The Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi dispute has been one of the biggest influences in the shaping of independent India. It appears almost unreal to remember that this is, in legal terms, a mere dispute over the title to a small plot of land in a nondescript historical town of north India.
The land in question, on which stood a medieval mosque, belongs to the Sunni Wakf Board, while the Ramananda sect of Ayodhya claims that it is the site of the birth of the Hindu god Rama, and so it should be given to them to build a temple. This is not exceptional in India where many sites are claimed by different religious traditions as their own, sometimes competing but often coexisting. In 1949, during the troubled period after Partition when the Muslim minority of Uttar Pradesh was particularly vulnerable, idols of Ram and his consort Sita were installed inside the Babri Masjid. The district collector, who later contested the parliamentary elections on a Bharatiya Jan Sangh ticket, pointedly refused orders from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and UP Chief Minister, G B Pant, to remove the idols from the mosque. He also attached the Wakf property where the Babri Masjid stood and barred Muslims from coming within 300 yards of the monument, while allowing Hindus to enter the mosque and continue their prayers. This set the stage for the legal battle between the Sunni Wakf Board which claims it was illegally deprived of the land and building it owned and those who wanted to make a temple on this land. It is this legal dispute on which the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court will deliver a judgment on 24 September 2010, almost 61 years after the idols were smuggled inside the mosque. Although it is difficult to predict what the verdict will be, it is fairly obvious that one, or both, parties to the dispute will go on to the Supreme Court against the high court’s order.
Unfortunately, for the past two decades and more, this dispute has not remained a mere legal one, but has been the core of a violent political movement which has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of India’s citizens in riots and massacres in communal violence as well as led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid, almost all planned and instigated by the proponents of this movement. This massive violence also helped spawn fundamentalist and violent politics of its own kind among the Muslim communities. The agitation over the Ramjanmabhoomi dispute has in many ways changed the political, social and cultural fabric of the country.
This issue, single-handedly, provided the platform for Hindutva politics to expand its social and regional base to almost all parts of the country. The very name “Hindutva” emerged in common parlance through this movement to refer to the politics and ideology of Hindu nationalism, when earlier it was referred to simply as communalism. Instead of being seen as the anti-thesis of anti-colonial nationalism in India, Hindutva gained a certain respectability and is now often seen as merely a variant of Indian nationalism. The Ayodhya dispute helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to become the principal opposition to the Congress while previously that opposition space had been occupied by parties of the left, both socialist and communist. In that sense, the Ramjanmabhoomi movement led to the structural shift in the centre of gravity of India’s polity from centre-left to centre-right. More importantly, by bringing the BJP to power, it allowed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its “family” to infiltrate the institutions of the Indian state and entrench their reactionary agendas in them.
The mass appeal of the Ayodhya agitation bestowed respectability on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and helped them push revanchist and retrograde agendas to the forefront. They managed to push back many progressive agendas and, for the first time, brought the issues of secularism and democracy into contention. It was possible now to openly demand a “Hindu” state, the revocation of secular laws, the scrapping of constitutional protection for minorities and to attack democratic institutions. Not only did the Ayodhya agitation shift the political anchor to the centre-right, it also shifted the dominant political discourse from one based on rights and entitlements to one based on identity and primordial associations.
Some movements managed to meet this challenge, such as the women’s movement which changed its demand for a universal civil code to one of democratising the personal laws of each community. Other progressive movements did not fare as well: the land question in the rural areas got sidelined with the emergence of identity politics, while the vacuum created by trade union decline in urban areas was filled by Hindutva and other such movements. But the struggle to defend the secular, democratic and liberal aspects of the Indian republic also helped progressive movements – both political and social – to work out strategies to fight right reaction. The public contestations over definitions of nationalism, secularism and democracy have also helped to enrich the academic debate. Social sciences in India today are repositories of some of the most thorough and enlightening debates on these ideas. These have not remained confined to the academy but have fed into new forms of popular and progressive movements. It is an achievement that despite all the depredations and inroads made by Hindutva into India’s state and society, they have not been successful in taking over in the way they had hoped and we had feared. Rather, the Indian people and their democratic traditions have fought back to reclaim their spaces and ideas. Whatever the decision of the court on 24 September, the struggle against Hindutva has only to be strengthened and we must remain eternally vigilant.