The Indian Supreme Court recently delivered a decision over a very sensitive case that should put an end to decades of controversy. The highly anticipated verdict concerns the title suit over a piece of land – sacred to Hindus as well as to Muslim – where the Babri Masjid once stood, the mosque that was torn down in 1992 by a frenzied mob of Hindu extremists. The dispute over the piece of land in a dusty small town of Uttar Pradesh could sound like too local an issue for an international readership, yet it has taken on such an enormous emotional value in the fierce political-religious debate centered around Ayodhya, a town that has become the symbol of revanchism and muscular Hinduism. To fully understand the reach of the sentence, one has to step back to that day 27 years ago that marked one of the darkest pages in India’s republican history and the point of no return in relations between the Muslim minority and Hindu majority in India.
On a foggy morning of December 6th, 1992, a crowd of 150 thousand Hindu nationalists and kar sevaks (Hindu volunteers) gathered near the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya for a political rally called by Hindu far-right organizations and L.K. Advani, the then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party of current prime minister Narendra Modi. According to Hindu propaganda, the mosque was built in the 16th century on the site where an ancient temple dedicated to Lord Ram once stood. The temple, it is said, was demolished by Emperor Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty that ruled India for 300 years. While there is no historical evidence to support the thesis of the Ram Mandir, which has also been rejected by findings of the Archeological Survey of India, the issue is still capable of igniting the hearts of the Hindu far-right that considers the hill of Ramkot the birthplace of Ram, Ram Janmabhoomi. The rally was meant to reclaim the spot and lay the first, symbolic stone of the Ram Mandir.
The first episode of the controversy dates back to 1885, when groups of Hindu devotees attacked the mosque and claimed the site to rebuild the temple, but their plea was rejected by the colonial government. Again, in 1946, an offshoot of the Hindu Mahasabha, a far-right party, fueled agitation for the possession of the site and, three years later, started a 9-days continuous prayer at the end of which two idols of Ram Lalla (infant Ram) and Sita were mysteriously found inside the mosque, which was shut down with the idols still inside. The parties referred the title suit to the local High Court. The gates of the mosque remained shut (though Hindu pilgrims were allowed to enter from a side door) until the end of the Eighties, when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) militant Hindu nationalist organization working under the Sangh Parivar, an umbrella of Hindu nationalist organizations, relaunched a movement to build a temple for Ram Lalla.
From words to violence
The BJP, ideologically close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, the paramilitary organization considered the BJP’s backbone and parent organization) became the political face of the movement for the construction of Ram Mandir which culminated in the Ram Rath Yatra, a pilgrimage to Ayodhya organized by Advani and other prominent politicians like Murli Manohar Joshi and Umar Bharti. When the gathering turned into a violent riot, the police cordon deployed to protect the mosque proved to be insufficient. The image of the three domes of the mosque crammed with people tearing it down with hammers and pickaxes remained in the collective memory as one of the darkest and most painful pages in the history of republican India. The demolition triggered a series of communal clashes throughout the country that led to the death of over 2,000 people, many of them Muslims. The idea of a secular and tolerant country, dreamed of by the fathers of modern India, was buried under the rubbles of the Babri Masjid.
It was 1992, a year that marked one of the lowest points in relations between the two major religions of the subcontinent. A watershed moment after which a slow and steady normalization of Hindu nationalist extremism is mining India’s delicate social fabric, along whose fractures the BJP built its political manifesto. In the last five years that the BJP has been in power, this has resulted in increasingly majoritarian policies and a “Hindu-first” sentiment which has translated into aggressions, intimidations and lynching of the many minorities in the country, primarily Muslim, which form 14.2 percent of the population or about 200 million people. The facts of Ayodhya left a trail of hate and violence that did not take long to burst again: Mumbai was rocked by a series of communal riots between 1992 and 1993 that killed 700 people. Moreover, the demolition of the Babri Masjid was cited as the trigger for terrorist attacks by Indian Mujahideen, including the coordinated explosions in Mumbai in 1993. Yet the fuse of inter-religious hatred rekindled in Ayodhya did not delay in detonating again, this time in Gujarat, where anti-Muslim pogroms in 2002 resulted in a bloodshed where some 2,000 people lost their lives and 150,000 got displaced.
Back then, prime minister Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, his home state that he ruled for four consecutive mandates. While he has been widely criticized, both at home and abroad, for having turned a blind eye to the riots, he has always sounded unapologetic for what happened in the state under his tenure. Instead, he began a campaign based on Hindutva, or Hindu-ness, to reunite the Hindu vote using the powerful trigger of religious tensions. He mastered a new political discourse combining politics based on nationalism and identity with the mantra of development, vikas, which worked well nationally and internationally. Since he came to power, while opening up the country for business and trying to appeal to foreign investors and international corporations, he has also mainstreamed Hindu nationalist extremism. Ayodhya and the construction of the Ram Mandir became one of the key points of the party’s manifesto and its electoral promise during the 2019 campaign, which handed him a landslide victory.
A controversial verdict
While the Supreme Court did condemn the demolition of the mosque in the past labeling it “unlawful” and the organizers of the rally were found guilty, the latest sentence, despite asserting the Court did not want to venture down the historical and religious arguments (still debated), finally recognized the ownership of the land to the state government and ordered the creation of a Hindu foundation to manage the site. Hence, the beneficiaries of the verdict are essentially the same subjects who at the time of the events orchestrated an act of political-religious vandalism unmatched in the history of the subcontinent, paving the way for the construction of the Ram Mandir. The court also ruled that 5 acres of land shall be given as compensation, elsewhere, to the Sunni Waqf Board, the body that manages Muslim religious sites in India. In an earlier sentence, dated 2010, the Apex Court ruled the land should be divided into three parts among the three litigants, yet the decision was appealed by the parties. The sentence should mark the end of a century of controversies and bloodshed.
Despite claiming not to venture into questions of faith, the sentence, unanimously approved by a panel of five judges, has in fact legitimized Hindu fanatism and the rise of a violent India, where politics are increasingly intersecting with religion. Moreover, the sentence sets a dangerous precedent in the subcontinent, where dominions have often physically overlapped with one another and religious buildings were often erected on the ashes of older ones. Sectarian violence and religious revanchism have been rewarded by the judiciary, a frightening signal from the largest democracy in the world. «That unanimity hurt. It did. One had hoped or wished to have hope, that there would be a chink in the armor somewhere. An ambiguity. The absence of it, the full glare of a ‘unanimous’ majoritarianism wrote Apoorvanand, a Hindu professor and political commentator in an editorial on the daily The Wire came like a stab in the heart of the idea of India».
Photo: ARUN SANKAR / AFP
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