After eight years of deliberations, India’s Supreme Court has issued a verdict that settles one of the most protracted inter-religious conflicts in the country’s turbulent history. The court’s decision couldn’t have come at a better time. The ruling concerns a disputed site in the dusty temple town of Ayodhya, in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
Ayodhya attracted international notoriety in 1992, when a mob of Hindu extremists tore down a Muslim mosque, the Babri Masjid, which occupied a prominent spot in a town otherwise overflowing with temples.
The mosque had been built in the 1520s by a Muslim noble, Mir Baqi, in the name of India’s first Mughal emperor, Babur, on a site traditionally believed to have been the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram, the hero of the 3,000-year-old epic the Ramayana.
The Hindu zealots who destroyed the mosque vowed to replace it with a temple to Ram and avenge a half-millennium of shame.
To most Indian Muslims, the dispute is not about a specific mosque. The Babri Masjid had lain largely unused for nearly a half-century before its destruction, because most of Ayodhya’s Muslims had emigrated to Pakistan upon the partition of India in 1947. Rather, the dispute was about their place in Indian society
India is a land where history, myth, and legend often overlap; sometimes Indians cannot tell the difference. Many Hindus claim the Babri Masjid stood on the exact spot of Ram’s birth and had been placed there by Babur to remind a conquered people of their subjugation. But many historians argue that there is no proof that Babur demolished a Ram temple to build his mosque. To destroy the mosque and replace it with a temple, they maintained, would not right an old wrong, but perpetrate a new one.
The Archaeological Survey of India, however, confirmed the existence of ruins beneath the demolished mosque that belonged to an ancient temple — though no one could be sure it was a temple to Ram. The dispute remained intractable, and dragged interminably through the judiciary.
A 2010 ruling issued by the Allahabad High Court proposed to divide the disputed property three ways. All the litigants appealed to the Supreme Court, where the matter appears finally to have been resolved.
The court judgement gives the disputed site to a trust to be established by the government to build and operate a Ram temple, thus satisfying Hindus. And it rights the wrong done to Muslims by requiring the state to provide five acres of land at an unspecified “prominent site” in Ayodhya for a new mosque.
To most Indian Muslims, the dispute is not about a specific mosque. The Babri Masjid had lain largely unused for nearly a half-century before its destruction, because most of Ayodhya’s Muslims had emigrated to Pakistan upon the partition of India in 1947. Rather, the dispute was about their place in Indian society.
For decades after independence, mainly under the rule of the centre-left Congress party, Indian governments had guaranteed Muslims’ security in a secular state, permitting the retention of Muslim “personal law” separate from the country’s civil code and even subsidising pilgrimages to Makkah. Three of India’s presidents have been Muslim, as have been innumerable cabinet ministers, ambassadors, generals, and Supreme Court justices, not to mention cricket captains.
Until at least the mid-1990s, India’s Muslim population was larger than that of Pakistan (where a soaring birth rate finally put it on top). The destruction of the mosque felt like a betrayal of the compact that had sustained the Muslim community as a vital part of India’s pluralist democracy.
The Hindus who attacked the mosque, however, saw the Indian state as soft, pandering to minorities in the name of misplaced Western-style secularism. To them, an independent India, freed after nearly 1,000 years of alien rule (first Muslim, then British) and rid of a sizeable portion of its Muslim population by virtue of the partition, had an obligation to assert an identity that would be that of the 80 per cent of the population who are classified as Hindu. They have found encouragement in the assertive Hindutva of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which has overwhelmingly won two consecutive general elections.
The zealots are not fundamentalists in any common sense of the term, because Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals. There is no Hindu pope, no single Hindu holy book, and no such thing as a Hindu heresy. Hindu “fundamentalists” are, instead, chauvinists, who root their Hinduism not in any of its philosophical underpinnings, but in its role as a source of identity. They seek revenge in the name of Hinduism as a political banner, rather than of Hinduism as a spiritual doctrine.
What the Supreme Court has done is to craft a solution that no political process could have arrived at independently, but which takes the dispute off the streets. Otherwise, the violence might have gone on, spawning new hostages to history and ensuring that future generations will be taught new wrongs to set right.
At a time when India’s social fabric has been placed under unprecedented stress, Indians greeted the Supreme Court’s judgement with almost universal relief, and there have been widespread appeals across political lines to respect the verdict, in the hope that it will bring closure to this contentious issue. The Court’s verdict thus should be viewed as the start of a process of national healing.
The fact that this long-standing dispute has been resolved with a judicial decision, rather than a communal riot, reminds the world that democratic India can overcome its most fundamental difficulties by relying on the rule of law and the spirit of unity that animated the nation’s struggle for freedom.
The Court’s decision also represents an opportunity for India to rededicate itself to the best ideals for which it has stood — democracy, pluralism, and peaceful and productive coexistence. If it does, India can leave behind sixteenth-century problems and determinedly address its twenty-first-century challenges.
— Project Syndicate, 2019
Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is an MP for the Indian National Congress.