The Ayodhya verdict: one more missed opportunity?

A view from behind the disputed Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh DELHI PRESS ARCHIVES
01 October, 2010

The Ayodhya verdict has been immediately analysed in the media as reflecting an attempt by the Lucknow bench to reconcile Hindus and Muslim sentiments over the site of the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi. The judges have considered both communities as joint titleholders of the disputed land and therefore entitled to share it in order to resume the parallel worship they observed for decades and centuries before the issue became political. One may wonder whether it is the role of a High Court to embark on a grand project like national reconciliation, but the politicians having repeatedly referred the issue to the judges instead of doing the job themselves (remember Narasimha Rao and then AB Vajpayee), no one can really blame the judiciary for trying to play their part. The problem is that if the intentions of the judges are virtuous, but the nature of their decision and the grounds on which it was founded are not, the whole purpose may well be defeated.

Let’s be technical first. The most problematic part of the verdict pertains to what it says about the Ramjanmabhoomi. The judges have justified the fact that they allot to the Hindus the site where a makeshift temple was built after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, thereby claiming the location as the Ramjanmabhoomi and that it was originally the site of a Ram temple.

Both things are factually disputable. We know, thanks to travellers’ testimonies, including that of a Jesuit priest, Tieffenthaler, that in the 18th century the place that Hindu devotees regarded as the Ramjanmabhoomi—and where the pilgrims worshipped Lord Ram—was not in the masjid, but outside, on a platform called the Ram chabootra. Justice Khan suggests that later on the Hindus started to believe that the Ramjanmabhoomi was under the central dome, but this is an invented tradition and one may wonder how far one must go by the changing terms of reference of a belief system. In fact, the central dome only became the bone of contention in 1949, after Hindu nationalists installed murtis of Ram and Sita there. If the judges wanted to get back to the rather harmonious arrangement of the 18th century, why shouldn’t they give the land where the central dome used to be to the Sunni Waqf and the Ram chabootra to the Hindus?

Secondly, the very idea that a Ram mandir had been built on the same site where the Masjid was later erected is not based on any robust evidence. There was a religious building, to be sure, but serious archaeologists who have examined these vestiges are more inclined to believe that they were part of a Shiv mandir instead of a Vaishnav one. And how can one know whether it was still standing or in ruins, as suggested by the judges?

Well, few people care about facts anyway. It seems that it is primarily a matter of ‘sentiment.’ This word came back repeatedly in the comments on TV after the verdict was made public. It meant, mostly, that nobody—not even the judges—could ignore the way the Hindus felt about the whole thing. Hindus believe that the Ramjanmabhoomi was there and that there was also a Ram temple and the judge acknowledged these beliefs as valid claims. This is a new development that is bound to affect the reputation of the judiciary. In December 1992, the Narasimha government had requested the president to seek, under article 143(1) the opinion of the Supreme Court on the question of “Whether a Hindu temple or any other religious structure existed prior to the construction of the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi (including the premises of the inner and outer courtyards of such a structure) in the area of which the structure stood.” After two years of reflection, the Supreme Court had responded that “the reference made under article 143(1) of the Constitution is superfluous and unnecessary and does not require to be answered.” Wisely enough, the judges did not consider themselves competent enough to solve this kind of religious problem. Sixteen years later, the judges are not shy anymore: they have developed an expertise in mythology (or “theology” as Rajeev Dhawan said about those men he called “panchayati judges” in quest of a “compromise”—not justice). It means that belief can now be used as evidence in a judicial procedure.

The problem is that only Hindu beliefs are referenced. What about the Muslim sentiments? They believe that there was a mosque, a belief largely shared by those who had been there, who had seen it and who even attended the destruction of the thing. What do we do with these sentiments based on hard facts? Can we dismiss them in a way even the postmodern would not dare to use, saying: No, no, that was not a mosque; it was something else?

And can the judge firmly believe that to give one third of the land excluding the central dome of the structure that was there would make things right? If the idea was to work in favour of reconciliation, then, at least, that part should have been allotted to the Muslims and they should have been given half the land. Instead, we are left with a one third versus two-thirds arrangement for Muslims and Hindus. Certainly, the Nirmohi Akhara and the Hindutva forces are not on the same wavelength—but that can change—and even if they find some compromise, they may not be able to build the magnificent temple that the Vishva Hindu Parishad has planned, for which pillars have already been carved. But things are worse for the Muslims who cannot rebuild anything significant at all on their little plot.

As a result, Muslims may appeal—at their own risk. First, they may well be designated as those who are preventing this chapter from being closed for good, as stubborn obstructionists who do not want to “forget the past.” Whose quote is this? It’s by Bhagwat, the RSS chief who immediately after the verdict, when people were rejoicing in the RSS headquarters in Delhi, came out with this astonishing statement: he invited the Muslims to forget the past ignoring the fact that the whole Hindutva movement is living in the past, trying to take revenge over ‘insults’ which took place years ago. Some Muslims may oblige them and accept the status of second-class citizens. Others will not. They have been waiting for justice in Gujarat for eight years, they have been waiting for the implementation of the Sachar Committee report for four years and among the youth, those who have lost any hope of social equality may turn to extremism.

Who will benefit? The Hindutva forces or the Congress? This verdict opens a new perspective for Hindutva forces at a time when the UPA government does not know how to deal with Maoists, with Kashmir or with the Commonwealth Games. If the Sangh Parivar is able to project the Muslims as the obstructionists and the Hindus as once again the victims (like in 1981 after the Meenakshipuram conversions or in 1985 after the Shah Bano case), then the Ayodhya issue may lend itself to some instrumentalisation once again, especially if anti-Muslim feelings are fostered by bomb blasts or public demonstrations. Even so, the Ayodhya Movement of the 1980s and 90s is not likely to reignite. There is some fatigue surrounding the issue, especially among the urban middle class whose priorities are more economy oriented than ethno-religious. And in any case, the BJP may not enrol itself happily in any Rath Yatra kind of campaign—except in Gujarat where Modi is always prepared to exploit communal issues, as evident from recent fake encounters. At the national level, the party itself may fear alienating some of its (last) NDA allies, including the JD(U) which is reluctant to lose its Muslim voters with elections round the corner. Whether some popular mobilisation on this issue is still possible in the coming days, weeks and months remains to be seen, and it may well be after waiting and watching the BJP—and whether or not it creates a bandwagon like it did in 1989.

Can the Congress regain the initiative? It could seize this opportunity to preside over the making of some new communal amity. But that would require an imaginative approach to politics and a lot of courage; the kind Sonia Gandhi displayed when she came to Gujarat in 2007 and accused Modi of being a “merchant of death.” The Manmohan Singh government has to give something to the Muslims to make them accept the Ayodhya verdict, if only to avoid a Hindu backlash and close this chapter. It could revive the 1993 plan evolved by the CWC. The idea, then, was to have the Centre acquire something like 27 hectares and make this land available to two trusts which would build a mosque and a temple adjacent to each other. That would mean at least the government has a policy regarding Ayodhya. The government can also implement a new policy based on the Sachar Committee report and induct Muslim leaders with a popular base in the cabinet—where there are only a handful of community ‘representatives.’ Otherwise, a well-intentioned verdict will be one more missed opportunity on the way to constructing the world’s largest ethno-democracy.

Christophe Jaffrelot is a contributing editor at The Caravan. He has authored several books including The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics and Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the rise of Ethnic Democracy. He is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris; a professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London; and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.