Ayodhya’s Déjà Vu

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The wait is getting over Kar Sevaks resting on partially carved stone slabs to be used as pillars of the proposed Ram temple near Babri Masjid. (Photo: Archive of Sondeep Shankar)
The wait is getting over Kar Sevaks resting on partially carved stone slabs to be used as pillars of the proposed Ram temple near Babri Masjid. (Photo: Archive of Sondeep Shankar)

by Leoni Connah 7 May 2020

The disputed holy site in Ayodhya has remained a political and religious flashpoint. In November 2019, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled in favour of the Hindu majoritarian community and gave the holy site to them to build a new temple there. As construction is yet to begin, tensions build between the Hindu and Muslim communities. But one questions what will happen if Prime Minister Narendra Modi lays the foundation stone of the temple? An old wound is about to be re-opened.

Historical Timeline

The two opposing sides of this debacle are the Muslims who want to rebuild the mosque where it stood before for 460 years, and then the Hindus who want to build a new temple on the same area of land. But where did it all begin?

   In 1528, the Mughal’s built the Babri Masjid on a site that was believed to be the birthplace of the Lord Ram. For centuries, the holy site remained as a mosque. The first recorded attack on behalf of the Hindu community took place in 1853 during the British Raj. The British kept the site divided, thus allowing Hindus and Muslims to worship inside and outside of the building. The situation was relatively peaceful until 1949 when Hindu’s broke into the mosque and placed Hindu idols Sita and Ram inside. Consequently, the government locked the doors of the Babri Masjid preventing all worship from taking place. In the 1980’s the VHP launched the Ram temple movement and by 1986, the district judge ordered the gates of the site to be re-opened permitting Hindu’s to worship inside. 1992 became a pinnacle point in Hindu-Muslim relations when the Babri Masjid was demolished by kar sevaks. The BJP leaders at the time were present for the demolition. For the Muslim community and those who believe in an Indian secular democracy, this incident is seen as a “Black Day” on Indian democracy. On the other hand, for Hindu nationalists it is seen as a Shaurya Diwas, “Victory Day”. In the months following the demolition, it is believed that over 2000 Muslims were killed in acts of communal violence. The violence spread like wildfire to Surat, Bombay, Calcutta and other states, as well as to other countries including Bangladesh, the UK and Pakistan. On 5th Jul 2005, the Ram Janmabhoomi attack took place when five terrorists struck the makeshift temple with grenades and gunfire. In 2010, the Allahabad High Court stated that the site should be split, giving the Hindu and Muslim communities a third of the site each. This was appealed to the SC who upheld the status quo in 2011. By 2017, the suggestion was made by the Apex court that the matter ought to be resolved through mediation. However, in 2018, the VHP organised a rally for the Ram Temple in which 200,000 people participated. At the rally, speeches were delivered that were entrenched in divisive and polarising language. This resulted in Muslims fleeing the area in fear that they would be persecuted. In an effort to heal relations between the two communities, the SC appointed three mediators in 2019 to resolve the dispute. By November, the SC gave the disputed site in Uttar Pradesh to the Hindu community and vowed that the Muslim community would be given a different plot of land to build a mosque.

A Nationalist Triumph

One could argue that either way, the decision was going to provoke people. 18 petitions were filed against the SC ruling, all of which have been rejected. The only other option would be a Curative Review petition that would require there to be a legal error in the SC judgement, which is highly unlikely to be found. The verdict is airtight and the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Tirth Kshetra will go ahead with the building of the temple.

   The recent decision can be seen as another triumph for the right-wing Hindu nationalists, in addition to the revocation of Article 370 and the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The BJP government continues to flex its muscles as religious and social divisions deepen. Not only is the verdict a victory for the BJP, it is also a victory for the ideological RSS and the VHP. This decision is a watershed move for the Modi administration and it will undoubtedly stoke fear into the Muslim minority community. The same us vs them narratives that were witnessed during Partition and the 1992 acts of violence are once again rallying momentum.

Tyranny of the Majority

One could argue that it is better to appease the sentiment of 80% of the population, than 14% of the population. However, when the 80% and 14% ratio is divided along the lines of religiosity, the situation becomes increasingly problematic. A fear of the tyranny of the majority that was expressed by the likes of Plato and J.S. Mill in bygone times is arguably occurring in the present day. If the majority pursues its own interests at the expense of the minority, there is nothing stopping them from enforcing other measures including language and religion. The purpose of a democratically elected government, in this case the BJP, is to protect against the tyranny of the majority and uphold the values of equality and diversity. But due to the rise of the right-wing, this is becoming a near impossible task and the verdict is having “detrimental ramifications for democracy and constitutional values”.

The Calm Before the Storm

Construction of the new temple has been halted as a result of the Covid-19 global pandemic. The original date(s) for the ceremony were to be the 2nd April 2020 (Ram Navami) or the 26th April (Akshaya Tritiya). However, Modi has extended the lockdown until at least the 18th May. If the lockdown restrictions are eased, we could witness the beginning of the temple construction in a matter of weeks. The pre-existing divisions between the Hindu and Muslim communities have been further reinforced with the recent verdict over Ayodhya. The sense of othering, coupled with the recent decision, will marginalise the Muslim community more than ever before. I would be very surprised if centuries of built up tensions do not explode as soon as the lockdown restrictions are eased, and Modi lays the first stone of the new temple down.