By Arnav Das Sharma
Arnav Das Sharma is an independent journalist and a doctoral fellow at the Delhi School of Economics.
The demolition of Babri Masjid was the moment that rent the secular fabric of India. It was another schism in the divisive history of the nation, yet another exercise in othering.
In December 1992, television news had not yet become omnipresent, multi-headed Hydra it is today, and the term website did not exist in our lexicon. News came to us sparsely in the form of a few arresting images that defined an event. On that December 6 morning, I didn’t hear about the demolition of Babri Masjid, I saw it in pictures of kar sevaks – little tridents and saffron flags in their hands – struggling to gain a foothold on the mosque’s dome and then finally, getting it. It was an image that said everything – they had won the battle. It would be many years before I realised that those triumphant men on the mosque’s gumbad hadn’t won anything. Instead they’d defeated – at least temporarily – the idea of a united India.
Twenty five years later, that significance of that image becomes all the more clear. It is only now that we can look at that moment in light of what has gone down. This was the moment that rent the secular fabric of the nation. A place of worship revered by Hindus and Muslims alike became the site of a pitched battle, fought along deeply riven religious fault lines. The juggernaut that was set in motion on December 6, 1992, is now manifest as virulent right-wing nationalism – the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s and Bhartiya Janta Party’s vision of a Hindu Rashtra, now almost complete.
The move to demolish the mosque was not a “spontaneous” or “unplanned” expression of Hindu sentiment, the way some leaders had then tried to define it. Not only were the VHP and BJP cadres armed and trained for it – responding to the resounding call of “Ek dhakka aur do” – the rest of the country had been primed to accept the Ram Janmabhoomi movement through a careful socio-political-cultural campaign.
Four years prior to the demolition, streets across the country would empty out on Sunday mornings. People sat glued to Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana as if they were watching the very re-incarnation of their idols Rama and Sita. A couple of years after the series stopped airing, the VHP’s demands to construct a temple at the site of Babri Masjid began to grow louder. The movement gained serious traction in 1990 when BJP president LK Advani embarked on the Ram Rath Yatra that culminated in Ayodhya, to consolidate the political capital they had ceded to the Janata Dal. In the run-up to December 6, the VHP also encouraged villagers to consecrate bricks and send them for the construction of the Ram Mandir.
The demolition of Babri came to symbolise a reclamation of power, a righting of wrongs, a 20th Century response to the medieval subjugation of Hindus in their own land.
The Rama Janmabhoomi campaign was premised on the idea of correcting a historical wrong; an idea that continues to be recycled more than two decades later, as much in the BJP’s election manifesto as Twitter conversations and YouTube comments. It continues to hold that barbaric Muslim invaders destroyed scores of temples, a deep and grave insult to Hinduism and the Hindu psyche, which can be remedied only by the reconstruction of those places of worship. This simple give-and-take Bhakt logic is coupled with marking out the minority community as a historic other, as a people to guard against. In many ways, the demolition of Babri came to symbolize a reclamation of power, a righting of wrongs, a 20th Century response to the medieval subjugation of Hindus in their own land.
Yet, as historians like Romila Thapar have pointed out, there are inherent dangers in treating history as a monolith. Many historians and anthropologists have written about how famous places of worship became sacred areas shared by both the communities. The Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi, for instance, was built by Aurangzeb, after razing the famous Vishwanath temple. A temple was later rebuilt behind the mosque. However, for virulent Hindutva ideologues, this syncretism is no reason for celebration. It is only a prickly reminder of their subjugation.
The Hindu identity is no longer subjugated. It has been freed. The incumbent government has ensured that. It is outraging in the streets, lynching at will and banning beef.
The beef politics, love jihad, and the Ayodhya issue presented a new re-imagined version of India that will not stand for Hindu subjugation. In the case of Ayodhya, the subjugation was spatial. In the case of love jihad, the subjugation acquires a strong patriarchal overtone; an alarming conflation of a Hindu woman’s body with that of the nation at large. Every act of “protecting” Hindu women from the rapacious hands of Muslim men, is an act of protecting Mother India from desecration. This new India was not even India, it was very clearly Hindustan.
Babri Masjid, in many ways, was the great Sangh experiment for Hindustan. And its success has meant that the BJP has acquired a potent symbol that it could look upon with fondness as a baby step toward nation-building. What is left out, though, was a long history of the bond between two communities, forged in a common place of worship. The Babri Masjid once symbolized syncretism – it is now only a marker of contention and separation. And herein lies the sad history of secularism in the subcontinent: That instead of being a defining characteristic of modernity, it has been reduced to a buzzword of hate.
Edited by Karanjeet Kaur
The article was originally published on Arré.
Featured Illustration Credit(s): Juergen Dsouza/ Arré