The following is an excerpt from Ideology and Organization in Indian Politics: Growing Polarization and the Decline of the Congress Party (2009-19) by Zoya Hasan.
Even before Hindutva forces began attacking Indian secularism, the Congress had started undermining it by pandering to one religious community after another on divisive issues. One of the cardinal errors the party made in the 1980s was to get directly involved in the controversy over the role of the state in regulating the personal law of religious minorities, especially at a time when Hindutva politics was beginning to raise its head. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, concerned about losing Muslim support, decided to enact the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act (MWA) of 1986.
This was done to revoke the landmark Supreme Court judgment, which granted a maintenance allowance to Shah Bano, a 73-year-old Muslim divorcee, to be paid by her husband under the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). This controversy sparked off a huge political uproar, demanding exclusion of Muslim women from the purview of the CrPC, to which otherwise all citizens have recourse.
The government took the decision to nullify the court’s verdict and enact the MWA, declaring that Muslim women would not have recourse to the provisions of the CrPC in regard to maintenance in the event of divorce. Rajiv Gandhi had clearly succumbed to the pressure from the clergy and Muslim leaders in his own party to pass this statute.
This legislation became a bone of contention between Muslim conservatives and critics of the government. This surrender of Muslim women’s rights was part of a larger ideological shake-up in this period resulting in a closer entanglement of politics and religion. The conciliatory response to Muslim misgivings against the Supreme Court verdict tipped the balance in favour of opposition parties who had campaigned against it.
The excessive regard for Muslim sensibilities in areas of personal law provoked an indignant reaction that India would be overrun by a rapidly rising Muslim population propagated by multiple wives. There was strong opposition from the middle classes, from Hindus more generally, and from the women’s movement, which regarded the MWA as a concession to Muslim fundamentalism and a break from secularism.
This was a blessing for the BJP, which was on the same page as the middle classes who agreed that India’s Muslims were being pampered by the Congress. Ever since its passage, it has been used by the BJP to draw attention to the compromises the Congress was willing to make to endear itself to the minorities. Exploiting the mistakes of the Congress, the Hindu nationalists accused it of playing vote bank politics.
The BJP had long mocked secularism, which it regards as a Western construct unsuited to India. Importantly, it sought to demonstrate that the Congress was not genuinely secular. To the BJP, and many others outside its circles, the Shah Bano episode was a touchstone of this politics. The passage of the MWA gave them a significant opportunity to build on this critique to condemn the double standards of the state’s constitutional law and jurisprudence.
The Congress was shaken by the vehement opposition to this decision among Hindus who completely and fervidly opposed its government’s position with regard to Muslim personal laws. Having done this, it felt compelled to mollify Hindu militants demanding concessions on the disputed Mandir-Masjid site at Ayodhya. In 1989, with a view to winning the Hindu votes, the government allowed the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to perform the shilanyas at the site that Hindu nationalists had long proclaimed to be the exact birthplace of Lord Ram or ‘Ram Janmbhoomi’. Hindu activists had claimed that the mosque at the site and its use by Muslims were sacrilegious.
The RSS and Sangh affiliates demanded that the temple that once purportedly stood above Ram’s birthplace in Ayodhya should be rebuilt in place of Babri Masjid. During this period, the BJP and its affiliates launched a nationwide campaign to construct a Ram temple in Ayodhya, which gathered momentum after the Mandal decision to give 27% reservations to OBCs in government employment. The unresolved dispute in Ayodhya seemed to offer an opportunity to Hindu nationalists to garner public support. This movement must be understood in the context of the attempt by the RSS to mobilize the Hindu community around the powerful symbol of Lord Ram. That historic moment was primarily the outcome of a series of events in the late 1980s and early 1990s that created a climate conducive to the growth of communal politics.
Together, these two decisions – the revocation of the Shah Bano verdict and the reopening of the gates to the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya – were part of a ‘grand’ strategy to arrest the Congress’s declining hold over Hindu and Muslim votes. Post-shilanyas, its leaders were keen to harness the political advantages provided by the Ayodhya controversy, even if that meant brushing aside secular principles and the prime minister’s assurances to the Muslim community that the Babri Masjid was safe.
The Congress was playing the Ayodhya card in the fond hope that Hindu votes would go to it. That was not, however, quite how it transpired. The BJP-RSS campaign convinced Hindus that the shilanyas had been the result of their efforts to compel the government to concede to their demand. This inflicted serious damage on the party’s Hindu base in Uttar Pradesh and equally inflamed contrary Muslim sentiments. It was only much later that the party realized that it was alienating Muslims and also losing the support of Hindus. The principal consequence of this process was the acceleration of communal polarization contributing to a groundswell of support for the BJP and a point of no recovery for the Congress, which had completely lost the plot. The leadership admitted that permitting the shilanyas had been an error, but by then it was too late to retrieve lost ground.
Allowing the opening of the gates was seen by the right-wing as an opportunity to demolish the mosque. Soon, the situation spiralled out of control and the Babri Masjid, in a public spectacle on 6 December 1992, was demolished. This time the Congress had played right into the hands of the BJP–RSS. In the past, it dealt with these tangled issues by deferring or fudging them. By facilitating access to the disputed site and by doing nothing to stop it when it was clear the BJP-RSS were mobilizing to pull it down, both Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao, respectively, laid the groundwork for the destruction of the mosque. The effect of both these decisions, calculated to please both Hindus and Muslims, had the effect of boosting communal politics. The attempt to provide concessions to a particular community and then offsetting it by granting concessions to another left both dissatisfied and a feeling they had lost something. This was a dangerous approach that provoked a backlash from both sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide.
The Ayodhya issue forced the Congress to cede more space to the Hindu Right. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in brazen disregard of the stay order of the Supreme Court was the defining moment in this process. The political rupture opened up the prospect of changing both the ideological discourse and institutional politics in favour of a majoritarian idea of India, contrary to the hitherto established concept of a non parochial India. The demolition was a clear reflection of the Sangh Parivar’s anti-secular agenda, which remains its core position till today.
This was an important step towards turning India into a Hindu Rashtra and, more importantly, the ‘obliteration’ of Muslims from the public sphere. The Hindu Right took the lead in shaping this narrative which would be decisive three decades later. Far from helping the Congress, these developments brought its political rule to an end and led to a steady decline of secular politics. This discourse foregrounded the hurt sentiments of the majority community, exemplified by the very existence of the Babri Masjid at the birthplace of Lord Ram, which demanded rectification.
It opened up the political space for the advance of Hindu nationalism facilitated by the cluster of organizations affiliated with the RSS. These organizations mobilized support in in favour of the majoritarian agenda and the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a critical part of this process. This enhanced BJP’s influence, which offered newer opportunities to carry forward this political project after it had replaced the Congress as the central point of reference in the Indian polity.
It advanced the idea that Hindus had not received their due because of the alleged partiality of the state towards religious minorities when there was no evidence to support this. This approach blames Muslims and labels them as the adversary for all Hindus regardless of their internal differences, beliefs, and practices. That is to say, it seeks to unite Hindus not by what they share but by what they oppose, which is the common opposition to the ‘enemy’ within. Muslims and Christians do not fit into this scheme because, according to the RSS, although India is their place of birth and place of work, it is not their land of origin and their holy land. Since its inception in 1925, the RSS has never deviated from this fundamental ideological premise.
Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.