The Demolition Of The Babri Masjid: An Impartial And Alternative Narrative
By Karmanye Thadani:
All of us know about the Babri Masjid and its demolition on 6th December 1992 by Hindu extremists, and today, we will complete two decades of this tragedy. As an Indian citizen who accords primacy to the rule of law, I strongly condemn this act of vandalism and hope that its perpetrators are punished, though I do not consider it more serious than the killing of innocent civilians, as was the case in the riots in Bhagalpur or Gujarat. Yes, I am a Hindu and proud of my faith but flouting the law and demolishing any place of worship or killing innocent people is not something my faith teaches me. However, going beyond a wholehearted condemnation of this act, what I want to bring out in this article is an exploration into what led to this undoubtedly dramatic event in the history of independent India.
This event was dramatic for it brought communalism to the fore of public debate, and started a series of riots and terrorist attacks that cost many innocent people in the subcontinent their lives – the Hindu-Muslim riots across the country after the demolition and anti-Hindu violence in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the 1993 Mumbai blasts, the Godhara train carnage, the 2002 Gujarat riots, the attack on the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar and the blasts by the Indian Mujahidin and Abhinav Bharat. Even in recent years, this has not been a forgotten event, as the national focus on the Allahabad High Court verdict on the disputed land in 2010 showed, and though it is undoubtedly a fact that communalism today is much less of an issue than it was when the historic mosque was demolished, it cannot be written off and to understand communalism in India, Hindu or Muslim or even Sikh or Christian, this event needs attention.
We have seen many a biased narrative, be it offered by moderate and extreme Hindutvavadis and Islamists (Hindutva and Islamism are obviously not to be equated with the religions Hinduism and Islam respectively) and minority-sympathetic left-liberals, mostly Hindus, though there are many moderate Islamists donning the left-liberal cloak, at times rather unconvincingly. Our intellectual discourse has been dominated by minority-sympathetic left-liberals, mostly from the Hindu community. Whenever Muslims engage in any terrorism, they hardly even seem to be interested in condemning it and start shouting from their rooftops – “Look at the larger picture, the Muslims have been victims and this is only a backlash!”
Muslim radicalism in our country, for such people, is only a by-product of Hindu radicalism, and never would they like to see it the other way round. A social scientist of the calibre of Romila Thapar has actually gone on record to suggest that Hindus are actually perhaps “more given to killing” than other faith communities (the reference is in this article of hers), citing anti-minority carnages, like the 2002 Gujarat riots, 2008 Kandhamal riots or the 1984 anti-Sikh riots (though as for the anti-Sikh riots, what is often overlooked is that many Congress-supporting Muslims too killed innocent Sikhs), and though I don’t buy the Hindutvavadi idea that Muslims are intrinsically more aggressive either, I don’t see why a few instances of carnage by Hindus, inhuman as they undoubtedly were, can justify stereotyping an entire community. And yes, what about the carnages by Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh, or the killings of innocent Hindus in Punjab by Khalistani terrorists? There are far too many Hindus in our intellectual circles, like Romila Thapar, who take their apologetic approach to an entirely new level altogether.
However, some of our intellectually honest left-liberal intellectuals have started to see a problem with their discourse. Pointing to the adivasi participation in the 2002 Gujarat riots, the noted left-liberal analyst, K. Balagopal, who is no more, had written-
“…the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is slowly beginning to articulate an explanation for adivasi participation in the violence that could be quite embarrassing for radical analysts. The VHP’s office secretary at Godhra in the Panchmahals, who sits cross-legged on the floor with an ugly chopper hanging on the wall behind him, says it was (in effect, for he has not yet learnt to use the expression) class struggle. The economic relation between adivasis and Muslims in rural north Gujarat is of the kind that most of us have often deemed to be sufficient to justify a violent class struggle. Where the Muslims are farmers, as in Dahod district, the adivasis are labourers or sharecroppers working for them. Where the Muslims are rural traders and transporters, as in Sabarkantha district, the adivasis buy, sell and borrow money from them. It is beyond doubt that if the VHP had not been the instigator, and/or the victims had not been a community perceived as an injured minority at the national level, many of us would have interpreted the adivasi violence against Muslims in rural Gujarat as class struggle, and then the question would not have been why adivasis participated in the violence (we would have then called it struggle and not rioting) but why it died out without achieving much, etc. The Sangh parivar has some former leftists with it who will no doubt make an issue of this in the coming days. Have not instances of adivasi or Muslim tenants revolting against caste Hindu landowners been interpreted by radical analysts as (‘objectively speaking’) class struggles, even if they took a communal form? Will the analysis change merely because the upper caste Hindus are now egging on the adivasis, and the exploiter is a Muslim? Soon we will have some Swapan Dasgupta asking this question, and it is doubtful that any amount of dialectics will help us wriggle out. What is needed is not some novel sophistry, but a resolve to give up simplistic assumptions and simplistic modes of analysis, not for the sake of the VHP, but for the sake of a possible progress in human affairs.”
I am a die-hard centrist, exhibiting purblind sympathy to neither majority nor minority, and am echoing in this piece what was a confession for Balagopal and what has always been my point of view. The “simplistic assumptions” and “simplistic modes of analysis” adopted by the Hindutvavadis attributing the wrongdoings by Muslims to their alleged inherent fanaticism is scoffed at by our left-liberals and rightly so, but they themselves exhibit the same by never seeking to impartially understand the Hindu right-wing movement (which, as it is important to note, is not uniform and comprises people with very varying degrees of communalism, something that our left-liberals seldom acknowledge) but just assigning negative labels to it, failing to understand that chauvinism around Hindu tolerance (based on an exaggerated victimhood of women and non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries, painting the entire Islamic world or most of it as being like Saudi Arabia or Talibanized Aghanistan, as also biased history that overlooks the persecution of Buddhists by Hindu rulers like Pushyamitra Shunga and Mihirakula, as also viewing terrorism in the name of religion to be a Muslim monopoly, which is certainly not the case, considering the Ranvir Sena members who have massacred Dalits; Khalistanis; Irish Republicans; neo-Nazis etc.) is what breeds the intolerance exhibited by the Hindutvavadis, unlike the intolerance that is fundamentally based on misinterpreted religious ideas, as is the case with right-wing Christians or Muslims, with religious right-wing movements in the targeted communities for them only to act as evidence of the misinterpreted religious doctrine of regarding them as enemies, that is to say, that the ultra-fanatic Muslim hates Hindus for simply being non-Muslims and (wrongly) considers this hatred to be a tenet of his faith, Hindu radicalism only acting as evidence of the correctness of this belief of his.
Why is it that some Hindus demolished a historic mosque and as Swapan Dasgupta, while condemning this act, candidly points out in a piece on exactly the same topic as this one – “the demolition enjoyed a wide measure of Hindu endorsement, cutting across party affiliation”? There is no easy answer to these questions, but it is sad that our prominent non-communal public intellectuals, barring Swapan Dasgupta and perhaps a few others, have failed to understand this phenomenon instead of blindly asserting that that all Hindutvavadis are just fanatic maniacs, but not enthusiastically doing the same for even the most radical Islamists, though my saying this is not for a moment to condone wrongdoings by Hindutvavadis.
To find an answer to these questions, one would have to turn the pages of history. Prior to the partition of India, Hindu communalism, as epitomized by the Hindu Mahasabha, was a rather weak political force, and Hindus, by and large, supported the secular Congress even when two out of its nine nominees to the Viceroy’s Executive Council were Hindus, and while many would be quick to point out that the Congress itself had elements that were not wholly secular, and there were such Congress supporters too, Hindu communalism could never dominate the mainstream political discourse in India. The partition of India, however, and indeed, more important than the vivisection itself, the bloody fashion in which it occurred, starting with Jinnah’s call for ‘direct action’, left very deep scars on a sizable section of the Hindu community, especially those who had to migrate from their homelands, and while this anti-Muslim resentment may not be justified, it can be rationalized if our left-liberals can rationalize Muslims blasting bombs to avenge riots, or worse still, discrimination! It cannot be denied that most (though certainly not all) Muslims in the subcontinent favoured the partition, and though our left-liberals do give a seemingly rather reasonable explanation to this, which is the educational backwardness of the Muslims, which made religion-based politics for them more appealing, the fact is that some of the otherwise most progressive Muslim leaders like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had a somewhat communal outlook, refusing to join hands with the Hindus in their nationalist struggle, which amounted to self-‘otherization’. Yes, there was a section of the Muslim community very vocal against the partition, which included most prominently, Maulana Azad, but there is also a section of the Hindu community (including me) very vocal against Hindu communalism, but that doesn’t stop the Indian Mujahidin from bombing marketplaces or even hospitals. Pakistan became a reality, but the story did not end there.
The attempt of the Pakistani state at invading the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which had a sizable pro-India Muslim population led by Shaikh Abdullah, and quite a sizable non-Muslim population, and Pakistan’s refusal to comply with the UN resolution mandating a withdrawal of its troops from the part of the state they had occupied after the ceasefire before a plebiscite could be conducted across the whole of Jammu and Kashmir (Kashmiri separatists on the Indian side and their sympathizers often overlook the aspect of the withdrawal of Pakistani troops as a precursor to the plebiscite in the first UN resolution on Kashmir), led to a never-ending state of animosity between India and Pakistan, and though many (including myself) would argue that it is unfair to consider Indian Muslims an extension of Pakistan, the argument loses much (not all) of its force when many Indian Muslims openly burst crackers on Pakistan’s victory in Indo-Pak cricket matches (though it is equally true that many of them have fought for India in our military and paramilitary forces, even winning gallantry awards, and many of them have been very vocal against the Pakistani state’s Kashmir policy and its sponsoring terrorism), and no, in this context, I would not accept the left-liberal argument of cheering for a sports team for the sake of a sport or pointing to how the Indian Diaspora in say, Australia, often cheers for India against Australia, for Indian Muslims cheering for Pakistan and not, England, Australia or South Africa, definitely has a religious colour, and this sentiment being reflected even against India amounts to a rejection of the idea of India by such Indian Muslims, and India wasn’t partitioned out of Australia, nor have the two fought wars, and Indian Muslims can hardly be seen as Diaspora. Further, one may argue that everyone holds a right to personal liberty, but such an expression of liberty outraging nationalist sentiments of those around you invites contempt. When Indian Muslims complain of their loyalty to the country being doubted and having to prove the same, they have only certain sections in their own community to blame when it is an open secret that there do exist Indian Muslims who tend to identify with Pakistan more than India. Indian Muslims’ ghettoization and in many cases, their disinterest in assimilating in the culture of the local linguistic cluster, except in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, also adds to this divide.
Thus, we can see that the Hindu community of India had been experiencing a certain sense of Islamophobia after independence. Two major developments, however, deserve attention.
One is the reaction of a very large number of Muslims to the Shah Bano verdict in the 1980s, in which a progressive interpretation of the Quran in favour of granting a divorced woman her alimony by the apex court of this country was rejected by them, and they created law-and-order problems, notwithstanding a minority of Muslims like Arif Mohammed Khan and Asghar Ali Engineer, who were vocal in favour of the verdict. Some, like Shashi Tharoor, have argued that the verdict adversely affected Muslim women but not Hindus in any way; so, why should this have been taken so very seriously by the Hindus? But this is not as simple as it seems. To the Hindus, it looked like an aggressive and regressive minority availing of special benefits (like the Haj subsidy at a time when no subsidy existed for the Mansarovar Yatra) on one hand but refusing to accept the law of the land when it did not suit them, and Rajiv Gandhi’s practically overturning the verdict made the Hindus feel that the Muslims could always have their way (though it also led to Arif Mohammed Khan, a progressive practising Muslim politician, resigning from Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet), even if they were a minority, and Rajiv Gandhi, in a bid to appease Hindus after sensing their resentment, actually made the mosque a makeshift temple, giving credence to the lunatic theory of the miraculous appearance of the idols of Ram, Lakshman and Sita in the mosque, which had actually been planted by the VHP! More contemplation is needed as to how Islamism has actually given a boost to Hindutva than only looking at it the other way round, and historically speaking, the Muslim League predated the Hindu Mahasabha.
Another very major development was the eruption of the militancy in Kashmir in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which killed or drove away a vast majority of the Kashmiri Hindus. This was bound to lead to a boost in anti-Muslim prejudice in the Hindu community, even though many Kashmiri Muslims, including secessionists, had helped save the lives of the Hindus in the valley by giving them leads as to the threats to their lives or granting them asylum in their homes and helping them escape safely (as even many Hindus did during the 2002 Gujarat riots, the 2008 Kandhamal riots and even the 1984 anti-Sikh riots), and many pro-India Kashmiri Muslims too were killed, but the pain of the Kashmiri Hindus seldom attracts the attention of our left-liberals, and even if it does, many (not all) of them tend to only overplay the socio-political causes and wrongly portray the Kashmiri Hindus as some exploitative bourgeoisie, underplaying the Muslim fanaticism that underlay the Kashmiri militancy.
These two events had a major role to play in shaping the Hindu response to the movement for a Ram temple on the disputed site at Ayodhya, just as the serial Ramayan (produced and directed by the actually very secular and humanistic Ramanand Sagar) did by raising the level of Ram-centric religiosity, which wasn’t a bad thing by itself but was tapped to dangerous ends. Thus, the demolition of the mosque, which was accompanied by viscerally anti-Muslim slogans, was a result of reverse antagonism more to events in the 1940s and 1980s than the 1520s, and it was the Indian Muslim right-wing in independent India that gave the Hindu right-wing a fairly significant place in the Indian political spectrum and a degree of legitimacy, which it had never enjoyed before, not even immediately after the horrors of the partition of India. To characterize this, a Hindu who migrated from what had become Pakistan, having lost some of his relatives and his property, on seeing some Indian Muslims burst crackers on Pakistan’s victory in Indo-Pak cricket matches, this minority receiving a subsidy for Haj when he didn’t get one for the Mansariovar Yatra refusing to accept the law of the land as pronounced in the Shah Bano case and trying to partition India yet again in Kashmir sending another wave of refugees, was in many cases, understandably bound to feel outraged, and the cause of the Ram Janmabhoomi gave a tangible cause to this outrage.
Of course, the demolition was driven by petty, vote-bank politics, and the RSS and BJP could have chosen a more pragmatic approach, such as the one Sardar Patel adopted by relocating the mosque erected on the ruins of the Somnath temple and building a temple on the site itself. The Sangh, which has Muslim members (yes, it does, and no, these aren’t paid stooges but people who proudly identify with India’s pre-Islamic past and see no problem with singing Vande Mataram or a ban on cow slaughter, though I do not agree that the last two are at all necessary to be a true Indian nationalist) as also moderate Hindu members who respect the rule of law, could have negotiated with progressive Muslim clerics for such a settlement in the spirit of amity and fraternity.
A historical memory of Hindu temples being demolished and mosques being set up on their ruins is certainly not a pleasant one (the endless debates between historians on whether a temple stood at that particular site not being all that relevant, though an impartial examination on my part leans in favour of those arguing in favour of the temple having existed and been demolished), and though my personal version of Hinduism doesn’t attach any importance to temples or even the concept of incarnation, there are many devout Hindus who take this seriously as they are entitled to, just as many devout Muslims have a strong emotional attachment to their holy places and their prophets, as their strong protests against a recent American film Innocence of Muslims (or rather its trailer), globally (including even in India) clearly demonstrate. When the saffron brigade was shouting offensive slogans demonizing Muslims, like Babar kee santan, (something I strongly condemn), it was for Muslims to come out with a mutually acceptable proposal (and the Holy Quran, a book I respect from the bottom of my heart, encourages even compromises on practice of faith for the cause of peace and goodwill in verse 2:224), but they played into the hands of the saffron brigade by proving inflexible in their stand, not paying heed to their progressive clerics, like Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (here’s a piece he wrote after the Allahabad High court verdict explaining his stand ), and the rest is history.
However, to end the story here would be quite inappropriate, for this piece seeks to give a holistic narrative. The Indian economy was at its ebb in the early 1990s with the license-permit raj being the culprit, and this disenchantment among the youth too definitely played a role in their participation in or support to the movement for demolishing the mosque, which gave them a channel to vent out their frustration.
Left-liberals seeking to understand the Hindutva movement ought to take cognizance of all these facts. As a lawyer by qualification, even I agree that the verdict given by the Allahabad High Court was wrong in law, for it would be partially similar to suggesting that only the Red Indians ought to have property rights in the United States, and the Indian state in the form that our current legal setup recognizes only traces itself back to the British times and cannot be retrospectively applied to periods before that, and even for the sake of argument, if we were to assume that it can, the suit would be time-barred by limitation! But that is hardly the point, and I welcomed the verdict, for it sought to put to rest a never-ending conflict that has causes and consequences, which are far beyond the scope of the law to actually address, and by dividing the land into parts that would go to Hindus and Muslims respectively, it was a solution that was to act as a balm on the wounds of people of both the communities, but the radical Muslim response was exhibited soon after the verdict in the form of blasts in Varanasi.
The conscience of the Islamic world at large gets stirred by any wrongdoing inflicted upon Muslims by non-Muslims, but not by Muslims on Muslims, leave alone by non-Muslims on non-Muslims (as is the case in Tibet or Northern Ireland) and so, the Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir, Kosovo and Chechnya are, in most cases, indeed worth a whole lot of their attention, but not those in Balochistan, Western Sahara or even Darfur. That Saddam did not get a fair trial was a much discussed topic, but his genocide of the Kurds, who were Muslims, was not all that important. Till date, Islamists globally harp about the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a historic mosque but not holding any special religious significance (as against Hindus regarding that site as the birthplace of one of their most revered deities, and if faith requires evidence, then even Muslims must be made to prove that Prophet Muhammad flew on a seven-winged horse for them to regard that rock in Jerusalem as holy – it’s known that faith doesn’t need evidence), but how many of them are protesting against the decision of the Saudi government to demolish some of the oldest mosques in the holy city of Medina? (for more on this, read this report)
Our left-liberal and Islamist friends will continue to portray the demolition of the Babri Masjid as being more worthy of our attention than the loss of lives of innocent Kashmiri Hindus, and so what if India has seen many prominent Muslims in all walks of life, but some of them even go to the extent of saying that the demolition of the mosque sounded a death-knell to Indian secularism, but I wonder if that were so, why do we not see a Ram temple on that site till date? So long as our Muslim brothers do not introspect and so long as many of them continue living with a far greater presumption of victimhood than is factually warranted, and until more of our public intellectuals don’t try to evaluate such situations objectively rather than getting carried away by their sympathy for the religious minorities, they can do little to check Hindutva, for ideologies like these need to be impartially understood and their moderate and open-minded adherents engaged with to change mindsets (I have actually succeeded in doing so to some extent with quite a few people), but is anyone listening?[box bg="#fdf78c" color="#000"]About the author: The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. A lawyer by qualification, he has co-authored two short books, namely ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World’, and he is currently writing another book on Sino-Indian relations. To read his other posts, click here.[/box]