Nearly 27 years to the day, my primary concern as a raw 20- year-old reporter for The Statesman in Ayodhya to cover the run-up to and, as it happened, the aftermath of the demolition of a medieval mosque on 6 December 1992, was to find out whether I would get eggs for breakfast. Information I had picked up on the drive down from Lucknow was that the temple town, in keeping with its “holy” status, did no “non-veg.” Such things were important to me, then. Now, in an effort to prolong my late youth, as it were, oats/idli/lowfat yogurt and the like are my victuals of choice for breakfast. But that’s not all that’s changed.
The Supreme Court’s verdict in the Ayodhya Case last week means a Ram Temple will soon be built at what most Indians believe was Lord Ram’s janmasthaan (birthplace). On the exact spot where the mosque stood till it was demolished as I took notes on that December afternoon all those years ago. Whichever side of the argument one is on, it is clear that Ayodhya’s landscape, indeed its skyline, is set to change irrevocably. The Ram Temple movement dealt a lethal blow to India’s Grand Old Party.
The ideologically dilapidated, organisationally weak and often directionless Congress we see today as a shrunken, shrill principal Opposition party can be traced directly to its inability to formulate a cogent response to the first genuine ideological challenge it faced. The Congress, as the big tent party of the freedom struggle, had – apart from a two-year blip in the 1970s in the aftermath of the illadvised Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi – governed the country since Independence in 1947. Administratively, it had effectively grafted on to British colonial structures an elite-led statist/socialist superstructure. What this meant, however, was the continuation of the client-patron relationship between citizens and the state.
It was what the political scientist Rajini Kothari famously termed the ‘Congress System’. The only real ideological challenge to the Congress in the first three decades of Independence came from the Indian Left but by the 1970s Indira Gandhi had comprehensively ‘out- Marxed the Marxists’. By the late 1980s, though, when the brute majority won by her son and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi riding on a sympathy wave following her assassination in 1984 had dissipated in the 1989 general election, the continuation of rickety state structures and their inability to meet the rising aspirations of the people was untenable.
Rajiv and his friends also failed to simultaneously grasp the challenge thrown up by a robust articulation of an Indic cultural nationalism using the demand for a Ram Temple at Ayodhya as its potent symbol. Leaden-footed, and more used to taking on the Left than the ‘Right’ (though it’s not unproblematic to term the BJP as such), the Congress reacted by lurching to a fundamentalist secular position sans cultural context. It had, by then, anyway long since snuffed out the traditional voices within the party. In earlier times, these leaders had argued for an understanding of India premised on an Indic civilizational ethos which was both inclusive and receptive to notions of modernity.
But suffused with a sense of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty worship because the family were still winning them elections till the late 1980s, the Congress watched with a near-criminal indifference as the BJP not only gained traction for its idea of India but appropriated the legacy of Congress icons to their cause. The plaintive cry by current Congress president Sonia Gandhi in the 2019 election campaign that the BJP had “successfully painted the Congress as a party of Muslims” is emblematic of the permanent damage she and her predecessors have done to the erstwhile ruling party of India. Indian Muslims have, save those on the extremes given inordinate play in the media, gracefully accepted the Supreme Court’s verdict on Ayodhya.
It is the Hindu community of over 960 million which comprises over 80 per cent of India’s population that has much to ponder over. The apex court judgement may have put a quietus on the matter legally and there is a clearly discernible sense of closure among a vast section of Hindus. But there are those who will not matters rest and let the country focus on developing a sense of civic nationalism based, as has already de facto been established, on a non-supremacist Indic ethos. Not to mention work on economic growth for a burgeoning, aspirational population which will have an average age of just 29 by 2020. The progenitor of the Ram Temple movement himself, LK Advani, in a series of interviews to this writer (1998-2002), had said that what worried him most about being at the head of “the largest mass mobilisation in Independent India” was the lumpen element though he insisted the BJP was trying to ensure they were kept away.
In the aftermath of the Ayodhya verdict, Hindu triumphalism has as of yet been thankfully conspicuous by its absence. But a sotto voce campaign that resurrects a provocative slogan from the peak of the Ram Temple movement has resurfaced – Ayodhya to bas jhaanki hai, Mathura Kashi baaki hai (Ayodhya is only the trailer, construction of a Krishna temple in Mathura and Shiva temple in Kashi (Varanasi) on which mosques were built are on the agenda too). Within the Hindu community, there is no stomach for another long drawn out battle of attrition in the courts and on the streets as everyday governance issues take precedence. At the moment. There is, in any case, a reference in the Supreme Court verdict to the Places of Worship Act 1991 which declared that apart from the Ayodhya dispute, the religious character of a place of worship existing on the day of India’s Independence shall continue to be the same as it existed on that day.
The emotive tug of temples to Lords Shiva and Vishnu which were demolished and/or built over by medieval Muslim monarchs to ‘humiliate Hindus’ would, however, only be underestimated by the context- free and culturally oblivious. The question exercising Indian minds is if, in the future, a demand is raised or arises for temples at Mathura and Kashi, what should the Hindu community’s response be? There is only one decent, civilised response which the Hindu community ought to collectively express: That any such movement must be led and primarily populated by their Muslim co-citizens. And for that to come to pass, genuine engagement with India’s largest minority community and getting it to buy into an integrationist agenda is essential.
(Special to ANN)