The Ayodhya verdict by the Supreme Court has drawn much legitimate criticism from various sources, especially for some of its glaring inconsistencies. The sum total of the verdict is that the Babri Masjid, or a new version of it, will have to move from the site it had occupied for over four centuries to an alternate location of five acres at a “prominent place” in Ayodhya.
The verdict hides an awesome irony if we retrace our steps to the 1980s. That is when the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute had begun to emerge on the national agenda. An offer was made by the Hindu side of the dispute to move the entire structure of the Babri Masjid intact on a train to another site, which would not be far from its current location, if the 2.77 acres was handed over to them.
The reference was to the technology successfully used in Egypt for moving an ancient monument to another site during the 1950s to make way for the Aswan dam. The offer was rejected on two grounds, one theological, the other political: a piece of land once occupied by the house of Allah was non-negotiable; and that once this demand was met it would lead to a series of similar demands for other sites, especially Kashi and Mathura.
The verdict has implicitly rejected the first ground. And even as it, along with a law enacted in 1991, closes the door on the second, future political twists and turns hold no such guarantee. If the present regime can revoke solemn guarantees given to Kashmir under Article 370 in a jiffy, how long would it take to supersede the 1991 law? A massive popular mobilisation will be on the cards to drop it.
It would be fascinating to speculate on what might – or for that matter might not – have happened if the offer had been accepted. If the Muslim leadership (it is very hard to speak of the Hindu and the Muslim leadership in the singular) had announced that although historical and archeological evidence does not support the theory of a temple, much less a Ram temple, being demolished for the building of the Babri Masjid (which has been argued in writing by many historians and archeologists, including this writer, in fact even by the Archeological Survey of India’s report which is the verdict’s solid basis), in view of the strong belief of our Hindu brothers that this was the site of Lord Ram’s birth, we are happy or at least willing to hand it over to them for a grand Ram temple – provided no such demand is repeated in other cases.
Most likely, the dispute would have ended peacefully and for all time, and the communal conflagration we have witnessed since the 1980s would have subsided. A most likely result might have been that the BJP and the Sangh parivar would not have gained the traction they have and would not have become the dominant force in Indian politics and society that they are now.
Indeed, Muslims would have been hailed as the victors who honoured the very Indian ethos of sacrifice and tolerance. At least there was one in two chances for this outcome; now there is none. But only great visionary leaders can lead their communities to crossing such far sighted thresholds of history.
Now that the Supreme Court has rightly or wrongly “overruled” both the theological and the political grounds of a compromise and has offered another “compromise” – that of five acres of land for a mosque within Ayodhya, underlining the illegality of the demolition of the Babri masjid – the Muslim community ‘leadership’ has the option of accepting or rejecting it.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board has decided to seek a review of the verdict, which is its constitutional right, but simultaneously to reject the offer of the five acres. The AIMPLB has always seen itself as the exclusive custodian of the Muslims in India and its control over the Shariat jurisprudence as independent of the Indian constitution. This has often landed the Muslim community in jeopardy such as on the Shah Bano case, which is the root cause of the phenomenal rise of Hindutva.
Nothing will suit the Hindutva organisations and their ideology more than this rejection by “Muslims”. For central to that ideology is the “othering” of the Muslim community, the difference between Hindus and Muslims commuted into active and irremediable hostility. The rejection of the compromise will lend even greater strength to the existing ‘us versus them’ ideology, the community virtually accepting its status as ‘them’. The victims of the ‘us versus them’ ideology are always on both sides, but then, always, one side pays an inordinately higher price for it than the other.
The author taught medieval history at JNU.