The author is professor of philo-sophy and of law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University
It would be tempting to dismiss the political clouds gathering over Ayodhya as an annual political ritual in which the Vishwa Hindu Parishad makes all the ominous noises, the government appears to both encourage it and calm it down, the opposition parties remain passive and the courts simply do nothing. But with each such February ritual, the political ground slowly but steadily inches towards a final construction of the temple.
As we saw last February, the Ayodhya issue makes politics inherently more combustible, and an incident like Godhra has the potential of generating an abominable backlash. In fact, the purpose of the Ayodhya movement is as much to make communal relations so fragile that a politics of backlash can be legitimized, as it is to actually build a temple in Ayodhya. So this February ritual claimed hundreds of lives last year and in all likelihood will do so again, if not this year, the year after.
The political configurations arou- nd the issue are also shifting. We have all forgotten that the demolition of the Babri Masjid itself was an illegal act, an act of usurpation that violated all constitutional proprieties. But that illegality has already faded from politics. The Bahujan Samaj Party led by Mayavati has given its stamp of appro- val to the government’s approaching the Supreme Court to allow the release of the “non-disputed” land around the worship site to the VHP. Digvijay Singh of the Congress has come out openly in favor of having a temple constructed.
It is true that allies of the National Democratic Alliance like the Telugu Desam Party and the Samta Party are making noises protesting against the government’s initiative. But it defies logic to think that these political parties, that did not have any hesitations staying in the NDA over Gujarat, are likely, if it really comes to the crunch, to jump ship over Ayodhya. Their talk is cheap. The point is simply this. The political landscape and sentiment over Ayodhya have changed considerably over the last decade or so. As the Bhar- atiya Janata Party comes to seem more like a natural ruling party, opposition to its agenda has subtly lessened in intensity. The political groundwork has thus been prepared for precipitating the issue, if the need arises.
Candidly ask yourself this question. If, at an opportune time, the BJP decides to settle this question by introducing an act of Parliament, how many political parties in the country will stand up and risk being labelled anti-Hindutva' If you think many will, you have more faith in the strength of Indian politicians than I do.
We should also admit that the “ideological battle” over the temple was lost a long time ago. Many even well-intentioned historians trying to combat Hindutva made two cardinal mistakes. Instead of candidly acknowledging that temple-destruction was a fact of Indian history, they went on to minimize its import and lost their wider credibility. Second, even when the fact of temple-destruction was acknowledged, its significance was minimized by a couple of strategies. Either it was argued that temple-destruction had little to do with “religious” motives, it was often an economic or political act. Or alternatively, Hindu kings engaged in temple-destruction as well.
As a way of restoring complexity to agents of history, this was a defensible move. As a way of winning a political argument, it has almost no bite. To many it is like being told that the fact that political concerns motivate Nar-endra Modi ought to lessen the revulsion some people feel at his ideology. In short, historians lost the large historical argument against the historical claims that sustain a sense of Hindu injury. Hence the political support of Hindutva.
In the entire argument over temples, what we could never create effectively was a political space that left people free to think whatever well-founded or nonsensical claims they wanted to think about, but detached these claims from the contemporary project of nation-building and citizenship. No side could powerfully articulate the sense that it really ought not to matter what we think happened in history. Independent India was founded on a new social contract, premised on the sanctity of constitutional values, the rule of law and so on, and no sense of historical injury, justified or unjustified, can warrant overriding these norms.
Even within Hinduism, an obsession with historical argument has overtaken the more important sentiment that we all suffer from too much history and the point is to transcend it. In other words, the project of detaching morality from history (which Gan- dhi so assiduously tried to cultivate) is lost. And the quicksands of history favoured Hindutva. It is difficult to turn this tide in the short run.
So we have piously put our faith in the courts, an institution that has not, for half a century, had the confidence in itself to deliver a verdict. And the shifting political ground on this makes even the impact of a court verdict tenuous. Any court verdict is unlikely to have the political imprimatur of impartiality: each side will acknowledge its authority only if its wins. And the potential of a saffron rip tide will continue to haunt Indian Muslims: if the Court comes down in favour of the VHP, Muslims organizations will be given little credit for abiding by constitutional norms. Instead, the VHP will hold them responsible for holding out. If the court comes down against the VHP, the political incentives to get Parliament to intervene will be enormous.
The configuration of parties in Parliament may make this a difficult move, but it will not prevent political temperatures from rising over this issue. Behind all our continuous talking and an appeal to the judiciary lurks a real potential for disaster. If, after Gujarat, we do not acknowledge that this issue will continue to devour lives, we are engaging in a politics of illusion.
There is however, one political party that has an incentive not to have the dispute settled conclusively: the BJP. So long as the issue is alive it can still sustain the zeal of some of its adherents; it gives the party a potent issue to remind voters of its Hindutva credentials, that distinguish it from other parties, and it can continue to play the politics of communal polarization that only strengthens its hand. This should give us pause.
Is keeping the issue alive simply adding to Hindutva’s power' On the one hand, I firmly believe that the kind of illegal usurpation that the demolition of the Babri Masjid represented, and the mere flexing of majoritarian muscle should under no circustances be rewarded. On the other hand, it would be irresponsible not to ask candidly whether innocent Muslims and Hindus alike are going to have to pay too high a price for the impasse in negotiations and the continual deferring of a settlement'
None of us would like to face this question out of fear that any answers will not be easy. How can anyone ask of those representing Muslims to compromise when the state will not guarantee their protection, when profoundly threatening acts such as the demolition of the masjid go unpunished, when there are no mechanisms of instilling confidence amongst them, and when their alienation from the political process is almost complete'
The political repercussions of simply deferring the issue are becoming too ominous to contemplate as well. Is giving Hindutva a short-term victory the price we must contemplate paying to diminish its long-term political appeal' All the principal actors will have to answer this question in the light of their judgment. But too many lives have been lost for us to hide behind our moral self-righteousness and political dogmatism, and to not take this question seriously and pointedly. Perhaps this is a case where the best should not be made the enemy of the good.