Ayodhya continues to be India’s site of discord. Last March, in the face of a mounting agitation by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Ramjanmabhoomi trust, the Supreme Court had ordered status quo to be maintained and had thus blocked the handing over of even the undisputed land to anyone. The Centre has now moved an application in the Supreme Court to lift the ban on religious activity on the land that the Ramjanmabhoomi trust claims to be its own. Coincidentally — or maybe not — on the same day the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, met the sankaracharya of Kanchi to discuss ways and means of breaking the Ayodhya deadlock. These moves are reactions to the threat issued by Mr Praveen Togadia, the VHP leader, that the government should hand over the “undisputed land” to the temple trust before February 23 or face a countrywide agitation. One thing is clear from all this — that on Ayodhya, the VHP sets the agenda and galvanizes the government one way or the other. The fact that a mosque was destroyed on the site ten years ago has been quietly filed away for future historians. Hindu fundamentalists make out as if they are the victims because they are being denied their rightful claim to build a temple to Ram. That the real hurt lies with the Muslims is ignored on the grounds of the spurious argument that the Babri Masjid was built 500 years ago on the ruins of a temple.
In many ways, the VHP threat comes to the Bharatiya Janata Party at an opportune time. After the electoral success of Mr Narendra Modi in Gujarat, Hindu fanaticism and Muslim bashing have acquired a respectability among the leaders of the BJP. The moderate voice of Mr Vajpayee may not rise above the cacophony which Mr Modi and his ilk have made their own. The Ram temple can thus become a rallying point once again, especially in the context of the widespread speculations that Mr Vajpayee might go to the polls before his term is over. In India, as Gujarat has indeed shown, communalism is a vote-winner, not a vote-loser. Mr Vajpayee may be forced to walk the razor’s edge that separates his own predilections and pressure from the sangh parivar.
There is something more profound than politics involved in this issue. There is an increasing and alarming tendency in India to make the judiciary responsible for safeguarding the secular fabric of Indian society. This is the fallout of a certain fragility of the institutions of civil society. There is also a suspicion about the intentions and the effectiveness of the executive. Once again, the fate of secularism in India will depend on the Supreme Court and its verdict on the application that has been filed. This cannot be allowed to become the rule in every domain, from textbooks to Ayodhya. There are issues which must be resolved at the level of experts, and society must accept these resolutions. The court can only be the last resort and not the first one as it has become. The failure of the Indian state to guarantee the strengthening secularism may well be a reflection of Indian society’s immaturity.