Past Continuous: Twenty-Five Years on, Tremors of Babri Masjid Demolition Continue to Be Felt

A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.

Twenty-five years ago, India was in a ferment of a different kind. The backdrop was provided by the Congress under P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was running its first minority government. The BJP had emerged as the principal opposition for the first time and its new-found stature provided credibility to L.K. Advani’s claim that his party was the government-in-waiting.

But while one priority sector of the government was the economy, with liberalisation having been ushered in and globalisation on the anvil, on another critical issue that necessitated dedicated attention, Rao’s approach was apathetic, to say the least. He allowed the communal tiger to not just raise its head but also consume India in a gory round of violence which was soon met with a response.

The BJP fought the 1991 polls without major alliance partners and yet emerged as the second-largest party. For a party which had just two members in the Lok Sabha before the 1989 elections, this astonishing growth had come on the back of the several-years-long Ram janmabhoomi agitation to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya after demolishing the Babri Masjid. Polls for the tenth Lok Sabha were called early in 1991 because of the temple imbroglio and consequently, Rao was aware it required immediate attention. Yet, not inexplicably, he allowed the conflict to drift through 1991 and early months of 1992. The BJP was allowed a virtual free-run and it violated the judicial process through the Uttar Pradesh government it headed.

When we revisit the 18-month period beginning June 1991 from when Rao assumed office to December 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished by a pre-determined mob assembled by various sections of the Sangh parivar, there is no escaping the conclusion that the Indian state never abandoned its domestic responsibility to uphold rule of law to such extent ever before. Similarly, there is no denying that despite Advani’s submission that December 6, 1992, was the “saddest day” in his life, the act was wilfully staged to foist the understanding that Indian nationalism was based on cultural nationalism or in a lay person’s terms, a nationalism depicted as being rooted in the Hindu culture of the land. Other cultural and religious streams were part of ‘Hindu culture’ it was argued.

Shortly after his release from a comfortable stay – though under judicial custody – in a government guest house a short distance from Jhansi, Advani astounded everyone by declaring that the Ayodhya agitation had never been to “just build” a Ram temple. Instead, he elaborated, it was a device to propagate Hindutva as an alternate national vision to what was adopted and pursued post-independence. That statement exposed the real agenda of the Sangh parivar. In the quarter of a century since the demolition, much of India has been altered, perhaps irreversibly.

Also read: Babri Masjid Demolition – A Timeline of Events

Paradoxical as it may sound after this assertion, India still survives, territorially, as well as in the idea of what it was and may still go back to – provided there is a concerted effort in this direction. It is, of course, worrisome that the number of people whose fundamentals about India and its nationhood have not altered has declined appreciably. Taking note of changes that have taken place in the past 25 years – besides most obvious developments in terms of the electoral success of the BJP – is essential for evolving any effort at halting further slide downwards.

The first distinction between now and then is that anyone remotely sympathetic to Hindutva will probably not read this piece beyond a few lines. She or he will have already perhaps posted a quasi-abusive, if not totally insulting, comment on one social media platform or another. The 25-year period since 1997 is marked by the complete disappearance of patience and willingness to listen to a viewpoint emphasising shared heritage of Indians and India’s composite culture. Any person articulating a secular or non-communal viewpoint is immediately accused of ‘appeasing’ Muslims or the other minority that matters – Christians (especially those with Vatican linkages). Accusations against anyone remotely questioning the Hindutva agenda do not end with this but go on to raise doubts about the person’s patriotism. There is now only one way to demonstrate faithfulness to the nation.

Rise of Hindutva sentiment

In the quarter of a century since the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Hindu communal prejudices have acquired greater legitimacy. People articulating such a view have greater control and dominate public spaces more than in the past. Previously, to put it metaphorically, the shorts were worn underneath full-length trousers. Now these have literally metamorphosed into trousers and donned in public with a flourish. The diffidence over articulating a Hindu chauvinistic position which was prevalent in the media has evaporated and there is no need to remain apologetic for supporting Hindutva. Several luminaries in the media who brandish the power of vocal chords now were previously muted. While earlier only the language press was considered “irresponsible” and pandered to communal sentiment, now even the mainstream English media is often no different because it has, in a way, been ‘vernacularised’ over the past 25 years.

The demolition provided an opportunity for closet communalists to come out in the open. What was mutely stated in the course of the Ayodhya agitation was thereafter stated without ambiguity. What was illegitimate overnight acquired legitimacy because leaders of the Sangh parivar brazenly justified the shameful act. K.R. Malkani penned a signed editorial in Organiser in 1993 writing that the demolition had “put a full stop to the issue”. He drew parallels between the demolition and the “pulling down of the Berlin Wall,” and affirmed that the “New World Order will be based on Faith, not divorced from Reason”. Read in the backdrop of other assertions of the leaders of the RSS clan, it was no doubt that the ‘Faith’ would be Hindu and nothing else.

When reports came of protests in a few Islamic nation, Sangh parivar protagonists responded with aggression: “If the Is­lamic countries dare to wage a ‘jihad’ they will get the answer they got from the Jews. Last time in 1947 we surrendered to them mainly because there was a third power in between. This time the Hindus are more awakened and organised. There will be no surrender.” At a launch discussion for my first book in January 1994 (The Demolition: India At The Crossroads), K. N. Govindacharya likened the demolition with the fall of Bastille. Without batting an eyelid, a case was built to justify and legitimise a grossly criminal act. This provided rationale for the demolition being projected by Hindutva votaries as an act of bravado.

Alienation of Muslims

Without a doubt, the Babri Masjid’s demolition has been the most socially and politically transformative event. By the clever use of words and political arguments, leaders like Advani and bosses of the RSS ensured that the demolition was not considered a culmination, but just a catalytic event. For the first time since independence, liberal Muslims – even those who may have been god-fearing – who previously gave scant thought to their religious identity, overnight realised what it meant to be a Muslim in India.

This triggered a process of alienation, especially among the old elite, which has not been reversed as yet. Moreover, their schism with the state and rest of society has widened. Post 1992 and more so after 2002, the violent episode itself being a ‘child’ of the ongoing Ayodhya imbroglio, there has been a marked rise among Muslims seeking geographic comfort of one another. Subsequently, slum ghettos for the urban poor and ‘posh’ enclaves exclusively for rich Muslims have sprung cheek by jowl. In return of ‘security’, the rich in certain localities have donned the role of the space of the state in health and education sectors by establishing philanthropic trusts. Not just within the country, but Indian Muslims have also forged greater cultural and religious links with the Gulf nations, the more conservative Saudi Arabia and in certain extreme cases, identified – if not sympathised – with the rising cult of Islamism.

Increased instances of home-grown terror, accompanied by the emergence of pan-Indian Muslim consciousness as against bonding on regional lines previously has made political Hinduism’s task easier. But Muslims cannot be faulted for being more organised because with social media being a force multiplier in urban India where most Muslims live, they remain perpetually under the scanner. This has increased insecurity and threat perception among Muslims consequent to which they look for support from one another because the state’s security arm does not provide adequate protection always. Moreover, with the emergence of the Modi brand of politics, the state does not consider problems of Muslims as distinctive and unique to them but looks at them through the prism of sabka or the majoritarian slogan: equality for all but appeasement of none.

In an instance of double-standards, the word ‘appeasement’ or ‘pacification,’ however, does not apply to the BJP now. The party accuses other parties of practicing what it has formulated as “vote bank ki rajniti” in a direct allusion to the electoral strategy of secular parties at times wooing voters from religious minorities. But in the process, the BJP remains conspicuously silent about using the same tactic to rally Hindus behind it. The BJP has succeeded greatly and this is evident in Rahul Gandhi’s decision to visit temples in the course of the election campaign in Gujarat. He does so because the Congress still remains fearful of losing the Hindu vote.

Also read: The BJP’s Attack on the ‘Muslim’ Taj Mahal Is Part of a Wider Project

Foot soldiers of the Sangh parivar in various campaigns in the field have, post-demolition, been met with half converts. Because a counter-reaction to Muslim mobilisation has become easier, society as a norm witnesses what had been infamously asserted by Modi in a television interview when the embers of the 2002 riots were still smouldering: kriya-patikriya ka silsila chal raha hai…

The demolition of the Babri Masjid enabled the upwardly mobile middle class to shed the hypocritical veil, of what was till then, political correctness. There is greater middle-class support for project Hindutva today than for the Ram temple agitation then which was relatively lower middle class based. More than 50% of Indians are below 25 years and almost 65% are below 35. Most are Hindus and have no memory of the Babri Masjid. Its absence is a fait accompli and anyone opposing construction of the temple is labelled traitor because myths around the temple-town have become more recurrent and vivid. Building a temple is now seen as a ‘national project’. It is similar to my generation which grew up post abolition of privy purses and could never understand the brouhaha over maharajas and princes and why people should have fought for the restoration of their ‘royal’ rights and powers.

The absence of Hindu sensitivity towards Muslims further distances youth of the community from the mainstream. Vicious campaigns like ‘love jihad’ spread venom and takes sections of Muslim youth closer to externally-funded radical teachings. The sentiment of revenge on one another feeds of the other. This has made reconciliation more difficult. Furthermore, the BJP is now greatly dependent on, in the absence of a failure of the half-baked economic policies of this regime, consolidating Hindu support for extending its political stranglehold.

Project Hindutva is sustained on the sentiment that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was not retribution enough and more avenues must be opened and actively pursued. The objective is not what it was in 1992 post demolition – yeh to bus jhanki hai, Mathura-Kashi baaki hai. The goals are multiple. If today it is to examine the meat Muslims eat, then tomorrow it may well be the way their men keep their beards and way women dress. The craving for controlling the other is insatiable. The impact of the demolition is felt every moment and it appears that this shall be a continuing saga, at least for now.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.