‘They say my verse is sad: no wonder, Its narrow measure spans, Tears of eternity and sorrow, Not mine, but man’s.’
Among the many philosophical questions asked by medieval scholars was the following: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Logically angels are insubstantial and cannot possibly dance, let alone on the head of a pin. The question, however, is not a piece of sophistry, or literary nonsense, and it certainly does not provide an example of the vanities of abstract philosophic debates. It underscores the profound difference between notions of time and that of space. Space is always contested because more than one event cannot take place at the same point in space. If a second angel, at least in her corporeal form, intends to dance at exactly the same point in space as the first one, she will have to push the first dancer off that point. On the other hand, time is plural, because millions of incidents can happen at the same point of time. Many of them will contradict each other, many will overlap, and others will wend their own distinctive paths in different directions. Time accommodates them all. History as the narrative of time is plural. History is contested. History will challenge the forcible occupation of the head of a pin by the second angel.
We see the clear difference between space and time in the history of the Ayodhya movement. The Babri mosque in the town became a matter of power politics over space, the moment leaders of the Hindu community staked claim to the exact point in the inner space of the mosque where Muslims offered prayers, in the late 19th century. Both sets of spatial claims could not be accommodated, one claim had to be consigned to the wayside.
The process was given a definitive edge on December 6, 1992, when the Babri mosque was demolished by groups subscribing to the ideology of Hindutva. The destruction was piloted by leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin had been settled. The second angel, speaking purely metaphorically, had pushed the first one into the void, so that she was the only one who could lay claim to that exact space on the head of a pin.
Numerous campaigns to strip us of our shared history
The history of the Ayodhya movement is however plural. Many strands of our history will tell a sorry tale of how numerous campaigns to strip us of our shared history and common heritage by the destruction of a mosque were built up, and how they were supported by influential people and a number of high-ranking officials. Throughout the latter half of the 1980s and the first two years of the 1990s, processions wended their way through the country, sometimes carrying bricks meant for the construction of the temple, and wholly intent on whipping up communal sentiments.
Provocative sloganeering and hate speech reduced India’s terrain of plurality and multi-religiosity to an arid wasteland. A trail of destruction, violent riots, arson, carnage and blood followed these processions. The campaigns culminated in an amazing spectacle. One prominent leader of the BJP, an elected representative of the Indian people mounted a chariot and led a procession, which was ironically called a pilgrimage. The procession began from the restored temple of Somnath and planned to reach the site of the Babri masjid but it was stopped on the way.
The damage was done. The raising of incendiary slogans led to major communal riots in Meerut in 1987, and Bhagalpur in Bihar in 1989. At least 2,000 people lost their lives. An equal number of people died in the post-demolition of the Babri mosque phase in Mumbai. The foundations of the temple have been laid, it will be built, but is the temple a symbol of religion, or a symbol of political power. Lord Ram renounced his kingdom to fulfil a vow made by his father. Our ruling class grabs as much power as it can to fulfil its cynical dream of remaking India in its own image.
Sadly, many Indians have bought into this cynical narrative of power. Religion in this case has provided opium to a people wracked by disease and impoverished by an economy that is sliding rapidly. No one points out that a community cannot be demonised or punished just because the ruling class in history belonged to the same religion. A just society does not penalise people for reasons outside their control. Nor do leaders of the movement comprehend, even for a moment, that history cannot be erased. Nor can it be written over. History remains as part of our collective consciousness even if efforts are made to rewrite it. This is the lesson of history, and this is why ruling groups should be careful when they set out to remake it. Many conflicting strands of history will still imprint collective consciousness with memories, and leave nostalgia that once, we Indians, boasted of our tradition of tolerance. We still remember December 6, 1992 with regret. That was the day the edifice of our democracy began to collapse.
On that day, the veteran journalist Mark Tully from the BBC wrote about the destruction of the mosque. He reported that a crowd of 1,50,000 that had assembled at the site, suddenly surged forward, broke through the police cordons defending the mosque, swarmed over the building and started tearing it down. As I watched, he wrote, the last cordon collapsed and the police walked away with their wicker shields held high above their heads to protect themselves against the stones raining down on them. I realized, he sadly concluded, I was witnessing a historic event, the most significant triumph for Hindu nationalism since independence and the gravest threat to secularism.
Politics is about imagination and innovation
In 2019, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court gave its verdict in the case. The case was about legal title to the disputed site. In a unanimous verdict, the bench ruled that that the entire land under dispute should be handed over to a trust. Things could have turned out differently. Politics, and no one can insist that judicial decisions are not political, is about imagination and innovation, ingenuity and transformation. Someone in power could have instructed the government thus: on the ‘disputed’ site build an airy and roomy place of worship with an overarching ceiling and huge windows that let in the light. Let all people belonging to all religions worship there. If a society can worship together, perhaps it can manage to live together.
Our power elites who replaced one place of prayer with another could have learnt from the Urdu poet Saghar Khayyami (2008) who writes of the way political leaders have corrupted religion:
Aisi koi missal zamaane ne paayi ho
Hindu ke ghar mein aag khuda ne lagaayi ho
Basti kisi ki Ram ne yaaro jaalayi ho
Nanak ne sirf raah sikhon ko dikhayi ho
Eesha toh narm hai
chamchon ko dekhiye toh pateeli se garm hai
Can anyone, asks the poet, give us an example where God set fire to Hindu homes? Has anyone witnessed Lord Ram burning a settlement? Can anyone believe that Nanak showed the right path only to Sikhs? Ram, Raheem, Nanak and Eesa are gentle, but their courtiers are constantly on the boil. They burn more than a scorching pot. Religion in the public sphere is after all nothing but the politics of power. But the logic of space had its way. The temple will be built, the foundations have been laid, but the history of how many lives were lost in the process and how much violence was sparked off in the cause will continue to haunt us.
The replacement of one place of worship by another illustrates the answer to the question raised by medieval scholasticism: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? The plain and unvarnished answer is one; the second angel’s victory over the space on which the first angel once danced is absolute. A precise point in space cannot accommodate more than one. But space will remain contested because our sense of time and history continues to be plural. We should be able to forget history, we cannot, for bad history leaves wounded souls and bruised bodies.
No one wins in the end
Sheila Rohekar has foregrounded this point in her novel Taviz, set against the background of the destruction of the Babri Mosque. Annu is the son of a Hindu mother Reva, and a Muslim father Anwar. Anwar is killed in a communal riot in Ahmedabad, and Reva marries again, this time a Hindu man. Her new mother-in-law and her second husband heap humiliation on Annu because he is the son of a Muslim. He is not allowed to come close or touch utensils used for prayers, he is told repeatedly that he is half-blood and therefore illegitimate, and he is estranged from his step-father.
Annu is disoriented, he neither belongs to his mother nor to his murdered father. He keeps asking himself the question, ‘Main kaun hoon? (Who am I?)’ Buffeted by the desire to belong, he denies his Muslim parentage, joins a Hindutva organisation and takes part in the campaign to build a temple in Ayodhya as a kar sevak. During a demonstration in front of the Babri Mosque in 1990, Annu is killed by a police bullet. When his friends begin to bathe his body and prepare him for cremation, they find that he is circumcised, that he is a Muslim. They begin to maul and desecrate the dead body on the suspicion that he had infiltrated their ranks and de-sacrilised the campaign. Annu is finally cremated but the leader decrees that his ashes should be thrown into the dust.
The story provides a poignant account of the recent history of our country, of how many people lost their lives in the process of replacing one place of worship with another, of how many lost their dignity, and of how many were deprived of their right to worship. Can we forget this? Today’s history might bear witness to the phenomenon of victor’s justice, but there are other strands of history that tell us that no one wins in the end. Collective lives are not fairy tales of happy endings, they furnish examples of a Greek epic, everyone loses.