Twenty years after the event, there is a dominant imagery of the demolition of the Babri shrine. Culled through photographs and long-distance video shots of frenzied karsevaks waving triumphantly from the 16th century domes, they convey vignettes of fanatics venting hate. This imagery is reinforced by writings in the English language that tell the story of despair at the assault on India’s syncretic traditions and tearful lamentations over a moment of “national shame”. Indeed, to a generation that has come of age in a glitzy, globalised, made-in-the-media India, ‘Ayodhya’ is often the casual shorthand for a dark past when menacing bigotry ruled the roost and when the “idea of India”—that mother of all cliches—came close to perishing.
There are, however, other imageries of December 6, 1992, that have been subsumed by the prevailing cosmopolitan discourse. In my mind, there is the unforgettable image of the middle-aged man, dripping blood from gashes all over his face and hands, rushing to a disoriented L.K. Advani and, on bended knees, offering him the tiny idol of Ram lalla that had been worshipped at the garbha griha since 1949. There is the meeting with the father of the two Kothari brothers who had been killed during the firing on karsevaks in October 1990, the first occasion when the shrine had been stormed. There is the picture of the group of nattily dressed youth from Andhra Pradesh leaving the venue at dusk chanting, “Ram lalla phir ayenge, bhavya mandir banayenge.”
That’s a promise that is likely to remain unfulfilled, maybe even in their lifetime. There is a heavily guarded, completely barricaded, makeshift Ram temple that exists on the site. But the many thousands of consecrated bricks collected from all over India in 1989 and the scores of ornate pillars that have been diligently crafted by artisans following a design by the temple architect Chandrakant Sompura are likely to remain in storage at the nearby site for the foreseeable future.
An issue that was simmering locally since Mir Baqi built a mosque in 1528 on a site venerated by the Hindus of Awadh as Ram Janmasthan and which became embroiled in a legal tangle after 1949 when a Ram idol was placed inside the disused shrine isn’t likely to yield any quick solution. On April 26, 1955, the Allahabad High Court had observed that it “is very desirable that a suit of this kind is decided as soon as possible and it is regretted that it remained undecided for four years”. A judgement was finally delivered in September 2010—a 55-year delay—and was predictably sent to the Supreme Court where it festers.
Maybe it was wrong in the first place to expect their lordships to adjudicate on an issue that, whatever else it may be, was never a simple property dispute centred on 2.77 acres of land. Yet, for long years, nervous politicians, unwilling to shoulder the burden of a decision, fell back on a spurious let-the-courts-decide formula. In December 1992, that prevarication proved quite decisive. Had the Allahabad High Court not delayed its decision on the Uttar Pradesh government’s acquisition of the land outside the contentious 2.77 acres by over a year, it is entirely possible that the 16th century shrine would have survived the kar seva of December 6, 1992, and, indeed, many more kar sevas. After all, from December 1949, the Babri Masjid had been functioning as a Ram mandir—a Hindu temple in an unlikely building.
Legal issues were, however, never at the heart of the enormous mobilisation that, in the words of Advani, produced the “greatest mass movement” since 1947. To many, the awesome mobilisation, which began with the Ram shilan pujas of 1989 and became a national issue with Advani’s rath yatra from Ayodhya and climaxed with the December 6 demolition, was all about the reinvention of the Hindu vis-a-vis the ‘other’. In this scheme, righting the wrongs of history and undoing the medieval vandalisation of temples were symbolic of a larger transformation.
Read today, Girilal’s grand pronouncement may sound hyperbolic but in the surcharged atmosphere after the demolition there was a definite feeling (articulated, among others, by V.S. Naipaul and Nirad C. Chaudhuri) that India was witnessing a great Hindu ‘awakening’. “Hindu ne aaj kamaal kar diya,” gushed Sikander Bakht (the BJP’s most prominent Muslim face at the time) as he embraced colleagues at the party’s Ashoka Road office. In an article, written around that time, I had myself compared December 6 to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the storming of the Bastille.
In the event, history only half-turned. Did we miscalculate? Was the movement, in essence, merely an expression of visceral anger against the ‘other’? And was it purely momentary? Did the Hindu revert to his age-old celebration of ambivalence over certitude?
It is still far too early for definite answers. Yet, assessing the two decades that have lapsed since that fateful December afternoon, certain broad conclusions are in order.
First, the Ayodhya movement had a definite political context. It was nurtured and gained popular acceptance (particularly among the middle classes) in the backdrop of the Khalistani movement, the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley that led to the ethnic cleansing of the Hindus, and Rajiv Gandhi’s reversal of the Shah Bano judgment. Add to this V.P. Singh’s cynical Mandalisation of society and a picture of an India where the Hindus were being taken for granted. Ayodhya threw up a Hindu counter-challenge to divisive politics. Hindus, as a loose and amorphous religious community, predated independent India. Ayodhya created the political Hindu, a community that stretches far beyond those wielding trishuls recklessly and intervening with passionate incoherence on social media.
Finally, the Ayodhya years coincided with the gravest crisis of the ideological consensus forged by Jawaharlal Nehru. The disintegration of the Soviet Union, the rise of radical Islamism in the neighbourhood and the failure of the ‘socialistic’ way to deliver economic growth led to old shibboleths being questioned. Coming in the midst of this uncertainty, Ayodhya pushed the old order over the cliff. Later on, India moved tentatively towards market economics, material prosperity and a more pragmatic relationship with the world. Many of the grievances that had fuelled Hindu anger were tacitly addressed.
At the same time, the Hindu ‘resurgence’ was also marked by a significant failure. While political advances were made, there was a resounding failure to evolve an alternative intellectual tradition that built on the rich inheritance of pre-Nehruvian thought. It is this inability to systematically work towards building a viable counter-establishment that may explain why the optimism and hope created by Ayodhya has largely dissipated. It may also explain why the interpretation of a defining chapter has been left entirely to the ancien regime.
Apropos Swapan Dasgupta’s column on Dec 6, 1992 (A Half-Turn in History, Dec 17), what have we gained, and what have we lost? A 464-year-old heritage mosque was destroyed, but there’s no sign of a temple in its place. Our secular fabric has been forever riven; the leaders who championed the Ayodhya cause are now marginalised. Time, I guess, has paid its dividends.
M.Y. Shariff, Chennai
Seeing Swapan Dasgupta write an apologia for Hindutva, and that too as a take-off from an anti-social act, was no surprise. But his debunking “the idea of India” in the very first paragraph certainly was.
Swapan must be thanked for having the courage to stand up to inane Indian pseudo-secularists. In India, we have belief systems whose core philosophy is based on hatred of others and then they have the temerity to accuse Hindus of starting a hate movement. It’s obvious that Ayodhya was a reactive movement to this saga of hypocrisy.
Arun Kumar, London
The author is right, the Ayodhya movement is still a work in progress. The kind of positive social awakening this movement should have generated is yet to be realised.
Ashutosh Kaul, Toronto
Ramjanmabhoomi was in no one’s consciousness till the late ’80s. Whatever the spin, it came as a hate-the-Muslims movement which is unacceptable to me as an Indian.
R. Saroja, Mumbai
Tell that to the Encyclopedia Brittanica."
If your Brittanica cannot get such simple facts straight, it is not worth anything. I dont waste my time with that.
>> Hindu Kush is not Arabic, it is Persian as pointed out by Rakhal.
Since in # 317 you had brought up Encyclopedia Brittanica as an authentic source, I quoted from it, "The name Hindu Kush derives from the Arabic for “Mountains of India.”
>> in Persian, it does NOT mean mountains of India.
As I said before, according to Nigel Allan, there were at least two meanings for "Hindu Kush" common centuries ago "mountains of India" and "sparkling snows of India" - he notes that the name is clearly applied from a Central Asian perspective. Others maintain that the name Hindu Kush is probably a corruption of Hindi-Kash or Hindi-Kesh, the boundary of Hind (i.e. Indian subcontinent).
>>The name Hindu Kush derives from the Arabic for “Mountains of
Hindu Kush is not Arabic, it is Persian as pointed out by Rakhal. And in Persian, it does NOT mean mountains of India.
> Nobody gives a shit about his China stories – stop wasting space here.
>>You are the one who brought it up in # 311.
I brought it up in the context that only China story’s substantial veracity is open to doubt. Hence giving details of how China is a pack of lies is a waste of time.
>>"The word "Koh" or "Kuh" means mountain in many of the local languages.
But the word Kush does not mean mountain and the word is Hindu Kush and not Hinud Koh.
>> no one here was discussing physics but you still got reprimanded for your inadequacy as a physicist purely based on your arguments on history and current affairs
Actually, she was "reprimanded" more for her lack of logic, digressing (purposely or otherwise) into unrelated topics, readiness to start a discussion, but failure to respond to simple questions when challenged, etc. Her "inadequacies" as a Physicist were only to highlight that I didn't expect these things from a Physicist, whom I expected to be more logical, systematic and to the point.
That said, these references were unnecessary, a meaningless diversion, and in fact, these make me too guilty of most of what I accuse her of. I should have avoided them, am sorry about it, and won't repeat it in future.
>> HINDU KOH alone getting "corrupted" to HINDU KUSH is illogical.
Rubbish! If the pronuniation of the name of one mountain is altered over centuries, is it necessary that the same change has to occur in the name of another mountain also? This is Vyas logic, and you can be expected to fall for it.
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