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Ayodhya: India's endless curse

About the author
Vidya Subrahmaniam is an Indian journalist who writes in the Times of India about political, social and cultural issues.
The decade-long Hindu nationalist campaign to build a temple on the site of a destroyed mosque in Uttar Pradesh state is motivated less by religious zealotry than by the cynical political calculation of India’s ruling party.

Modern India’s joyous embrace of globalisation – with its attendant bounty of branded white goods, ever-expanding choice of cars, shopping malls and flyways – cannot conceal its ruling class’s obsession with a mythical medieval temple in the town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. For the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Ram temple which it and its nationalist allies seek to build there is less about commemorating the alleged birthplace of Lord Ram than about avenging the 1,000-year humiliation of Muslim invasion and rule. It is the minority Muslim population in post-independence India who increasingly are the targets of this obsession.

India cannot escape Ayodhya. There is a pattern here, an ugly cycle of revenge and retribution. Ayodhya can go anywhere, take any form – as in Gujarat in February 2002, where it mutated into India’s most shameful anti-Muslim pogrom. This is worse than war in many ways. Even the bitterest wars come to an end, wounds can heal and life can begin afresh. But the Ayodhya warriors have marched on without a pause. In the decade since the Babri Masjid – a mosque believed to have been built by emperor Babar’s general Mir Baki in 1528, and destroyed by Hindu zealots in December 1992 – was torn down, the temple issue has remained near the forefront of public discourse; all the more loudly during elections.

Now, with four crucial state elections approaching in December 2003, and a general election to follow in the spring of 2004, the pattern is repeating itself. Sadhus and sants of the hardline religious group, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), once again flex their sectarian muscles. The BJP itself seems to have shed whatever inhibitions it had about making Ayodhya an election issue. Much worse, the party’s supposedly secular partners in the governing coalition seem to have lost the will to fight its blatantly divisive agenda. This is partly because of the BJP’s success in subduing its partners in government; partly because of the implications of a recent report by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) about the documented historical evidence of building on the Ayodhya site.

The claims of history

It is clear from the latest developments in Uttar Pradesh that the BJP and its affiliates in the Sangh Parivar [the militant Hindu group led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)] are spoiling for a fight on Ayodhya. On the very day the ASI published its final report on excavations at the disputed site, the Uttar Pradesh government fell. The report suggests that the Babri Masjid had been erected by demolishing an earlier temple-like structure that itself dated back to the 11th century. Impartial historians dispute the definitive nature of the findings: to many, the previous structure could equally have been another mosque, given the Islamic character of some of the archaeological findings.

The BJP and the Sangh Parivar are ecstatic. Their interpretation of the ASI’s findings conclude that the Babri Masjid stood at the very birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, and that a spectacular Ram temple had been built to solemnise the site in the 11th century. India’s deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, pronounces the excavation to be a vindication of the BJP’s long struggle for a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya.

But the new leader in UP is Mulayam Singh Yadav – the very figure who, as chief minister in 1990, guarded the Babri Masjid as if his life depended on it. For this he earned the ire of the BJP and the gratitude of India’s Muslim minority. Indeed, for the latter, Mulayam Yadav (himself from a Hindu backward caste) represented security from the fanaticism of the BJP and its larger Parivar. Such was the community’s faith in the man, they called him Maulana (Muslim cleric) Mulayam.

It is true also that Mulayam was unable to prevent the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 – a wanton act by Sangh Parivar vandals in full view of the state police and a host of senior BJP leaders – and this dimmed some Muslim enthusiasm for him. And yet, he remained their only hope in a state regarded by the BJP as its bastion, one where they would even form an unnatural, unholy alliance with the Mayawati-led Dalit party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

But if Uttar Pradesh is so valuable to the BJP, why would it allow this BJP / BSP coalition government to fall – especially as this enabled its sworn enemy Mulayam Singh to form a government instead? That Mulayam had tacit support from the BJP is more than obvious. Without its nod, there is no way that the state governor, a BJP nominee, would have appointed him chief minister; nor would Mulayam have been allowed to demonstrate his majority in the state assembly where the speaker also belongs to the BJP.

The reason why the BJP acted so unthinkably in Uttar Pradesh, giving up its office and helping install its bitter opponent, reveals the political cynicism behind its façade of concern for higher matters. The core of its strategy is to remain unfettered by official responsibilities in Uttar Pradesh when India faces its 14th Lok Sabha (parliamentary) elections in 2004. Only in opposition can the BJP regain control of the Ayodhya movement and again make the Ram temple an election issue. The ‘anti-Hindu’ Mulayam’s presence at the helm of power only helps to focus attention on the BJP’s campaign.

The Ayodhya roadshow

Since the BJP-led alliance captured office in New Delhi in 1998, the party has been reluctant officially to support the Ayodhya cause because of its promise to the wider constituency of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that it will put the needs of efficient governance first. But this commitment to keep Ayodhya in abeyance was never fulfilled. Rather, the BJP found a proxy path to the temple – through the willing efforts of its VHP and RSS allies. These two outfits invented ever new ways to keep Ayodhya on the boil. For example, they announced a date by which construction of the Ram temple would begin, and even threatened to conduct puja at the disputed site, pretending it will dislodge the government.

The BJP also is ingenious in invoking the Ayodhya issue. A favourite subterfuge has been to involve the Kanchi Shankaracharya, a holy ‘seer’ with a formidable reputation for impartiality and fairness, in alleged efforts to find a solution to the dispute. When the story was re-enacted in mid-2002, elements in both Hindu and Muslim camps were expectant of a solution. The unofficial buzz was that the sage had worked out a reasonable settlement – one that went some way to assuage the Muslims – most likely the construction of both a temple and a mosque on undisputed land, leaving the courts to adjudicate on the actual dispute.

In the end, this was only an extravagant charade. The seer’s much-trumpeted solution wasn’t temple-and-mosque coexistence, temple-and-mosque at some distance, or even a temple in exchange for a moratorium on Kashi and Mathura (similar disputed mosque/temple sites).

Instead, it was quite simply a temple and no mosque solution. It was a temple and many more temples solution, a temple in return for nothing solution. It was a take-and-take solution, a bend-them-to-your-will solution. In short, no solution at all.

So the Ayodhya cycle of escalating crisis returns. Step one: the VHP threatens to set a date for the construction of the temple coinciding with a crucial election. Step two: the BJP remain non-committal to begin with. Step three: the VHP, undeterred and now backed by the RSS, talks of a plan of action. Step four: the BJP – party as opposed to government – lends cautious support to the cause. Step five: the VHP-RSS combine to announce a series of puja to be conducted on the disputed site. Step six: a BJP spokesperson (preferably its sole and doubtless very lonely Muslim in this role) pronounces these ceremonies legal. Step seven: pilgrims descend on Ayodhya. Step eight: the assemblage assumes the dimensions of a law and order problem. Step nine: The NDA constituents protest but nonetheless express confidence in the secular credentials of prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee.

In the latest cycle, the first four steps have already been followed. In the coming weeks and months, we will see the remaining five steps being painstakingly re-enacted. This time the Ayodhya roadshow looks set to roll out with even greater vigour – for both the country’s prime minister (who promised in Ayodhya recently to have the temple rebuilt) and his deputy have jumped into the campaign, supported by an archaeological survey finding that seems to back their cause to the hilt. How often and for how long must India endure this drill?


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