It’s understandable for a civilisation to carry a wound. It may be real or imagined but, unless it’s politically manipulated, it needs to be respected and addressed. Such wounds may exist beyond the letter of the Constitution, and yet a mature civilisation is expected to acknowledge and resolve them. But if one thought that the Ram temple would assuage the injured Hindu pride, it’s not to be. No other than Atal Bihari Vajpayee had once emphatically said: “Kashi and Mathura are not on our agenda, they will never be…when we are saying that it’s not on our agenda, you need to trust us…hum Ayodhya ki punaravritti nahin hone denge, yah hum bilkul saaf baat kahna chahte hain. (We will not let another Ayodhya happen. We want to state it clearly).
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Despite assurances by the former prime minister, another Ayodhya now looms large over India. The bow is primed. The target defined. Soon after a Varanasi court ordered a survey of the Gyanvapi mosque, a ‘Shivling’ was found in the premises, with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad immediately calling it the ‘Gyanvapi Mandir’. Section 3 of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, prohibits the conversion of any place of worship, whereas Section 4 mandates that the “religious character of a place of worship” as it existed on August 15, 1947, shall remain the same.
The VHP contends that the Act doesn’t apply in the Gyanvapi case because the presence of the ‘Shivling’ confirms that “the bona fide religious character of the basic structure and the place was very much that of a temple in 1947”. Soon the Supreme Court seemed to create a way to accommodate their claims when, hearing a petition on the dispute, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said that “the ascertainment of religious character is not barred” under the 1991 Act. Contrast this with the 2019 Supreme Court judgment on the Ayodhya dispute, a five-judge bench that also had Justice Chandrachud, which had underlined that the 1991 Act “protects and secures the fundamental values of the Constitution” and “imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism under the Indian Constitution”.
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The judgment now finds few takers. “The Ayodhya judgment is a standalone judgment and does not impose any such conditions. The Places of Worship Act does not apply to these three temples (Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi) and other heritage temples. In any case, these temples were destroyed to subjugate Hindus and demolish their centres of faith,” Sheshadri Chari, former editor of the RSS-affiliated journal Organiser, tells Outlook. The case seems already over. It may soon be “ascertained” that there “is” a temple at the site. The VHP says that “the country would accept and respect this well substantiated evidence” and “would move in the direction of its natural outcome”. Which outcome? “The removal of the Gyanvapi mosque.” Several senior Sangh Parivar leaders told Outlook earlier this week.
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Soon after the Babri mosque was demolished, philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi wrote Sita’s Kitchen, which, political psychologist Ashis Nandy once told this reporter, “was the most brilliant work I had read on the demolition”. Gandhi noted that when the injured Hindu pride was “morally bullied and cajoled to perceive a sixteenth century mosque in Ayodhya as the very embodiment of otherness; sheer, indissoluble, otherness”, it marked “Advaita’s Waterloo”. Advaita, arguably the greatest philosophical thought India has given, was defeated on December 6. Gandhi wouldn’t know that there was more to come. Days after Chandrachud’s observations, a Mathura court allowed a suit seeking removal of the Shahi Idgah Masjid adjoining the Krishna Janmabhoomi complex. Significantly, the court also observed that the 1991 Act is not applicable to the Mathura dispute because its Section 4 (3)(b) exempts the cases that had been “decided, settled or disposed of” before the Act came into force. In other words, an old agreement between Shri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sansthan and Shahi Idgah Management Committee that allowed the co-existence of the mosque and the temple may not hold any worth.
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But does a constitutional democracy need any special law to protect its religious shrines or their character? The Constitution alone should be enough to prohibit the conversion of a religious place. The Ayodhya temple was a dilapidated one; the idols were inside the mosque, but an imposing Krishna temple stands in Mathura surrounded by a number of glistening shops and hotels. In absolute contrast is the neglected and decaying mosque, at some distance from the temple. Its approach lane is swathed in filth, around which live impoverished Muslim families. As someone who has had a long association with Mathura and the Krishna Janmabhoomi, this reporter can emphatically say that until recently the mosque was a non-entity in the ecosystem around the temple, as well as in the holy town. And yet, residents have now begun demanding the removal of the mosque that barely stirred their cultural memory. Last year, the Hindu Mahasabha announced that they would install a Krishna idol in the mosque on December 6. “During the Ayodhya movement a slogan was raised signifying the return of three temples or else (the Hindus) will wrest 3,000 temples that were vandalised. The Muslim leadership does not seem to recognise the resurgent Hindu mood,” says Chari. Clearly, it’s not limited to Kashi, Ayodhya or Mathura, with even UNESCO World Heritage monuments like the Taj Mahal and the Qutub Minar becoming the sites of contention.
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A Hindu temple is not merely the abode of the deity. It’s a community centre, a playground, a site for learning, a place where even wedding matches are made. Ask devout Hindus, and they will share myriad memories of their temples that are not at all linked with the presiding deity. These deities also carry a profound philosophical aura. As the controversy rages about a Shivling, it’s instructive to learn about another form of Shiva—Nataraja, the lord of actors that inspired the great ancient text Natya Shashtra, and who dances in the golden hall of the Thillai temple and that also stands tall at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, in Geneva. If one wonders about the presence of Nataraja at the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, a CERN statement noted that “the belief is that Lord Shiva danced the Universe into existence, motivates it, and will eventually extinguish it. Carl Sagan drew the metaphor between the cosmic dance of the Nataraj and the modern study of the ‘cosmic dance’ of subatomic particles”. The two-metre bronze statue, which carries a shloka by Adi Shankaracharya, was presented by the Department of Atomic Energy to the laboratory during the UPA rule.
The last few decades have stripped the gods of their philosophy and converted them into political warriors, and the temples into grounds for displaying numerical strength, a shrill slogan that obliterates the possibility of any individual redemption before the Lord. Though, not all temple constructions reflect a wound. When a Hanuman temple denied entry to Scheduled Caste people in Sirsa district a few decades ago, local RSS shakhas led by a young pracharak named Anil Kumar constructed another Hanuman temple in 1992 and appointed an SC as the temple priest. Anil Kumar is now Sah Pracharak North Zone, among the veteran RSS leaders in north India. Likewise, the movement for the construction of Kanyakumari’s Vivekananda Rock Memorial was led by a veteran RSS pracharak, Eknath Ranade.
But the overwhelming sentiment goes elsewhere. In November 2015, then BJP chief Amit Shah called the Ram temple movement the “biggest movement after Independence”. Last December, the VHP’s joint general secretary Surendra Jain stated: “In 1947, India got its political freedom. But through the movement for the Ram Temple, we got our religious and cultural freedom. This was an even bigger movement than the freedom struggle.”
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Are these temple movements even reflective of India’s culture? When the word kar seva gained currency in the late 1980s, it was alien to most Hindus, even in north India. People often wondered about the meaning. The seminal work on the Ayodhya movement, Creating a Nationality, co-authored by Ashis Nandy, Shikha Trivedy, Shail Mayaram and Achyut Yagnik, rightly noted that “the idea and the term” were borrowed from Sikhism. “In much of Hindu India, the word did not even make any sense till recently.”
But now a campaign called ‘Reclaim Temple’ has listed nearly 2,000 temples that were believed to have been destroyed to build Islamic monuments. Besides, several other right-wing groups have prepared lists of such Islamic structures across the country, including those at Lodhi Gardens in Delhi and Begum Masjid of Hyderabad. It could be a perfectly legitimate scholarly documentation of the past, but it becomes an exercise to display political strength.
And what happens to the gods? Here’s an untold story of the Babri demolition narrated to this reporter by three different eyewitnesses on various occasions. As the crowd climbed up the domes of the mosque on December 6, 1992, and brought the structure down, the Ram Lala deity that was placed underneath a tomb was also razed to the ground. The idols that had appeared in December 1949, disappeared in another December several decades later.
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In October 2016, I raised the issue in a recorded interview with Bajrang Dal founder and then BJP MP Vinay Katiyar, who was among the prime actors on the day. About the demolition, he first said: “Dhai ghante ke andar sab khatam ho gaya. Ek-ek int chali gayi…lakhon log the.. ek-ek mutthi lekar chale gaye. Bacha kya wahan? Kuch nahin bacha. (Everything was over in two-and-a-half hours. Every single brick was removed…there were lakhs of people…they carried one handful (of debris) each. What remained there? Nothing).” Asked about the idols underneath the tombs and whether the idols in the makeshift temple were the same, he quickly said: “The idols are the same,” and ended the interview. Perhaps Ram Lala just could not have been saved in the frenzied atmosphere.
Significantly, the SC in its Ayodhya judgment took strong exception to these incidents. While the installation of the idols “led to the desecration of the mosque and the ouster of the Muslims”, the “destruction of the mosque and the obliteration of the Islamic structure was an egregious violation of the rule of law”.
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And yet, the wound many kar sevaks felt that evening, and feel today about the Gyanvapi is as intense as it could be. It may not be shared by other Hindus, but for them it’s real and needs a resolution. Thankfully, one doesn’t have to look far as here’s a profound anecdote recorded in The Life of Swami Vivekananda. Once Vivekananda visited Kashmir and was greatly distressed to find temples that had been vandalised by “the Mohammaden invaders”. At the Kheer Bhawani temple, he told himself: “How could the people have permitted such sacrilege without offering strenuous resistance? If I were here then I would have never allowed such things. I would have laid my life to protect the Mother.”
And then, goddess Kali appeared to chastise him: “What, even if unbelievers should enter My temples, and defile My images? What is to you? Do you protect me? Or do I protect you?” On another occasion at the same place, he “was brooding with pain on the dilapidated condition of the temple”, and wished to build a new one. Once again the Mother Goddess emerged: “My child! If I so wish I can have innumerable temples… I can even at this moment raise a seven-storied golden temple on this very spot.” Her words instantly brought an epiphany to the disciple. He felt that “all my patriotism is gone. Everything is gone.” He was “transfigured”, and was “now only the monk, in the nakedness of sannyasa”.
It’s unwise to expect kar sevaks to even aspire to become a monk, but they can at least add this episode in their morning prayers because the King of Dancers, when angry, is also known to perform the tandava.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Faith Accompli")