than for showing that all those practices are maintained in India by a rationality which views everything as divine. Such a rationality requires practices capable of maintaining its integrity, or at least practices which move beyond mere toleration to reverence.
As it happens, some of the practices of governance imported from Europe did maintain the integrity of this local rationality. (Others did not; note the limited appeal of fascism in India.) It is the rationality of the masses, rather than the shrill preaching of the elite, that explains why Indians took to certain foreign practices so easily - because they are in keeping with the rationality of the majority, one that predates both colonialism and Europe.
The local rational
This being said, and contrary to the elite’s views, the verdict is dubious at best. After all, what has been done in Ayodhya is simply to recreate partition, albeit on a much smaller scale and thankfully without any violence so far; but the decision has once again wrenched apart a cultural unity which views everything, including the state, as an expression of the divine. Yet the settlement itself is less significant than the way it was reached, as it provides a glimpse of the state’s true rationality.
In any case, perhaps no practice could have resolved the case adequately. The fact that the issue was taken to court at all suggests that though the traditional rationality motivates the state it eludes the litigants. After all, the anguish of destroyed temples is not new. A means of managing it is presented in the practices of Nik Rai, an 18th-century Hindu who served the Mughals and wrote in elaborate Persian: “Look at the miracle of my idol-house, o Sheikh, That when it was ruined, it became the house of God.”
Rai was highly Persianised, yet remained a believer in a rationality which permitted everyone to be viewed as divine. It prompted him to resort to prose to manage his pain because maintaining the integrity of his rationality demanded that he could not seek revenge. After all, in Rai’s rationality the destroyer too may also be made divine.