In 1985, prime minister Rajiv Gandhi gave in to the Muslim zealots in the Shah Bano affair. Overruling a secular court’s decision that repudiated wife Shah Bano was entitled to alimony from her ex-husband, he enacted a law abolishing the alimony provision in conformity with the Sharia. Since India, unlike purely secular states, already had religion-based civil codes, this concession merely brought the minor matter of alimony under the purview of the prevailing arrangement. More importantly, it prevented riots.
Only months later, Rajiv restored the balance by giving the Hindus something as well: he ordered the locks on the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya removed. Until then, a priest had been permitted to perform puja once a year for the idols installed there in 1949. Now, all Hindus were given access to what they consider the birthplace of Rama, the prince posthumously deified as an incarnation of Vishnu.
Fundamentally, this decision didn’t alter the Ayodhya equation. Architecturally, the building was and remained a mosque while functionally, it had been and continued to be a Hindu temple. That is why in my opinion, not taking this decision wouldn’t have changed the Ayodhya developments except in their timing. The different players, their strategies and resolve all remained the same. The Babri Masjid Action Committee and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad would have gone about their "business" just the same.
However, the VHP would have been forced to continue pushing the rather petty demand for removing the locks rather than move on to the more ambitious and mobilising the next step of planning the construction of a new temple. Most probably, the BJP would likewise have reaped smaller dividends from such a campaign. In 1989, it might not have jumped as high as 86 seats. Conversely, the Congress might not have lost the north Indian Muslim vote to the Janata Dal. In 1989, it could have remained just strong enough to cobble together a coalition rather than leave the initiative to the unwholesome and unstable Janata-BJP-Communist combine. So, at the level of party politics, Rajiv’s decision may have made a big difference.
On the other hand, the presence or absence of locks might have made little difference to the kar sevaks who brought the structure down in 1992. Then again, with a Rajiv Gandhi government returning to power in 1989, there might have been no reason for this extreme move. The Hindus might by then have gotten their sacred site without a fight.
After all, in a situation where both Hindus and Muslims were laying claim to the site, Rajiv’s decision in 1986 was important because it allowed for only one interpretation: he favoured the Hindu claim. This was logical, for the site has a sacred significance for Hindus as the putative birthplace of Rama, while it had no special status for Muslims. Historical documents confirm that Hindus continued to go on pilgrimage to the site all through the centuries of Muslim occupation, while no Muslim ever went on pilgrimage there.
Admittedly, a Muslim lobby had been formed which insisted on reoccupying this Hindu sacred site. The existing Congress culture notoriously knew how to deal with such problems: give the Muslim lobbyists some ministerial posts, some public largesse for their institutes or a raise in the Haj subsidies and they will come around. A small application of this approach was the annulment of Syed Shahabuddin’s announced march on Ayodhya in 1988 in exchange for the governmental ban on Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. A similar but bigger concession might have annulled the Muslim claim on the Ayodhya site. It would not have been the most principled policy, but it would have avoided a lot of communal blood-letting.
This pragmatic approach was thwarted midway. This time the intellectuals played a crucial role. After the locks had been removed, India’s Marxist intellectuals unchained all their devils in order to prevent the full restoration of the site as a Hindu pilgrimage centre. In particular, they started insisting that there had never been a Hindu temple at the site before a mosque had been imposed on it.
This was a strange claim to make, for two reasons. Firstly, it was untrue. Until then, all parties concerned had agreed that the mosque had been built in forcible replacement of a temple. What is nowadays rubbished as "the VHP claim" was in fact the consensus view. Thus, in court proceedings in the 1880s, the Muslim claimants and the British rulers agreed with the Hindu claimants on the historical fact of the temple demolition, but since it had happened centuries earlier, they decided that time had sanctioned the Muslim usurpation and nullified the Hindus’ legal claim. Further, numerous documents and several archeological excavations confirmed the history of the temple demolition (with the court-ordered excavations of spring 2003 removing the last possible doubt).
Secondly, the question of the site’s history was besides the point. The decisive consideration for awarding the site to the Hindus, both for the Hindu campaigners themselves and for Rajiv, was not the site’s sacred status in the Middle Ages, but its sacredness for Hindus today. It is the Hindus of 1986 or indeed of 2004 who have been going on pilgrimage to Ayodhya, and they are as much entitled to find a Hindu atmosphere there, complete with Hindu architecture, as Muslims are entitled to find an Islamic atmosphere in Mecca. The VHP has been blamed for politicising history, but it was its opponents who complicated matters by bringing in history, and false history at that.
Nonetheless, the Marxist historians had their way. In their shrill manifestoes, these secular fundamentalists denounced the Hindus’ perfectly reasonable expectation that a Hindu sacred site be left in the exclusive care of the Hindus. They did this with such titanic vehemence that the pragmatists were thrown on the defensive.
Rajiv didn’t give up, though. In 1989, he allowed the shilanyas ceremony, in which the first stone of the planned temple was put in place. In 1990, as opposition leader, he made Chandra Shekhar’s minority government organise a debate on the issue obviously on the assumption that this would confirm the Hindu claim. And so it did, for the anti-temple historians showed up empty-handed when they were asked to provide evidence for an alternative scenario. In a normal course of events, i.e. without the interference of secularist shrieks and howls, this would have set the stage for the peaceful construction of a new temple in the 1990s, with some compensation for the Muslim community, the conflict would have been forgotten by now. Instead, the sore has continued to fester. In 1991, Rajiv was murdered, his successors didn’t continue his equitable and pragmatic Ayodhya policy.
(Elst, Belgian Indologist, is the author of Ayodhya : The Case Against the Temple.)
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