A quarter century has passed since the Babri Masjid demolition. Every year, Hindutva forces celebrate this day as ‘Vijay Diwas’ (Victory Day), as a ritual, but perhaps with a sense of guilt and helplessness—for them, Ram, despite being ‘liberated’, remains homeless all these years. In the changing political context, the silver jubilee year marks a watershed as the RSS gears up for what they offer as a grand metaphor—the return of Ram to Ayodhya—by turning into a reality the ‘Mandir wahin banayenge’ slogan, once considered merely rhetorical.
Symbols and rituals are embedded in the Hindu nationalist agenda; hence, the first step in this direction has already been initiated with the symbolic return of Ram to Ayodhya this Diwali by lighting almost two lakh lamps on the banks of Sarayu, creating a great spectacle. Now the Sangh parivar is zealously taking up the next step by fast-tracking the temple construction agenda. Thus, without waiting for the Supreme Court decision, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently announced that a mandir will be constructed, asserting that there will only be a mandir, and no other structure at the disputed site.
With this announcement, the RSS has entered a new phase of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement: construction of a temple as a new symbol of a Hindu India. Bhagwat’s confidence needs to be understood in the context of an all-powerful RSS now being in control of the levers of political power at the Centre and in a majority of the states. The hegemonic rise of the RSS owes greatly to the Ayodhya movement, of which demolition was a symbolic as well as a substantive event.
The demolition was not a sudden act, but an outcome of a decade-long mobilisation and agitation under a calibrated strategy by the Sangh-VHP-BJP combine. Though the seed was sown back in 1949 when Ram lalla ‘appeared’ in Babri Masjid on a cold December night, the lord still failed to go beyond the local to capture the national religious imaginary. The humiliating electoral performance of the BJP in 1984, winning only two seats in Parliament, compelled the RSS to go for a militant religio-political strategy around Ayodhya. The Meenakshipuram conversions of 1981, Shah Bano, the unlocking of the temple doors by the Congress government, all provided ideal fodder for a mammoth pan-Indian Hindu mobilisation, which became the largest mass movement in independent India.
Till then, the ideology of Hindu rashtra was by and large confined to the Sangh cadre. Ayodhya allowed the RSS to spread its worldview among ordinary Hindus by imaginatively projecting Ram not just as a great Hindu god, but also as a symbol of repressed national pride. Thus, Hinduism and nationalism were skilfully woven, and this struck a chord with millions who never really related to a vacuous secularism. On the other hand, BJP veteran L.K. Advani’s cogent arguments on ‘minority appeasement’ appealed to many.
Left secular historians questioned if Ayodhya was the birthplace of Rama and whether present-day Ayodhya was the Ayodhya of the Ramayana, thus perhaps putting more wind in the sail of the project. Let alone engage it, they failed to even grasp the working of the believing Hindu’s mind: for them, Ayodhya was beyond time and history; faith never looked for evidence. Hard-line secular politicians and Muslim leadership failed to anticipate the upheaval. When Advani talked of relocation of the mosque, it could have been an entry point for talk and bargain; however, the secularists relied entirely on the constitutional/legal solution, fearing any dialogue would privilege the Sangh parivar. Political and electoral calculations, rather than minority interest, were the guiding principles. Once the RSS gauged the mass support behind its project, it showed no interest in rapprochement as it could reap a political windfall only through a violent assertion.
Historically, the RSS has always shown the right instinct at the right time for its survival, expansion and pursuit of political power. It kept aloof from the freedom struggle, strategically opting to expand quietly. During Partition, it endeared itself to Hindu refugees as their ‘saviour’. During the hard days of its ban after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, it conceived the political front, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (1951), and then strategically expanded, opening other affiliates, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (1964). In 1975, it took the bold political decision to challenge the Emergency by joining the JP movement, and soon became a dominant player in the Janata Party and in mainstream politics in 1977, acquiring respectability, legitimacy and political power.
The launch of the Ayodhya agitation in the 1980s was perfectly timed as well. By then, the Sangh network had already become pan-Indian, making inroads into new regions and social groups. And yet, the RSS had remained largely a Brahmin-Bania, upper-caste, middle-class organisation of the cow belt, and it desperately needed to break out of this mould. Ayodhya equipped it with the language and symbolic tools required to penetrate rural and semi-urban India, and flow over the caste barrier: for Ram had a big appeal among backward castes and marginalised groups across regions. Thus, mobilising for the mandir became simultaneously a way of building a new social coalition, particularly integrating the Dalits, adivasis and backwards into the Hindu fold, not just in a token way as often alleged, but showing willingness to make them partners in power. Thus, the foundation of a ‘Hindu India’ was laid on a large and diverse social base. The BJP’s strength in Parliament surged; the movement brought it to power in key north Indian states; and the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh made way for the demolition with the tacit approval of the Congress government at the Centre.
Surely, the demolition was insane and barbaric for many, and such violent majoritarian assertion was considered anti-democratic and anti-minority. But the supporters gloated over their victory as though it ended the very symbol of historical Muslim domination and Hindu humiliation. But this ‘victory’ had some long-term negative repercussions. Mob frenzy and violence became a new normal for conflict resolution. There came to be a big question mark on the efficacy of the Indian state in protecting the rule of law and minority rights. The lofty ideal of ‘Hindu tolerance’ was once and for all consigned to history. The demolition and mob violence left a permanent scar on Muslims and scared other minorities. Trust in constitutional governance became a casualty, as Kalyan Singh, despite his affidavit as the CM to protect the masjid, became a wilful partner in demolition.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat with Hindu spiritual leaders
All this had no adverse impact on the RSS, of course. Rather, the riots and subsequent blasts in Bombay, a violent response to the demolition, further enhanced its credentials in a field marked increasingly by Hindu-Muslim polarisation. Its constituency was further consolidated and the momentum finally enabled the party to form coalition governments in Delhi from 1998 to 2004. Some key players of the movement, including some religious leaders, became lawmakers and ministers; thus, religion got legitimacy in the secular domain. The RSS, despite constraints, exercised a sway over the A.B. Vajpayee government: from cabinet formation and policymaking to key appointments. The moderate Vajpayee, who chose to express remorse after the demolition, put the mandir issue in the backburner due to coalition compulsion; and only the VHP periodically continued with its symbolic rituals at Ayodhya.
In 2002, a train coming from Ayodhya was set on fire at Godhra, killing Gujarati kar sevaks, which led to the most horrific anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat. Gujarati society got Hindutvaised to a great extent and the state has been in the firm grip of Hindutva politics ever since. The majoritarian assertion of December 6, 1992 had a logical link to events in Gujarat a decade later. But Narendra Modi chose not to be confined to the mould of Hindutva icon: adding administrative strings to his bow, and deploying development as a slogan, he graduated to become India’s prime minister with RSS support.
The BJP’s massive electoral success in 2014, and later in the 2017 UP assembly elections, could be partly attributed to the base created during the Ayodhya days. The movement’s inclusive social coalition came in handy, though lying dormant and disillusioned with their temple aspirations going unrequited, the Sangh successfully brought them back to the fold, promising to address their concerns. Now Yogi Adityanath, directly engaged with the temple issue, poses as an enabler even as Modi stays largely on the development plank. Modi is the new navigator of Advani’s rath; Yogi inherits the legacy of his predecessor Mahant Avaidyanth, a key figure in the movement. With two stalwarts at the helm, and RSS hegemony at its peak, why will not Bhagwat exude confidence?
Undoubtedly, the Babri Masjid demolition shook the very secular edifice of the country’s Constitution, signalling the onset of a Hindu India. The makeshift temple is the foundation for a majoritarian state. Since December 1992, pillars for a temple are being quietly chiselled, while the RSS has been carving out the structure of a Hindu India—brick by brick.
(The writer is ICCR chair for the Study of Contemporary India, Leiden University, the Netherlands.)