The Allahabad High Court’s recent verdict on the contending Ayodhya claims by Hindus and Muslims is, on the whole, to be welcomed. It proposes an allotment of the disputed territory that is imperfect but reasonable-looking and welcomed in English-speaking circles as likely to put an end to the dispute. While unambiguously allotting the exact site where the Babri mosque used to stand to a Hindu claimant on behalf of the deity Ram Lala (baby Rama), it also awards one-third of the Government-held plot to the Muslim claimants.
Both parties disagree with this division, so the Supreme Court will have to go over the merits of the case too. Those future deliberations are not for a historian to comment upon, but I imagine that they can be expedited if the Muslim litigants present to the Supreme Court the plan proposed in enlightened Muslim circles, viz. to build an Islamic-style peace monument on their part of the land, rather than a mosque that would serve as a perpetual provocation. Even simpler is if the Court follows logic and leaves the entire site to the Hindus; but in a formula without explicit Muslim consent, they probably fear for Muslim "direct action" against the site and against the Indian polity.
For now, let us consider some highlights of the Allahabad High Court’s lengthy verdict. Its chief merit is that it re-establishes respect for genuine history. This, I propose, is the ultimate result of a wise policy pursued by Congress Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao. They discreetly promoted the long-term project of rebuilding a Hindu temple at the contentious site by linking the decision about the site’s future to the historical question about its past. The consensus in all pertinent testimonies by Muslims, Hindus and Europeans, still upheld as dry fact in the 1989 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, was that a Rama temple had been forcibly replaced with the mosque attributed to Babar.
In a typical exercise of Congress culture, Gandhi intended to preserve peace by leaving the site to the Hindus (who were already using it as a temple since 1949), all while compensating the Muslim leadership for its acquiescence with some appropriate favours, starting with the Shah Bano amendment and the ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Not very principled, but pragmatic and likely to avoid bloodshed. This plan was upset by two developments.
One obstruction was the BJP’s erratic intervention. First the party capitalized on the issue in a mass campaign, but then effectively dropped it after reaping the dividend in the 1991 elections. This “betrayal” provoked some Hindu activists into bypassing their leaders and taking the surprise initiative of demolishing the mosque structure in 1992.
The more serious obstacle was the shrill and intimidating campaign of history denial by a section of partisan academics and journalists (with the whole guild of Western India-watchers in their pocket). Screaming “secularism in danger!” and raising the stakes beyond all proportion, they continued to dominate public discourse until September 2010. They managed to turn the old consensus into a mere ”belief” of “Hindu extremists”. But insiders knew they had been checkmated in 1991. Rajiv Gandhi had forced minority government leader Chandra Shekhar to organize a scholars’ debate, where newly presented evidence only confirmed the old consensus view. The anti-temple academics got no farther than proposing some feeble insinuations against a selected few of the documents and archaeological findings. They did not come up with a single piece of evidence in support of an alternative scenario.
But the new Congress PM Narasimha Rao (in my opinion the best PM the Republic of India has had) stayed the course. All while exploiting the BJP’s discomfiture and making the right noises to humour the anti-temple circles, he arranged a presidential reference to the Supreme Court on the question of the pre-existence of a temple at the site. This way, once more a Congress PM directed the focus of the controversy to the historical evidence, knowing fully well that this could only bolster the Hindu claim. The Supreme Court in effect had the question sent on to the High Court, which ordered a radar scan and the most thorough excavations ever of the disputed site. By 2003, the results were in: of course there had been a temple.
On that basis, the High Court has now given a verdict acknowledging the historical and archaeological evidence and reprimanding the anti-temple academics for their grossly flawed methods of research and argumentation. Moreover, the judges ordered the site henceforth to be treated as indeed the Rama Janmabhumi, the birthplace of Rama. Everybody remains free to believe otherwise, but the belief of millions of Hindus concerning Rama’s birth there is to be respected as much as, say, the Islamic belief that the Kaaba was built by Adam. No Muslim is ever told that he can only go on Hajj pilgrimage after proving this belief about the Kaaba; and neither should Hindus be required to prove Rama’s birth location.
By that standard, incidentally, the whole history debate, forced upon us by the campaign of history denial, was an unnecessary distraction. Establishing historical truth is interesting and important for its own sake, but it should not be a precondition for respecting fellow human beings in their religious practices. For settling this dispute, the consideration that the site is sacred not to Muslims but very much to Hindus, and not in the Middle Ages but today, really ought to have been sufficient.