What the two-week confrontation has shown yet again is that India cannot be GOverned by any party or coalition that does not accept its basic pluralism. This pluralism is not a gift of the Congress party, or even of Mahatma Gandhi. On the contrary, it has been woven into the very warp of Indian nationhood since the beginning of time. Indian history is replete with examples of EMpires having come to grief because their kings did not respecT The distinct ethno-religious identities and customs of their people. One reason why the Maurya empire fell apart was Ashoka's attempt to force uniformity on to the social practices of his people, using the coercive apparatus of his religious police.
Eighteen hundred years later, Aurangzeb's discriminatory treatment against Hindus and his attempt to interfere with the adoption practices of the Rajput princes broke the pact between the Muslim and Rajput nobility on which the empire had been built. Barely two centuries later, the British nearly lost India in the general revolt of 1857 not simply because the army was issued with greased cartridges, but Because Lord Dalhousie had unwisely decided not to accept adOPTEd sons as heirs to Hindu rulers while applying the Doctrine of Lapse.
The storm that Vajpayee managed to whip up with his remark that the movement to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya was an expression of 'national sentiment' was thus the last of a long line of assertions of Indian pluralism. For it was not only the opposition that served notice on Vajpayee, but the three largest parties (after the bjp) in his own coalITIOn, the Trinamul Congress, the Telugu Desam and the dmk. The message was simple: India stays united so long, and only so long as rulers respect the distiNCT identities of its many peoples.
Vajpayee was not unaware of this. On the contrary, his remark reflected his acute consciousness of the need to respect the inexorable logic of Indian pluralism. The bjp had been under pressure from the aggressive new head of the rss, K. Sudarshan, to prove its Hindu credentials. Vajpayee decided to relieve the pressure with a statement that was carefully crafted to take his party's commitment to the construction of the temple out of a specifically Hindu context and to make it an act of national reaffirmation, in line with the reconstruction of the Somnath temple in Gujarat or Dubrovnik in Yugoslavia after the second World War. But for the analogy to hold, the Ram temple had to be constructed with the consent of the Muslims. This Vajpayee had not yet obtained. That was why, after ten days of roughing it out, he had to throw in the towel.
Vajpayee's 36-minute clarification of his own, and the government's, position in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday last week brought the drama to an end. But for how long? How long will it be before the rss becomes restive again? When the bjp loses political power, as it must one day, will it not also lose its capacity to resist the zealots of the Sangh parivar? Is the country then condemned to defending its pluralism from bunker to bunker? It is time for all political parties to curb their desire to make political capital out of the Ayodhya dispute, and find a solution to the problem it poses.
Under pressure from his allies, Vajpayee has reaffirmed that the bjp will await the court's verdict. But a court verdict is not an answer to the problem. If the court's decision goes in favour of the Waqf, there is not the slightest chance that it will be respected by the vhp or the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas. All it will do is to trigger another trial of strength and quite possibly another two to three thousand murders in the name of religion. If the courts rule in favour of the Nyas, Muslims here and all around the world will view the verdict as one more proof that they can expect no justice from a 'Hindu' India.
The first step towards a solution that will end the dispute and heal the rift between the two communities would be for Vajpayee to announce that while the bjp remains committed to building a Ram temple at Ayodhya, it will not do so without first gaining the assent and co-operation of the Muslim community. This will change nothing on the ground but will give a vast measure of reassurance to all minorities in the country. The second would be to announce that its preferred solution is to build both a mosque and a temple side by side (or back to back) within the compound of the Babri Masjid.
There is abundant religious justification for this solution. From 1853 to 1936, this is exactly how the two communities had worshipped their gods: Muslims at the masjid and Hindus at the Ram chabutra (platform). Such a solution would conform to the innate syncretism of the Sufi-Bhakti traditions that still imbue the practice of Islam and Hinduism in India despite decades of proselytisation by the self-appointed apostles of orthodoxy and religious exclusiveness. It is this syncretic tradition that underlies the back-to-back construction of a temple and a mosque at the Krishna Janmabhoomi in Mathura and the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. The fact that the vhp has made these its next targets reflects its alienation from the true traditions of Hinduism in India. The same, of course, is true of the Banatwalas and Owaisis of the Muslim League and the mim and the self-promoting Imam of the Babri Masjid Action Committee. These people are no longer Indian Muslims but wannabe Arabs sporting Indian sherwanis.