As the latest round of exchanges between the Muslim Personal Law Board and the Kanchi sankaracharya head towards yet another stalemate over Ayodhya, there is a great sense of foreboding about the implications these exchanges have for Indian politics. An honourable settlement would have helped put the issue behind us and would probably have diminished the appeal of the fanatical edges of Hindutva. Unfortunately, the sankaracharya’s proposal was unreasonable in every sense of the term and provided no basis for a settlement. It would have taken a heroic act of trust and magnanimity to accept it in its current form, and the MPLB was within its rights to reject it.
With all due apologies to his holiness, the sankaracharya’s conduct over the last few weeks seems extraordinarily inept. His conduct and proposal violate some of the basic norms of negotiation. First, any negotiator has to establish credibility with all parties. What did the sankaracharya do to establish his credibility' There was no public acknowledgment of the crimes that have been committed in the name of the Ram temple. For a seer who exults in a politics of symbolism, the call to Hindu-Muslim unity seemed rather lifeless. He could have done what Gandhiji used to: call prayer meetings, gone on a fast, done something as an expression to acknowledge that he recognized the injuries inflicted upon Muslims in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
Rather than the Ram temple, he could have made Hindu-Muslim amicability his theme. And construction of a temple should have been part of a wider acknowledgement of Hindu treatment of Muslims, in Gujarat and elsewhere. Such an acknowledgment would have made his desire for better Hindu-Muslim relations seem more sincere. But in the text of his letter to the MPLB and public statements, the theme of reconciliation is subordinated to the demand for the temple.
Second, uncertainty is deadly for any negotiation. Read the interviews, the account of the proposals and till the end no one was quite sure what was on offer: the Archaeological Survey of India mosques, the mosque on the site, an apology for the demolition of the masjid, a firm commitment on Kashi and Mathura, were all mentioned only to swiftly disappear. This is the kind of doublespeak one expects from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, not the great seer. His reply to the MPLB’s rejection was simply that they could have asked for clarifications. This misses the point. Why are the most important ingredients of the settlement not in the original offer' And why is the onus of clarification on the MPLB' This stance only impugned the seer’s credibility.
The third ingredient of any credible negotiation is that you offer the other side something. The seer has once again enacted the morally grotesque position of making the rights of Muslims an artifact of majority discretion. Gift Ayodhya to us, the seer seems to be saying and there will be peace and harmony. Drawing this kind of causal linkage is best left to political scientists. Where is the sentiment that for the seer peace is an unconditional value, that he will uphold what the Mahabharata declares the highest dharma, anrsamsaya (non-injury) unconditionally.
The sankaracharya’s proposal preferred to play politics rather than acknowledge morality. And speaking politically, he ought to have given the MPLB something to hang on to. We ought not to lose sight of the fact that any settlement at Ayodhya will constitute a favour by Muslims. They are the party aggrieved by the inability of our laws to prevent the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
The fourth ingredient of a credible negotiation is a long and patient build- up. I am not privy to all the negotiations that went on prior to the sankaracharya’s letter, but there clearly is no public evidence that the sankaracharya took any significant number of Muslim leaders into confidence. The letter then appears like a bolt from the blue, and no one is quite sure what it intends.
And finally, the sankaracharya has made no attempt to make Hinduism rise above the politics of resentment and recrimination. He would have enhanced his credibility as a mediator if he had taken the view that Hinduism is too robust and imaginative a religion for its identity to be defined by particular places. Ram is greater than Ayodhya. Instead the seer diminishes Hinduism by investing so much of its identity in Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi.
The saddest part of the proposal is that it has once again exposed the hollow shell that so much of organized Hinduism has become. Its leaders lack a basic moral self-awareness of what morality and acknowledging the rights of others require. They are too intoxicated with their own sense of victimhood, to be genuinely empathizing and capable of seeing the pain of others. I am sure the seer personally means well. He will probably even remind us of the fact that he has both Hindu and Muslim followers; he will probably hold forth on his mission for modernizing Hinduism.
But he has failed to transform this kind of preformative solicitude for others into a credible public philosophy. And his letter reminds us of that. For a religion that always teaches that we suffer from too much history and the point is to transcend it, the seer has done precious little to rescue its adherents from the quicksands of history.
The sankaracharya’s proposals have unwittingly played into the hands of the sangh parivar. Few will remember the unreasonableness of his offer; most will be daily reminded of the fact that the MPLB rejected it. Perhaps it is time for some imaginative Muslim leadership to take the initiative on the issue and spell out the terms of an honourable settlement. They are certainly under no moral or legal obligation to do so. But the more passive they are, the more they are liable to be set up by meaningless proposals of the kind we have just seen.
The MPLB does not consist of farsighted secular angels; nor has this body served its own constituents, millions of ordinary Muslims well. But it is difficult for anyone of us to imagine the difficult predicament they face: they are dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t. On the one side there is the risk of caving in to an ugly majoritarianism, on the other, the risk of appearing intransigent. The sankaracharya did not help their predicament by not giving explicitly, and in writing, terms of a settlement that could at least have sweetened the deal and made it more credible.
The true test of a civilization is its manner of treating its minorities. Minorities need more reassurance because of their structural position in a society. The sankaracharya’s proposals failed to take this elementary fact into account. One sincerely hopes that this moment will not signal an end to all negotiations. But meanwhile, the politics of anxiety will continue, fomented not by the Togadias but by the likes of the sankaracharya, who have become too unaware of what they are doing. His proposal is bad politics and even worse religion.