The Battle for India Is On - Civility vs. Bigotry

A quarter century ago, a cataclysmic event shook the foundations of India. The country of India was then in existence for 45 years, having been created out of a long and emancipatory struggle against British colonial rule in August 1947.


The event was the calculated destruction, in full public view, as the forces of law and order watched mutely, of a 400-year-old mosque, the Babri Masjid, on Dec. 6, 1992. The deep schisms unearthed by this divisive political act challenged the very structure and survival of the Indian democratic, secular state. Prior to the act of the demolition, the streets of India were witness to blood and gore as one of the country's senior politicians, LK Advani, led a chariot around the country to ensure mass mobilization of the mob to complete the act. The masterful campaigners, who went virtually unchallenged as anti-Muslim pogroms erupted (or rather, were made to erupt), were challenging all institutions of democracy and the secular state. Behind the campaign was not simply the desire (fulfilled) to destroy a mosque that was falsely claimed to have been built atop a temple, but to entrench within the Indian public discourse a lasting hatred for Muslims.

On April 19, 2017, when the Supreme Court of India revived charges of conspiracy against eight persons responsible, to be tried in a court of law and the trial be completed within two years, it was meant to restore some faith in the foundation of the rule of law. The report of the Liberhan Commission set up to probe the crime was also scathing in its indictment.

India's birth and emergence as a nation came with a mark of bloodshed, caused in no small part by the clash of visions of nationhood within both the Muslim and Hindu folds. The secular republican state—founded after deep deliberations that can even now be read in the historically critical Constituent Assembly debateswas created despite this huge upheaval that caused painful migrations of over 8 million people. Killings were gory and vengeful as the politics of hate-filled communalism tore apart neighborhoods and cities.

Descriptions of this tumultuous period have been recorded for generations. Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan, a short account written in 1956, says it all: “Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.” The Sikh community was the third that bears deep and bitter wounds to this day.

India managed to stave off the shrill call for the creation of a “Hindu rashtra-nation state” (theocratic and iniquitous in its very conception), due to the sagacity and pragmatism of its leadership that came from a wide spectrum of ideological views. The forces responsible for the schisms before independence and partition from the "Hindu state" political side lay dormant and successfully re-emerged with the movement for not just the destruction of a mosque, but also the aggressive assertions of an iniquitous and majoritarian nationhood. Between 1999 and 2004, when India had its first National Democratic Alliance government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it was a minority government with LK Advani, the man now ordered to face trial, occupying the powerful position of not just the minister for home affairs but also appointed as deputy prime minister.

Then, too, decisions on basic structural issues, especially related to religion-based nationhood and the kind of history being taught officially in Indian schools run by the state, were controversial, and the period saw excessive attacks against India's religious minorities, Christians, Muslims and Dalits, too. The Gujarat genocidal pogrom headed by the man who is today India's prime minister, heading a majority government (with the party he heads leading 11 governments and another four in coalition), was a culmination of a series of acts under the minority NDA I government. Shaken by widespread outrage, the chief minister at the time nearly lost his post; he was saved by his mentor, the same LK Advani who today faces trial.

Apart from LK Advani, there are seven others who are co-accused in the case, among them Uma Bharati and Kalyan Singh, who today occupy constitutional positions in the Modi government. Uma Bharati is the Water Resources Minister in Modi's cabinet and Kalyan Singh is the governor of Rajasthan. Despite editorials in many Indian newspapers stating that both should resign their posts, the government has been brazen enough to brush these proprieties aside. What more can be expected from individuals who represent a worldview that is inherently committed to overthrowing the Indian Constitutional order?

The comments of the judges while delivering this judgment have been reassuring coming from India's top court, especially given the delays and vacillations within the legal process surrounding the Babri Mosque demolition over the past two and a half decades. India's courts have not been immune to the political surge in religion-based nationalism, and a deeply flawed verdict (majority judgment 2-1) delivered by the Allahabad Bench of the High Court on September 30, 2010 dealt a seminal blow to those who retained faith that the courts would eventually set right the wrongs let loose in India's political arena. That verdict was crassly welcomed by proponents of the “Hindu theocratic state” with one of the advocates for the more extreme factions to the dispute owing allegiance to the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Ravi Shankar Prasad, who walked out of the court flashing the "V for Victory" sign. Today Prasad is a key man in Modi's cabinet, holding the not insignificant portfolios of Minister for Law and Justice and Information Technology.

This judgment lies in challenge also before India's Supreme Court, for the past six years. Efforts to push the matter while the political juggernaut of Modi holds sway on the Indian political arena have been aggressively afoot. India's institutions have so far held out, but only just. Fact versus faith is how the debate has been framed by rational observers, but for those politically and ideologically committed to re-fashioning history and its foundational principles, such niceties do not matter. That the temple town of Ayodhya revered by millions has over 300 temples in the name of the god Ram is irrelevant to them, as is the fact that over 300 versions of the holy treatise, Ramayana, are read and revered in equal measure by Indians across the nation. To thrust a rigid, patriarchal and linear consciousness around the Hindu faith is the design of these Machiavellian architects: Semitize India's Hindus into a narrow and rigid rendering of a faith that has multifarious renderings in a wider bid to construct the nation around the enemy "other."

Will India be able to hold out against this political re-fashioning? Power is held today by the forces of the supremacist Hindutva right already using this control to violently silence dissent and resistance. How its institutions of democracy hold out will be a test of lasting endurance.

Efforts to mislead the courts on crucial issues continue under this regime. One of India's leading “public interest litigators” is a man rabidly sworn to the Hindutva right, Subramanian Swamy, who successfully misled the Supreme Court about a month ago and pressed for “a negotiated resolution of the Ayodhya dispute.” Days later, the Supreme Court ruled this possibility out, asking how a litigant, not even party to the matter, could suddenly intervene to mislead the court

This matter also before the Indian Supreme Court, yet to be heard, is a title suit, since the land on which the 400-year-old mosque stood is Wakf (community) property belonging to Muslims. The timing of this move by Swamy, soon after the victory of the BJP in the UP Assembly elections, was not lost on anyone. The fact that any fair negotiation must occur only when both parties stand morally and otherwise on a strong footing is equally relevant.

Indian Muslims are feeling extremely vulnerable and are in a very weak position. Refusing to settle on the terms desired by the litigants who already have two-thirds of the land in dispute, according to the judgment of the Allahabad High Court, and seeking the entire land would endanger the security of the community at worst and open it to a charge of being intransigent at best. Among the several earlier attempts at negotiation was one by a Shankaracharya (Hindu religious head) and religious leaders from the Muslim community. Muslim religious leaders were favorably inclined toward that initiative, hopeful of an amicable settlement with the spirit of give and take. But the hardline political wing of the Hindutva right felt any settlement reached would marginalize their relevance, so the initiative was aborted.

Critical to understanding the politics of the Hindutva right that rules India today, is that it is founded on an imported ideology fashioned on notions of an exclusivist nation state. Even with relation to the Babri Mosque dispute, the inhabitants of the temple town of Ayodhya would have long settled the issue, had the dispute been left to them. Mahant Gyandas, the Head Priest of Hanumangarh, the largest temple in Ayodhya, has organized iftaars (feasts during the month of Ramadaan) for Muslims inside his temple and repaired the mosque on the land owned by his temple with their funds. Muslims have invited Mahant Gyandas inside their mosques.

Such were the amicable relations between Hindus and Muslims of Ayodhya at the peak of Ram temple agitation. The agitators were always mobilized from the outside in a cleverly crafted political campaign. Even today, one of the rabid campaigners against intra-community harmony is hardliner Praveen Togadia of the VHP, who hails from Gujarat. He has termed the recent Supreme Court verdict asking for criminal charges to be restored against political leaders "an insult to all Hindus." Known throughout his political career for hate speech (he was once jailed for this offense), he continued in this vein last week. Giving another inflammatory speech, he called the followers of Babar (the Moghul emperor, a euphemism for Muslims and those who are secular and rational) the “real conspirators” for allegedly demolishing temples across the country to build 30,000 mosques, which includes the city's Jama Masjid. The long arms of the law have so far not cracked down effectively on those bartering on hatred.

So fascinating are the manifold and indigenous renderings of Hinduism that even the priest of Ram Janmabhoomi Temple, Mahant Lal Das, also opposed the VHP/BJP-led Ram Janmabhoomi movement, calling it hate-filled and divisive. Mahant Lal Das was assassinated, and his assassins never caught. The present battle is not only about justice for the crimes committed on Dec. 6, 1992, but a battle for the soul of India, its abiding faith in multiple ways of being and divinity that morphed into the commitment to the modern pluralism, diversity and equity contained in the Indian Constitution.

As the Supreme Court recently put it:

“In the present case, crimes which shake the secular fabric of the Constitution of India have allegedly been committed almost 25 years ago. The accused persons have not been brought to book largely because of the conduct of the CBI in not pursuing the prosecution of the aforesaid alleged offenders in a joint trial, and because of technical defects which were easily curable, but which were not cured by the state government..."

The court maintained that the prosecution agency's (CBI) "failure to challenge the 2001 HC order on invalidation of the notification on the joint trial ‘has completely derailed the joint trial envisaged and has resulted in a fractured prosecution going on in two places simultaneously based on a joint charge sheet filed by the CBI itself.’”

Invoking a special jurisdiction contained in the Indian Constitution, the court said: 

“Article 142(1) of the Constitution of India had no counterpart in the Government of India Act, 1935 and to the best of our knowledge, does not have any counterpart in any other Constitution the world over. The Latin maxim fiat justitia ruat cælum is what first comes to mind on a reading of Article 142—let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

The aggressive and violent band of Hindutva nationalists has not taken this kindly. The battle for India is well and truly on.

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