Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Behind the day India gasped

Ayushman Jamwal explains the political-communal dynamics leading up to the landmark decision on communal relations in India  

Since India’s Independence and the subsequent creation of Pakistan post partition, Hindu Muslim relations in India have always been a tumultuous issue that have shaped and reshaped the institutions of politics, law and the social fabric of Indian society. Within the area of politics, the relations between these two dominant communities in India have constantly been marked by underlying resentment and outright violence, displayed within the rhetoric of politics and repeatedly on the streets of the nation.

Rampant poverty and the lack of education fuel the ranks of extremist factions, which carry out criminal acts supporting wider right wing political agendas. This hampers the peace and amity enjoyed by the educated and progressive sections of both communities and distances them from the political institutions of the nation.         
In contemporary India, the political destiny of Hindu Muslim relations rest on horse trading and thugs. In such circumstances, two political parties have played pivotal roles in managing those relations, the pacifist Congress party and the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (Indian People’s Party), the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) (National Volunteer Organisation), a powerful Hindu nationalist lobby in India.

No other issue has been at the centre of communal strife in India, than the ownership case of the Babri mosque site, which for over a hundred years has been the litmus test for Hindu Muslim relations in the nation. The recent High court judgment regarding the ownership of the site may have changed the course of communal relations in India, but to understand that, I must delve into the history of the case.  

Located in Ayodhya, a city in the populous northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the Babri mosque was erected in 1528 under the reign of Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India. At the same time, Ayodhya and specifically the site of the Babri mosque, is considered by many Hindus as the birth place of Prince Ram, the hero of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. It is also believed that the mosque was built after destroying a Ram Janmabhoomi temple, a temple marking the locally believed birthplace of Ram. However, these Hindu beliefs are not without their challenges. 

There are many temples in Ayodhya that claim to be the birthplace of Prince Ram, while many Hindus believe that his birthplace is actually the village of Gharram, near the city of Patiala in the northern Indian state of Punjab. The village housed the palace of his maternal grandfather, and it was customary in ancient India for a woman to return to her parental home to deliver her first child.   

Despite clashes of religious beliefs, under the colonial rule of the British, Hindus, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims, peacefully worshipped separately at the mosque site. However, chief advocates of the Indian independence movement, namely Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, packed strong Hindu nationalist ideologies into their campaign rhetoric. For emerging Hindu political parties, the religious nature of the independence struggle made the dispute surrounding the mosque site, very politically lucrative.             

After India gained its independence in August 1947, taking the cue from the Hindu nationalist freedom fighters, in 1949 the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha (ABHM) (All India Hindu Assembly) began agitating for Hindu possession of the Babri mosque site. Its members held a prayer meeting at the site for nine days, reciting a poem in Sanskrit (the ancient language of India), depicting the life of Ram.  

On the eight day, idols of Ram were sneaked in and placed below one of the mosque domes. The ABHM claimed a divine hand in the appearance of the idols and strengthened their agitation to claim the site to build a Hindu temple. The police informed the highest authorities in the State government, who ordered the removal of the idols. However, the police authorities refused to do so as they feared the act would ignite riots.
The State Government decided to maintain the status quo, until a court could decide the ownership of the site. In January 1950, the ABHM appealed to the State Government for ownership, but the Government denied the appeal and issued a decree to forbid Hindus from worshipping at the mosque site. The building containing the ‘Hindu shrine’ was soon padlocked and Hindu Muslim litigants camped themselves in court rooms to fight for the ownership of the Babri mosque site. Over the next decade three litigants emerged – the ABHM, the Nirmohi Akhara, a minority Hindu sect, and the UP Sunni Central Wakf Board, a religious property administration organisation for Muslims in Uttar Pradesh.   

In 1986, the Congress Party Central government, led by Rajiv Gandhi, found an opportunity for political expediency, to appease the Hindu and Muslim communities in India and protect its diverse vote bank. Earlier that year, a legal case had stirred the Muslim orthodoxy in India.
Shah Bano, a sixty two year old Muslim woman and mother of five, was divorced by her husband and denied alimony payment. Religious Personal Laws are one of the lasting legacies of the British colonial ‘divide and rule’ policy in India, which co-exist with Indian national law, governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption etc. Under Muslim Personal Law in India, if a man divorces a woman, he only has to pay for her maintenance for up to three months after the divorce. 

As Shah Bano had no means to support herself and her children, she approached the courts to seek maintenance from her husband. When the case reached the Supreme Court, it invoked Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, a secular law which applies to citizens from all backgrounds, and ruled that Shah Bano be given regular alimony payment from her former husband, until she remarries.
Orthodox Muslims in India felt the decision was an encroachment on Muslim Personal Law. Muslim activists created the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and threatened the Central government to agitate across major cities. Coming under pressure, the Central government passed The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act of 1986, nullifying the Supreme Court’s decision and upholding Muslim Personal Law. To keep the Hindu parties happy as well, the government opened the’ Hindu Shrine’ at the Babri mosque. The move signalled the BJP and other Hindu organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) (World Hindu Council), to mobilise their public campaigns to replace the mosque with a temple.
In the 1989 elections, the BJP’s nationwide rallies and faith oriented campaigning, branding the Babri mosque as a foreign victory symbol than a place of worship, boosted its representation in the Indian Parliament from two seats to eighty eight seats. In the 1991 elections, the BJP’s representation went up to 119 seats.
However, it remained short of gaining Central government power when the Congress party received swinging sympathy votes after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide bomber from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, a separatist faction in Sri Lanka which resented Indian intervention in their nation’s affairs. The Congress victory at the centre ushered in the reign of Narsimha Rao, as the new Prime Minister of India.   
Nonetheless, the BJP won a majority in the State legislature of Uttar Pradesh, placing Ayodhya in its backyard. However, under judicial pressure, it announced that it would protect the mosque site. Thousands of BJP backed kar sevaks (temple volunteers) assembled in Ayodhya, initiating attempts to take over the site. Many attempts were politically hindered as the Central government desperately countered with court orders and bribes to refrain the BJP and its affiliates. It also dispatched central security forces to Ayodhya to protect the mosque site and make sure the BJP ‘kept its word’.  

However, the Hindu parties were not deterred from achieving their aim. The BJP and its associate organisations decided to hold a ceremony of prayers and hymn singing at the mosque site on Sunday, the 6th of December 1992, as a campaign event to lobby for a Hindu temple there.
 A 100,000 kar sevaks assembled at the site, but half an hour before the ceremony, the crowd went critical and rushed towards the mosque. The handful police force at the mosque was unable and unwilling to protect the site as a baying mob rushed towards them. The more numerous Uttar Pradesh controlled Provincial Armed Constabulary had made no secret of their support to the temple building, and stepped aside as the mob used primitive tools and their bare hands to tear the mosque down in the next nine hours. Four people died in the demolition and later the mob ran amok in the streets of Ayodhya and set six Muslim houses on fire.
The demolition sparked violence across India and the sub-continent. In the city of Jaipur in the Western part of India, 21 people were killed in subsequent riots. In the Western State of Gujrat, 20 died through communal violence while 200 were injured. In the central city of Bhopal, temples were set alight and in the southern state of Karnataka, 13 rioters were shot dead by the police. In the eastern city of Calcutta, Hindu men were set alight, while in the southern city of Bombay, 40 rioters were shot dead by the police and 200 were injured in the violence. In Pakistan, 30 temples were attacked while in Bangladesh there were arson attacks on Indian owned premises. 

The scale of the violence led to the dissolution of the BJP led state government of Uttar Pradesh and jeopardized the office of Prime Minister Narsimha Rao. Ten days later, the Prime Minister set up a commission, chaired by retired High Court judge, M. S Liberhan, to investigate into the demolition of the Babri mosque.

After seventeen years and the spending of over 8 crores (1.13 million pounds) of tax payers money, the Liberhan commission submitted its findings in November 2009 to the Lok Sabha (House of Commons in the Indian Parliament). The report accused the top leadership of the BJP and the VHP of meticulously planning the events leading up to the demolition of the mosque. The party and its many affiliates immediately hit back at the Commission staff, arguing that they lacked credible evidence to back their claims. The Congress Party led Central government promised that it would take action on the findings of the Commission, adding that the excessive protest from the BJP reflected a guilty conscience.

However, the political rhetoric surrounding the Commission’s findings were put aside when, towards the end of last month, the High Court in the city of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, completed the case proceedings regarding the ownership of the Babri mosque site. In the days leading up to the announcement, shops were shut down, businesses closed and everyone remained indoors as heavy security was implemented across the nation to deal with the violence that could emerge from the decision.

On the 30th of September 2010, the Allahabad High court decreed the division of the mosque site into three parts in favour of the three litigants. The decision was pivotally based on a report from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), according to which a Hindu temple was destroyed to make the Babri mosque, even though, many Indian historians testified in court against the credibility of the ASI’s findings.
Most controversially, the High court treated the idol placement of 1949 and the demolition of 1992 as fait accompli or irreversible acts, arguing that they had no bearing on the decision.  
While the BJP, VHP and the Nirmohi Akhara have rejoiced at the decision, the Sunni Wakf board has grimly swallowed it. Nonetheless, all parties have decided to move the case to the Supreme Court for complete ownership of the site.

Secular political parties like the Communist Party of India (CPI), have criticised the decision for its basis on faith rather than facts, evidence and the rule of law. According to the CPI General Secretary, Prakash Karat, post the 1992 demolition, the scope for negotiated settlement of the dispute never existed, which had to be resolved through objective judicial process. He fears the ruling could become a dangerous precedent, encouraging the many faith based organizations in India to legally press for the ownership of the many religious sites across the nation.
On the day of the decision, no street protests or violence erupted in India. There was calm across the nation from Bombay to Calcutta. The religious pragmatism of the High Court was essential for stemming any communal violence, but I believe that the greater economic and social security which Indians from all communities now enjoy also played a significant part.

Narsimha Rao, may have presided over the violence initiated by the demolition, but he was also responsible for instrumental market reforms which opened India to foreign investment. India is now a booming economy, untouched by the economic crisis in the West, with a growing jobs market and a stronger education infrastructure. Moreover, the proliferation of the Indian television media in different languages has empowered Indian citizens with information and platforms to voice their opinions and views regarding the state of the nation.  In such an environment, the appeal of religious extremism dwindles as more people are able to afford a decent living and become part of the diverse democratic infrastructure.  
With only 20 years of globalised economic growth, many sections of the nation still need to benefit from the advantages of the economic boom. But I believe that with the steady rate of annual economic growth India is currently enjoying, it is only a matter of time before more of the nation’s citizens prosper economically and socially.

As Indian society develops in this direction, hopefully in the near future, the political-religious calls of the BJP and Orthodox Muslim lobbies, as well as the pacifist incentives of the Congress party, will be countered by questions of reason and demands for secular justice and accountability from the nation’s diverse citizenry. That is an India I am waiting for.