Maps of the Hindu Rashtra typically depict the Indian subcontinent drenched in a uniform saffron. Some see a lofty vision of unity in that colouring, but I see the violent and painful erasures of buildings, cultures and people that such uniformity would require. On 6 December 1992, a Hindu mob enacted one such purge by ripping apart a historical monument, a rare sixteenth-century mosque, brick by brick. This year, what the mob began extrajudicially, the Supreme Court finished through judicial opinion.
On 9 November, a panel of five judges concluded that a modern Hindu temple ought to be built atop the ruins of a Babur-period mosque, because some modern Hindus believe that exact spot is the god Ram’s birthplace. The apex court’s final decision is based on modern faith and has nothing to do with history before the nineteenth century. However, much of the judgment’s text explores and misstates the precolonial past. Consistent with Hindutva ideology, the opinion abjures both historical reality and any pretense of equal treatment of religious communities.
The verdict opens by comparing two views that are fundamentally unequal. In the opinion’s own words: “The Hindu community claims it [the disputed Ayodhya property] as the birthplace of Lord Ram, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The Muslim community claims it as the site of the historic Babri Masjid built by the first Mughal Emperor, Babur.” The judicial opinion positioned these two perspectives as comparable, which, historically speaking, is entirely unmoored from reality.
All historians agree that a mosque dating to the early sixteenth century, known as the Babri Masjid, stood on the disputed site until 1992. In fact, with the exception of serious conspiracy theorists, all living people agree that a premodern mosque stood on that spot in Ayodhya until its demolition in the early 1990s. This is not a “claim” by a party in a lawsuit; it is a well-documented fact of history.
In contrast, Ram’s birthplace is a matter of faith that is proclaimed by only some Hindus. So far as we know, most Hindus who have lived in the course of history did not much care about Ram’s birthplace, an apathy indicated by the sheer lack of attention to this issue in premodern texts. The idea that Ram was birthed on the site of the Babri Masjid was first attested in the mid-nineteenth century, when British colonialists were actively seeding Hindu-Muslim conflict as part of their strategy of divide and conquer. More broadly, most people currently alive on earth—including a significant number of Hindus—do not consider Ram’s life and, by extension, his birth, to be actual historical events.