The Babri Masjid case is not just a title dispute. It’s a dispute between the idea of the nation-state and the idea of India that ordinary people carry in their hearts and minds.
On one hand you have the demand for a Hindu nation as envisaged by the RSS and its political wing, the BJP and and on the other the fluidity of the India that refuses to be boxed by narrow/conservative definition of religion, caste/jati, region or language, something that the preamble of the Constitution of India in some measure reflects with its emphasis on justice, liberty, equality and fraternity as foundational stones of democracy.
This is amply illustrated by the reaction of the Sikhs to the recent verdict of the Supreme Court on the Babri Masjid case. The case which has so far been projected as a Hindu-Muslim dispute has now acquired a third dimension.
The five-member bench Court in its wisdom sought consultation with a Sikh expert (Rajinder Singh) on the question of whether Guru Nanak Dev (1469–1539) the founder of the Sikh religion, visited Ayodhya as part of its perusal of travelogues before the construction of the mosque in 1528. Guru Nanak Dev is believed to have travelled to Ayodhya between 1510–11, which is before Babur’s invasion of the Indian subcontinent.
The judgment refers to the expert on pages 992–994, where it states that Rajinder Singh, was a witness for the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Board of Waqfs (defendant №2 in Suit № 4). On this page, Sikhism is described as a “cult” and Rajinder Singh as “a person having an interest in the study of religious, cultural and historical books of a Sikh cult”. In his deposition, Rajinder Singh states:
“Guru Nanak Devji, after getting the appearance of God on an auspicious day, Bhadrapad Poornima, 1507 CE prepared him for going on pilgrimage. Then he went to Ayodhya via Delhi, Haridwar, Sultanpur, etc. Almost 3-4 years have passed in this journey. Similarly, Guru Nanak Dev went on pilgrimage to see Shri Ram Janam Bhoomi Mandir in 1520–11 CE. It is mentioned here that invader Babur has not invaded India by that time.”
The judgment notes that along with this statement, Rajinder Singh annexed various “janam sakhis”. His deposition in this context is:
“I had studied a number of ancient books in the form of edited and published books about Sikh cult and history which include
- Adhi Sakhies (1701 CE), “Puratan Janam Sakhi Guru Nanak Devji Ki” (1734 CE) creation of Bhai Mani Singh (1644–1734 CE);
- “Pothi Janamsakhi: Gyan Ratnawali”, “Bhai Bale Wali Janamsakhi” (1883 CE) creation of Sodhi Manohar Das Meharban (1580–1640);
- “Sachkhand Pothi: Janamsakhi Shri Guru Nanak Devji”, creation of Baba Sukhbasi Ram Vedu (8th descendant of Sri Laxmi Chand younger son of Guru Nanak Devji);
- “Guru Babak Vansh Prakash (1829 CE);
- creation of Shri Tara Hari Narotam (1822–1891 CE);
- “Shri Guru Tirath Sangrahi” and famous creation of Gyani Gyan Singh “Tawarikh Guru Khalsa: Part I (1891 CE) etc.
It is fully evident from the information gained from these books that disputed land is a birthplace of Shri Ramchanderji and Guru Nanak Dev had sought the darshan of Shri Ram Janam Bhoomi Temple at Ayodhya, it is also proved from these books that with the passage of time Shri Guru Teg Bahadur and his son, Shri Guru Gobind Singh have also sought the darshan of Shri Ram Janam Bhoomi Mandir at Ayodhya”.
The judgement then goes on to record that “It is true that from the extracts of the Janma Sakhies, which have been brought on record, there is no material to identify the exact place of Ram Janma Bhoomi but the visit of Guru Nanak Devji to Ayodhya for darshan of Janma Bhumi of Ram is an event, which depicted that pilgrims were visiting Ayodhya and were having darshan of Janma Bhumi even before 1528 AD. The visit of Guru Nanak Dev ji in 1510–1511 and to have darshan of Janma Bhumi of Lord Ram do support the faith and beliefs of Hindus.”
The Sikh community has reacted vociferously to this deposition and inference made by the five-member bench led by the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi. Their essential objection is that Sikhism has been misrepresented and misunderstood.
But what exactly are “janam sakhis”?
The literal translation would be “life stories” or in other words, tazkiras or written hagiographies and malfusat (compilations of conversations of a saint) that became popular during the rise of the Sufi movement in North India in about 12–13th century. As its contemporaries, it was natural for Bhakti saints (Sants) to borrow this form of remembrance/ recording from the Sufis.
This accounts for records of Kabir Bani and Baba Farid Ganj-i-Shakkar’s philosophical discourses and many others (that have been reproduced in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs).
As was the norm of the day, many of the saints, addressed their faithful in various literary forms. The most common of which were oral literary forms such as dohas (couplets), pads (short lyrics set to music/ raga) and sakhis (is a form of doha with roots in Sanskritic tradition of Aparbrhamsa).
The first compilation of Sant poetry which bears a definite date, according to historians, is the Adi Granth i.e., the holy book of the Sikhs, compiled by Guru Arjan in 1603–1604.
The Sants from this time are divided into two main groups. The northern group includes poets from the North-West region of Punjab, Rajasthan and the Gangetic valley, whose figurehead is Kabir and the southern group that includes Maharashtra, and whose figurehead is Namdev. The difference between the two groups is that the north group is defined by strong anti-Brahminical overtones, while the southern group was strongly wedded to the Vedantic tradition or the authority of the Vedas and the Vaishnava tradition.
The North group to which Guru Nanak Dev belonged, as his affinity for Kabir, demonstrates, makes fun of Vedic teaching, rituals, and knowledge. Kabir though Muslim, rejects the authority of the Quran. Guru Nanak Dev asserts that he’s neither Hindu nor Muslim. Here not only “sruti” and “smriti” of scriptures are disregarded but the authority of scriptures as such, which is viewed as the privilege of the Brahmins.
As the following Sakhi of Kabir demonstrates:
“Brahmin is the guru of the world
but he is not the guru of the devotees
He got entangled in his four Vedas
and there he died”
Guru Nanak Dev like Kabir rejected idol worship and the ritual barriers between castes based on the notion of pollution. He held pilgrimage to holy spots and holy baths as totally irrelevant to man seeking salvation. In fact, studies show, that Guru Nanak Dev’s position is in many places identical to that of Buddhists and Jains of old. The belief in nirguna — one formless whole — Ek Onkar re-asserts this position. How could such a man have gone for darshan or a pilgrimage, as suggested in the deposition?
The question that arises here then is what “janam sakhis” were presented before the Court? Going by the dates of the sakhis mentioned in the deposition it is clear that all the sakhis date from the 18th century and later when the Brahminical revivalism becomes evident. So, only a detailed study of these sakhis, on whether they represent the Vedantic scholarship or the nirgun view of the world held by Guru Nanak Dev as recorded by Guru Arjan can decide the matter.
Punjab, Rajasthan and the Gangetic valley are the repository of an alternate idea of India. And this idea of India cannot be overturned by a bench of judges. As a legal expert commented, “The law and state cannot and should not tell us what is essential or non-essential in a religion. The judiciary is not supposed to take over the role of the clergy.”