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FALL FROM INNOCENCE

The transformation that is taking place in the ideological framework of the Indian republic can be traced back to December 6, 1992

Horror and elation both followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. These extreme reactions articulated an opposition between two irreconcilable ideals of polity. A secular republic accommodates different religious faiths either by inclusive tolerance or by strict non-interference. Most countries muddle along with a mixture of the two. But breaking down an edifice in the name of historical justice towards one religious community could not be made to fit into either mode. The scale of the event and the violence it displayed forced upon many the feeling that secularism in India was in crisis. Bringing religion spectacularly into the political arena meant frankly communalizing politics. The republic, it seemed, was opening up for itself an alternative direction.

The ideals of secularism and tolerance that had been the cornerstones of the polity in the first years after independence had been shaped by the terrible memory of the communal riots preceding and following Partition. Communalized politics was not at all a new phenomenon in the subcontinent. Besides, the undercurrent of communal equations has been a contributory factor in electoral outcomes in many parts of India. Almost all political parties, left, right and centre, have played quietly on this. The demolition of the Babri Masjid, however, represented a deliberate rupture in this fragile balance between secularism and communal difference, a balance, it is true, punctuated by communal conflict. The intentional evocation of religious faith that the event represented made communal polarization a determining factor in electoral politics. Ten years on, it is evident that the genie released from the bottle has not been put back.

But this is not always obvious. Although an outburst of communal violence followed the demolition, particularly in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Surat, Calcutta, and other places, and the devastating blasts in Mumbai further polarized communities, the actual number of major riots since have not been too many. Apart from Godhra and its blood-soaked aftermath in Gujarat, there have been few really big riots except, for example, in Coimbatore in 1997 and in Kanpur and Malegaon in 2001. What is clear, however, is that the Bharatiya Janata Party has reaped the greatest electoral benefits. This is partly by jumping on and off the Hindutva horse according to political exigency, and partly by allowing its more extreme brethren to keep debates confined to the communalism-secularism divide, thus covering up a multitude of sins in governance. But it is the complicity of all other parties, including those in opposition, that has made this possible. Each has its reason, ranging from indecisiveness to assertive self-interest. Communal polarization is no longer confined to politics. It has spread to education and culture. The ideological framework of the Indian republic is undergoing a transformation in the public arena. A landmark date in this change of direction will always be December 6, 1992, the day a mosque built by Babar in the 16th century was demolished by a horde of saffron flag-waving kar sevaks.

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