A 25th-century historian finds two books by foreign travellers who visited a place in Ayodhya, India. One describes a mosque there but the other has a photo of an exquisite Hindu temple at exactly the same spot. The confused historian then discovers another book that solves the mystery. Its author quotes local residents who saw a miracle one morning: a temple to the Hindu god Ram appeared majestically in the place of a very old mosque.
Another foreign travel writer tells a fascinating tale about an old semi-naked holy man claiming that the temple materialised as a result of his tapasya (austere spiritual practice) in a Himalayan cave. One night, Lord Ram appeared in his dream and asked him to go back to Ayodhya to worship in a new temple. The historian then finds in the archives a film titled ‘New God for Old’ that helps him in his research. The historian records these facts in ‘Gods of India’, which becomes a bestseller. However, he has to skip the Jaipur Literature Festival because his publisher asks him to do the next book on the white supremacists of the Trump era of the 21st century.
It is futile to talk about the past since history is based on fake news. It is risky to talk about the future, as all futurists say at the start of a lecture. So, I write here about the more exciting present, when argumentative Indians are furiously discussing a historic ruling over a land dispute in Ayodhya. In its judgement, the Supreme Court granted the title of the land to a Hindu god recognising him as a ‘juristic person’.
Demolition bad, construction OK
Why is a spiritual nation obsessed with a mere piece of land? This plot with great religious significance is coveted not for pecuniary gains but to achieve the salvation of the soul. One may wonder why Lord Ram should grab the nation’s undivided attention since Hindus have 3.3 billion gods and goddesses to worship.
Critics point out that the court has rewarded the very force that committed this illegal act
The mosque, built by Emperor Babar 500 years ago, stood on the disputed piece of land until a Hindu mob demolished it in 1992. The demolition caused sectarian riots in which more than 2000 lives were lost. Critics of the judgement are asking the Supreme Court whether it could have awarded the land to Hindus had the Babri mosque been still standing.
The judgement also said, however, that the demolition was illegal. The critics point out that the court has rewarded the very force that committed this illegal act: senior Supreme Court lawyer Kaleeswaram Raj says: “The basic irony of the Ayodhya judgement is that it tries to honour the actions which the court found illegal and unlawful.”
Nothing unusual. Every scholar knows that in India, if this is true then it is also its opposite.
The Supreme Court not only gave the land to Hindus but also fixed a mechanism for building the Ram temple there. It has asked the secular government to be involved in this religious project by setting up a trust that will own the land and direct the construction.
Faith over law
The admirers of the judgment call it balanced and conciliatory, and one that will end sectarian conflict. It was welcomed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose party’s election manifesto promises to build a magnificent Ram temple.
The judgement shows the Supreme Court “as part of an illiberal state, which is a dangerous trend for democracy”
Legal experts have lauded the Supreme Court for declaring as illegal the acts of the Ram devotees who demolished the mosque and had earlier stealthily planted some idols in it. They note with satisfaction that the bench has repeatedly asserted that it is guided by law, not faith. This assertion was critical since witnesses expounding on faith and belief dominated the hearings.
Coming to the judgement’s operative part, however, the Supreme Court upheld the contention of the Hindu litigants, giving them the land on which a mosque had stood for 500 years. This has made the judgement very controversial. Read in the political context, says Raj, the judgement shows the Supreme Court “as part of an illiberal state, which is a dangerous trend for democracy”.
Raj says the conciliatory approach seen in the judgement reflects the transformation of the country into a majoritarian far-right polity and hence does not do justice to the tenets of the constitution. The judgement has come as a “big blow to the constitutional principles, including the rule of law and secularism”.
Critics see in the judgement the victory of faith over law. And faith did play a part, even though the judges deny it. Others argue that Hindus got the land on the basis of inadequate evidence while the Muslim side had to produce hard facts in support of its counter-claim. This demand was unrealistic since the mosque was built 500 years ago. And how can Hindus prove that Ram was born on that spot?
Some say that that the concern for peace undermined the court’s commitment to justice. They imply that court tried to buy peace at the cost of justice by granting the land to Hindus because their organisations have greater capacity to disturb the peace.
Critics include retired judges of the Supreme Court A. K. Ganguly and Markandey Katju. Ganguly says the minorities have been wronged. As a student of the constitution, he finds it difficult to accept the ruling. No one can recreate history, he says: “Who owned the land 500 years ago, does anybody know? Now tomorrow [people] can tear down any mosque. Earlier they got the support of the government; now they are receiving the support of the judiciary also.”
Muslims are generally silent and sullen and their low-key response is partly calibrated by the fear of majoritarianism
Ganguly says the court ruling has actually placed a premium on the demolition of the mosque which it called illegal. Katju writes: “In substance, the court has said that might is right and has laid down a dangerous precedent sanctifying aggression.”
According to Katju, after the partition of 1947, the demolition of the Babri Mosque by political vandals has been India’s greatest tragedy. The demand for constructing a temple is a kind of revanchism that will polarise society further, serving the political agenda of those who want to keep the sectarian fires burning for getting votes, he says.
Muslim fear, Hindu triumph
Formally, it was no more than a civil suit about a piece of land, but it made the authorities remarkably anxious. The union and state governments deployed special forces extensively and restricted access to social media in an attempt to maintain law and order. The Supreme Court too was aware of the implications of its judgement, which is why the chief justice took the unprecedented step of calling a meeting of security officials before delivering it.
The BJP has reaped rich rewards from its strategy of polarising the country on religious lines
Some Muslims interviewed by journalists said that they are dissatisfied by the Supreme Court judgement but it should be accepted. They are generally silent and sullen and their low-key response is partly calibrated by the fear of majoritarianism: the police force was deployed on a massive scale in many cities before the days of the judgement.
Other Muslims say the demolished Ayodhya mosque did not mean much to them and what really matters is Mecca and Medina. Some even say they are relieved that the court judgement did not go in favour of their community. Otherwise, they say, they would have become victims of mob violence. A newspaper report on their reaction said: “Elders weep, youth console”. A Muslim commentator writes that the judgement has confirmed Muslims’ status as second-class citizens.
The judgement comes at a time when the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party that governs India, has reaped rich rewards from its strategy of polarising the country on religious lines. Its propagation of a muscular form of Hinduism has caused an outbreak of fake religiosity that has disturbed inter-communal harmony. Lynchings of Muslims have been reported. Videos have circulated in which a poor Muslim is stopped and forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (‘Victory to Lord Ram’). A singer bellows Islamophobic pop songs on social media.
The main opposition parties that are committed to secularism have been measured in their response to the judgement. They cannot show disrespect towards the Supreme Court but they also tread carefully when dealing with any issue that hurts the Hindu psyche: the ruling BJP has thousands of activists ready to pounce on any statement by opponents to damn them as anti-Hindu.
Appeasement, like the Munich pact of 1938, only whets the appetite of the aggressor
In this situation, more than forty small organisations in the state of Tamil Nadu have announced the formation of an “anti-fascist coalition” to demonstrate against the Supreme Court’s verdict that “goes against secularism enshrined in India’s Constitution”.
On the other hand, the judgement has energised the BJP. The party’s leader, L.K. Advani, who rode a chariot to Ayodhya in 1992 to mobilise people to build a Ram temple on the contested piece of land, says he feels “blessed”. Some extremist Hindu leaders have gone further. They demand that the case against those facing charges for the criminal conspiracy to demolish the mosque should be withdrawn. The Hindus killed in the violence that flared around the temple movement should be declared martyrs, they say. The leaders of that movement used to shout that Ayodhya was just a ‘trailer’ and the demolition of other mosques would follow.
Justice Katju says it is foolish to think that the Ayodhya verdict will bring about communal peace. Appeasement, like the Munich pact of 1938, only whets the appetite of the aggressor. The Hindu protestors will now demand the possession of more Muslim sites. Some fear the Muslims’ subdued response will be interpreted as weakness. That will make the rival community more aggressive, which in turn will increase the dominance of the Hindu right wing in Indian polity. The Ram temple may take a couple of years to come up but Hindu devotees from far and near have already started visiting Ayodhya. Such religious fervour has become the BJP’s chief political weapon.
Interestingly, however, a large majority of those criticising the judgement are Hindus. This shows the resilience of the secular tradition, sanctified by India's constitution as well as the tenets of the inclusive and pluralistic Hindu faith tradition.
And as was expected, the litigant organisations of Hindus and Muslims have already started fighting intra-community battles. Hindu saints are squabbling among themselves over the right to be included in the proposed temple trust. Muslims are divided on the issues of filing a review petition against the judgement and accepting the offer of land for a new mosque as compensation for the demolished one. One Muslim organisation has gone against the other and declared that it will file a review petition. The Supreme Court’s heroic attempt may not be able to kill the dispute. Such disputes, as history tells us, have more than nine lives. Religious disputes become court cases and court cases are turned into religious disputes. The judgement is bound to have unintended consequences.