Sunday, April 10, 2016

Chronicle of the Ayodhya controversy

(Below the full version I had written. In the paper version of The Pioneer, a slightly abridged version  has appeared on 10 April 2016.)

The controversy on Rama’s birthplace in Ayodhya, where a Hindu temple was forcibly replaced with a mosque known as the Babri Masjid, was very consequential. It raged at its fiercest around 1990, when it led to the fall of two national governments, the dismissal of four state governments, two electoral victories of the BJP  ultimately leading to its present power position, riots claiming a few thousands of lives, dozens of temple demolitions from England to Bangladesh, and terrorist attacks pioneering a now-popular new tactic, viz. many  synchronous attacks at different locations within one city, first tried in Mumbai on 12 March 1993. While that seemed to be the closing date of Ayodhya-related violence, the controversy again played a minor role in the next major communal conflagration, the Gujarat riots of 2002. These started with the arson of a train coach carrying Hindu pilgrims from Ayodhya, and helping to make CM Narendra Modi the undisputed Hindu leader and today the PM.

So many books are published about religion and politics in India, that one would expect such a consequential affair to generate a whole library. Very partly, this has indeed been the case. In the 1990s, every Indian political “scientist” and every foreign India-watcher hurried to publish an account of or comment on the Ayodhya controversy. On that occasion, almost all of them followed in the footsteps of the “Eminent Historians”, who had decreed in 1989 that there had never been a Hindu temple at the site. This way, they overruled the consensus existing till then (even among the Muslims and Britons), viz. that the mosque had of course been built in forcible replacement of a temple. These “experts” all took it as a given that any pro-temple voice was that of a history-falsifier or Hindu fanatic.

In 1991 already, an officially organized scholars’ debate highlighted plenty of evidence for the demolished-temple scenario, but it effectively got drowned out by all the loud anti-temple shouting that bullied most public figures into conformity. In the Court-ordered excavations of 2003, however, archaeologists dug up the foundations of the temple and provided the definitive proof: the Eminent Historians had taken the nation for a ride. All the “experts” who had parroted their mendacious account were left with egg on their faces. This explains why all of them have firmly looked the other way and discouraged anyone from further writing about the affair.      

So we are happy to report that at last, the Ayodhya library is starting to grow. After the 2010 Court ruling essentially leaving the site to the Hindu litigants, we had as yet only one new Ayodhya book: history professor Meenakshi Jain’s Rama and Ayodhya (2013), meticulously detailing the evidence and revealing the complete loss of face by the Eminent Historians when questioned in Court. Three years later, we can welcome Anuradha Dutt’s book Sri Ram Mandir, published by Shubhi Publications (Gurgaon 2016). As a veteran journalist, she has followed the whole controversy from day to day since the 1980s. Naturally, the format here is looser, more journalistic, but covering far more ground than just the historical data.

In his foreword, retired historian Prof. Saradindu Mukherji already surveys the evidence and the misbehaviour by the Eminent Historians. He highlights the contribution to the debate by outsiders, especially by Arun Shourie and by the late AK Chatterjee, two people with a reputation for uprightness and incorruptibility. His opening line sums it all up: “The sacred spot in Ayodhya, worshipped by Hindus since time immemorial, (…) has unfortunately been made the subject of a contrived and unnecessary controversy in the last three decades.” (p.7)

Mrs. Dutt chronicles the history before Independence very briefly, the more recent history in detail. The evidence (p.29-116) is interwoven with the polemic between real and would-be professionals and the mediacrats. Then she relates the politics of the affair, including background facts (Shah Bano divorce rights, Mandal reservations), successive governments, the internal faction struggle among Dharmacharyas, and the hostile spin which the Dravidianists and their Marxist supporters put on any story involving Rama. On the way, she does of course present the episodes in the narrative of the “temple liberation” movement itself. Since I don’t want to spoil the reader’s pleasure, I will give no further details here.

She also gives the theological background, with the Puranic lore about the divine incarnations and the pilgrimages, and the Islamic theology of iconoclasm. This does not base itself on Hindu precedent, as the secularists nowadays claim, but on the Prophet’s precedent: “The first polytheistic shrine that was taken over by Mohammed and his followers was the Kaaba in Mecca, an old pilgrimage centre, on December 11, 629 AD.” (p.119) 

While this book is packed with data, for the more recent period even many hitherto unknown data, a reviewer may be forgiven for nitpicking about a few shortcomings. One is a fine point that most readers won’t even notice: she posits in passing that at the time of “militant Islamic intrusion, (…) Adi Shankara and other theistic crusaders succeeded in worsting heterodox preachers in debate”. (p.144) This suggests a relation between Islam and these polemics. But in fact, there isn’t any connection between the Islamic invasions and Sankara’s polemic against intra-Hindu “heterodoxy”. Not that he was entirely unaware of them. For most of India, these invasions had not started yet, but Sindh was already under Muslim occupation. That is where Shankara had planned to establish the westernmost of his four abbeys: in Hinglaj on the western side of the Indus. But because of the Islamic occupation, he had to settle for Dwarka in Gujarat.

Yet, his writings, as well as those of numerous later Dharmacharyas, show no awareness at all of the Islamic challenge. More than a thousand years after confronting the Islamic presence did Hindu society first spawn a critique of the Quran, viz. by Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayananda Saraswati. It is one of the worst failings of Hindu society that it has responded to the Islamic challenge only with lying low or with being heroic and dying, and never with informed arguments against the ideology that motivated them.

The second point pertains to the Ayodhya narrative itself, particularly the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. “Analysts debated, as they still do, whether the demolition was a spontaneous act (…) or a planned move.” (p.26) And she leaves it at that non-committal observation. But shouldn’t a journalist be curious about the responsibility? And not just the present author, but the hundreds of reporters on the Ayodhya events?

The vast majority of commentators refrained from wondering about the mechanics of the demolition. Out of a desire for maximum damage to the hated BJP, they declared LK Advani responsible, the BJP leader who presided over the gathering, though the demolition took place against his will. Most of the activists who achieved the demolition, assure us that it was all spontaneous. But from some voices inside the RSS, I have heard the name of an engineer who prepared a few technical aspects of the demolition. After he and his assistents had given a lead, the mass of unprepared volunteers joined in. All these years I have kept this name to myself, and I will continue to do so. I want to leave the honour of revealing this name to an inquisitive Indian journalist. Very belatedly, he can make headlines with a photograph captioned: “This man demolished the Babri Masjid”, or: “Meet the Demolition mastermind”. This is what any of the hundreds of journalists could have done in 1992, but they were so partisan that they spurned this moment of glory for a predictable and untrue accusation against Advani.

The last point is a partisan attitude that shines through. I do not mean: partisan in favour of the temple thesis, for that would cast aspersions on a stand for the truth. After the tons of filth thrown at the truth about the Ayodhya history, it is only right for an author to set the record straight. I mean the choice for one political party over another, as if more naturally favouring the Hindu ownership. She writes that after the BJP was put on the defensive by the Demolition, as a “clever strategist, [PM Narasimha] Rao formulated a plan for the Congress to hijack the temple cause”. (p.182) How so, “hijack”? This is not the property of a political party. And if it were, then more of the Congress than of the BJP.

The first major politician to call for the liberation of the Rama Janmabhumi was Gulzarilal Nanda, the former Congress interim-PM. Congress PM Rajiv Gandhi was working on a peaceful arrangement for a Hindu temple at the site, a move thwarted by the shrill and mendacious claims made from the Eminent Historians’ pulpit. And the “clever strategist” Narasimha Rao (the best PM independent India ever had) allowed the Demolition to take its course because that way, not only would the BJP be embarrassed, but at least the mosque would be out of the way and a solution that much closer. Meanwhile, the BJP used the Ayodhya enthusiasm to make gains in the 1989 and 1991 elections, then dropped it like a hot potato.

In spite of these minor remarks, this book contains such a wealth of material on the facts and backgrounds of the Ayodhya controversy that I can unreservedly recommend it. And if you don’t care for the text, then at least enjoy the many pictures of the Hindu implements dug up at the contentious site.


Anonymous said...

Sir where are you these days?

Vivek said...

I always wondered why the VHP took up the more contentious Ayodhya issue when there was compelling evidence for temple destruction in Kashi and Mathura by Aurangzeb..Any thoughts?

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