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TWENTY YEARS TOO LATE
- A turning point in Indian history when history refused to turn

In January 1993, barely a month after the Babri structure built by one of Babur’s commanders in 1528 was demolished, Girilal Jain, a former editor of The Times of India, made a spirited intervention in the pages of the weekly, Organiser, run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In view of the Allahabad High Court’s scheduled judgment, on September 24, on the title suit of the disputed site that has been pending for over 50 years, it is instructive to revisit that debate.

“The structure as it stood,” Jain wrote, “represented an impasse between what Babur represented and what Ram represents... In fact, in my opinion, no structure symbolised the Indian political order in its ambivalence, ambiguity, indecision and lack of purpose, as this structure. The removal of the structure has ended the impasse and marks a new beginning.”

Jain wasn’t alone in viewing the events of December 6, 1992, in Ayodhya as the Indian equivalent of, say, the storming of the Bastille. Both the votaries of Hindutva and the beleaguered defenders of the Nehruvian order were united in viewing the demolition as a point of rupture. For the former, the change would herald a Hindu reawakening; for the secularists, it threatened to destroy India’s pluralism and transform the country into a de-facto confessional State.

Both sides of the confrontation, it would now seem, were guilty of hype. India wasn’t transformed into a Hindu Pakistan and the Constitutional edifice established in 1950 remained strong and intact. To borrow A.J.P. Taylor’s description of the 1848 revolution in Europe, the Babri demolition was a turning point in Indian history when history refused to turn.

This is not to suggest that the temple movement, an event that L.K. Advani prophesied in 1990 would become the “greatest mass movement” in history, was a passing show, creating the proverbial ripples on the surface. The series of events beginning with the opening of the locks in 1986, the Ram shila pujas and Advani’s rath yatra, right down to the abstruse dispute over 2.77 acres of land and the final demolition, made a profound impression on public opinion. Apart from the spate of Hindu-Muslim riots, the churning over Ayodhya contributed immeasurably to the end of Congress dominance, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s emergence as the principal non-Congress party, the creation of a nebulous Hindu vote bank and a strengthening of Muslim religious identities.

But the movement didn’t turn India upside down. Like the furore over the Mandal Commission report, the Ayodhya movement resulted in political turbulence and even a substantial measure of regroupment. But its consequences weren’t revolutionary. As the six years of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance indicated, the upheaval triggered a change of government five years after the demolition; it didn’t lead to a regime change.

With the benefit of hindsight it would seem that the contemporary misreading arose from the premise that the Ayodhya movement was overwhelmingly an explosion of faith and sublimated Hinduness. The implication was that a new religiosity had penetrated the popular psyche and begun influencing secular life.

That veneration of the epic hero of the Ramayan and the desire to commemorate the spot where local belief suggested he was born played a role in motivating religious Hindus to back the movement is undeniable. It is difficult to envisage any other post-Independence movement when so many Hindu religious figures across the land, ranging from the heads of important mutts to neo-literate purohits of village shrines, came together for a common purpose. This heady emotionalism was unquestionably the main factor behind the mobilization of rural India (and particularly women).

However, what sustained the movement, and gave it an extra- religious dimension, was the support it received from the Hindu middle classes. It was this middle class groundswell in both the cities and the small towns that led many contemporary observers to suggest that the Ram temple had become the metaphor for a more far-reaching transformation.

In retrospect, it would seem that the middle class endorsement of a movement that appeared to liberal India as being retrograde and antediluvian was located in a specific context. By the late-1980s, the pillars on which the Nehruvian order was constructed had developed deep cracks. Particularly evident was the bankruptcy of the socialistic approach based on the licence-permit raj. By the time Indira Gandhi fell to the assassins’ bullets, the public sector-led, State-regulated economy was yielding diminishing returns, unable to cope with rising expectations for a better life. Rajiv Gandhi emerged as a ray of hope but his record was soured by his Shah Bano retreat and the stench of corruption from the Bofors deal. To urban India, the system had run out of steam. The physical mortgaging of India’s gold reserves in 1990 epitomized the bankruptcy of an economic system.

The Ayodhya agitation encapsulated protest, millenarianism and modernity under one roof. It didn’t usher in Hindu National Socialism as its aesthetic detractors were convinced it would (leading to some facile comparisons of inept boy scouts in khaki shorts with Hitler’s stormtroopers). But it drove a stake through the heart of an incapacitated socialism.

In the past two decades — Advani has helpfully reminded us that the high court verdict will coincide with the 20th anniversary of his rath yatra — India has changed far more than politicians are willing to acknowledge. The sense of Hindu dejection and defeat that was so marked in the early-1980s — a consequence of India’s overall underperformance — has given way to a cockiness that comes from a sudden rise in economic prosperity. Whereas in 1990, historical memories of temple destruction rankled, today’s mood is governed by the belief that the future belongs to India. The optimism may be based on a bubble but it is nevertheless real.

The high court verdict isn’t going to be the last word in the Ayodhya saga. The disappointed parties are bound to appeal to the Supreme Court and the political class as a whole feels that the dispute should be put into a judicial slow cooker for another decade. There is a functioning makeshift Ram temple that has existed at the site since the ‘mysterious’ appearance of the idol in 1949, and it is inconceivable that this state of affairs will change in the foreseeable future, whatever the court decides later this month. As long as the denominational status quo in the Ayodhya site is maintained, India is unlikely to experience another bout of civil unrest and sectarian conflict.

Yet, there are two sides to the dispute. If the Hindu middle classes that nurtured and sustained the Ayodhya agitation are focused on worldly matters, a section of the Muslim community has also been infected by a globalized mood of victimhood which, in turn, has bred a nothing-to-lose assertiveness. In the event the court rules in favour of the Sunni Waqf Board and overturns the 1940 Privy Council judgment in the Shahid Ganj Gurdwara case, it is entirely possible that a radical section of the Muslim community may feel that a further reference to the Supreme Court is just a ploy to deny it overdue justice. Whether this frustration will trigger a wave of radicalization is not known, but the danger is real and could in turn lead to a countervailing response.

As always, the Ayodhya bomb carries with it many deadly delayed fuses. It has been that way for the past 482 years, ever since a conquering Mughal general rode roughshod over the feelings of the vanquished.

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