Monday, December 28, 2020

What the West’s academy has to say on Ayodhya


What the West’s academy has to say on Ayodhya

(Pragyata, 24 December 2020)


At this year’s digital version of the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Conference, the most agenda-setting event worldwide in the field of religious studies, several of the hundreds of sessions were devoted to Hinduism Studies. Of these, one (Boston, 9 dec 2020), presided over by Diana Dimitrova, addressed “The Ayodhya Verdict: The Jurisprudence and Geography of Modern Hinduism”. Nothing important, this report of ours: just letting you know what goes on in influential places. The on-line programme book announced:

“This panel examines the 2019 Supreme Court of India’s controversial judgement on the ‘Ayodhya Dispute’, M Siddiq (D) Thr Lrs v. Mahant Suresh Das & Ors, in order to better understand modern Hinduism as a juridical and geographic phenomenon. Two papers focus on the jurisprudence (legal theory) of the judgement itself: how Rāma is conceived of as a juridical person capable of owning land; and how the court’s privileging of Rāma’s rights over those of Muslim litigants effectuates a legal endorsement of majoritarian Hindu claims to contested spaces by state institutions. How does the legal language of the judgement recast Ayodhya and India more broadly as a ‘Hindu’ space? In what ways is modern Hinduism shaped by the language of law? Conversely, the next brace of papers posit that text of the judgement itself is the culmination of longstanding practices of Hinduizing India’s geography. These papers explore the religious practices - temple building, pilgrimage, and intense devotion to Hanuman - whereby Hindus built possessory claims over the contested space in Ayodhya. Thus, this panel theorizes modern Hinduism majoritarianism’s spatial and legal dimensions.”


No Ayodhya debate

So, the actual Ayodhya debate, about the history of the site, was starkly avoided. In the past, the Indologists all meekly parroted India’s Eminent Historians that there never was a temple there, that it was merely a Hindutva concoction. It would be in the scholarly fitness of things if they were to face their mistake, acknowledge that they had made a false allegation of a “concoction” and that the evidence has robustly confirmed the demolished temple scenario. But they haven’t done that on any forum whatsoever.

The judicial aspects were safer ground for the Eminent Historians and their foreign allies: the insiders among them know of their hilarious defeat in the scholarly debate, so they avoid or muzzle any mention of it. Their ostentatious position of around 1990 was proven wrong and is now all the more embarrassing in proportion to how high-profile it was back then. So, their loyalists in the US likewise tiptoe around the issue.

Even many of their followers abroad have gone remarkably silent on the Ayodhya history: they still do obligatory instalments on what they call “Hindu history manipulation”, but whereas the Ayodhya debate used to be their crowning example, now it has gone down the memory hole, though in fact it was the one case that was fought out in the public square and came to a clear verdict both scholarly and judicial, viz. to the complete detriment of the anti-Hindu camp. Thus, the Flemish tabloid De Morgen (25 March 2020) did a multi-page article on an alleged policy by Narendra Modi to rewrite history, but innovatively left out all reference to the Ayodhya affair (my reply: “Negationisme in India”, Doorbraak, 5 April 2020, English translation: Koenraad Elst: . Negationism in India, and in De Morgen).

The only ones in the anti-temple camp who are staying the course and repeating what they used to say in the 1990s are people who haven’t paid attention for the last 20+ years. At the Leiden conference in July 2019 of the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS), an all-Korean panel discussed India’s religious conflict. They were well-meaning and had nothing of the foaming hatred against Hinduism that many secularists and their Western acolytes display, but they were poorly informed; or rather deliberately misinformed, most of them having studied in Delhi at JNU. So, while saying nothing about the scholar’s debate on the Ayodhya site’s history, they focused on some conspiracy theories featuring the Hindu forces, e.g. that the public works in Varanasi to open a corridor between the Gyanvapi mosque (standing on the Kashi Vishvanath site) and the river, intended to make it more visible, are “in reality” Narendra Modi’s and Yogi Adityanath’s preparation for engineering a new temple-mosque controversy.

Anyway, it was in the audience that someone brought the long-buried claim of a no-temple scenario in Ayodhya back to life. Unbelievably, Italian scholar Marzia Casolari (who wrote about alleged links between Italy’s Fascist regime and the Hindutva movement, as discussed in K. Elst: The Saffron Swastika, p.483-500) still voiced the belief that it was merely a British divide-and-rule concoction launched by Montgomery Martin. Why would they concoct a novel mosque-replaces-temple scenario when there were so many of these present in India, often clearly visible with the temple remains worked into the mosque, and often affecting other prominent Hindu sacred sites (as in the aforementioned Gyanvapi mosque)?

Anyway, this flight of fancy only survived the first months of the Eminent Historians’ offensive, for pre-colonial testimonies of the Hindu pilgrimage to the contentious site soon surfaced. The negationist story therefore had changed already in the beginning: from blaming the British to blaming the Ramanandi Sadhus. But time had stood still in the minds of the meekest followers, including Dr. Casolari’s: having interiorized the victory claims of the anti-temple camp thirty years earlier, she kept on repeating them in blissful ignorance of the scholarly defeats meanwhile suffered by her side.

Otherwise, the no-temple claim has been buried even by India’s anti-Hindu forces, and though this news has clearly not reached all their loyalists, their American friends have clearly come to toe their line. Although, the next speaker made a semi-exception.   


Rama as litigator

Christopher Fleming addressed the topic: “In Breach of Trust with God? Fiduciary Principles and the Bar of Limitation in the Ayodhya Verdict”.

My paper attends to a novel facet in the Supreme Court of India’s controversial 2019 judgment concerning the ‘Ayodhya Dispute:’ the fiduciary relationship between the juridical person ‘Ram Lala Virajman’ and his erstwhile servants (shebaits), the Nirmohi Akhara. The Nirmohi Akhara, a monastic order, had long claimed the right to represent Ram Lala Virajman (a perpetual minor under the law) and to enjoy a percentage of the revenues brought by pilgrims coming to Ayodhya. The court, however, found that, despite their representations otherwise, the Akhara had acted against Ram’s best interests (collaborating with Muslim litigants and undermining Ram’s proprietary claims) in a mala fide (bad faith) manner. Ironically, the court ruled that the Akhara’s breach of trust with Ram constituted a ‘continuing harm’ that protected Ram’s suit O.O.S. No.5 of 1989 (Regular Suit No.236 of 1989) from the bar of limitation. My paper concludes that the way the court construed Hindu religiosity as a justiciable form of Trust with a deity is a unique feature of modern Hinduism as a legal phenomenon.”

These are details about a well-known fact, though certainly surprising to outsiders: that a Hindu deity can be a party to litigation, and that it has the status of a minor as his case has to be taken up by a guardian. The perceived divergence between the deity’s interests and its guardian’s position in this particular case adds spice to this exotic situation. This is not controversial, so here we need not go deeper into it.

However, in presenting the verdict, Fleming claimed in passing that the Supreme Court in its verdict was non-committal on the historical question. Naturally, he too avoids going into the history question itself, and even the judicial treatment of that evidence is passed over swiftly. This much is true, that the Supreme Court did not explicitly base its verdict on the history question, partly even falling back on the inertial reasoning of the 1885 Court case, when the status quo (then de facto Muslim possession, now de facto Hindu possession) as such was taken as sacrosanct. Earlier, Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao had wanted to base the solution on the historical facts, which they knew to be the pre-existence of a Rama temple; and the UP High Court had, after ascertaining the historical evidence, given its verdict on this basis.

This verdict was confirmed by the Supreme Court. The whole background gives a central place to the historical evidence, which the Supreme Court wouldn’t go against. Still, unlike the UP High Court, which for years had been preparing a verdict based on the evidence, the Supreme Court looked hesitant to follow the evidence, which would necessarily lead to a pro-temple verdict. From the media reports, admittedly a doubtful source, the Supreme Court seemed to be more resolutely “secularist”, meaning prejudiced against the Hindu position.

This appeared from a strange episode in mid-2019, of which we must await the explanation from the jurists involved. The Supreme Court seemed to throw out all that had been acquired in terms of evidence, and instead leave it to a compromise between the parties. It declared that it did not want to impose a verdict, instead preferring a negotiated solution. (Imagine the murderer of your daughter standing trial and the judge declaring: “No, we don’t feel like sitting in judgment. Try to find an agreement with him.”) This was back to square one, reopening all possibilities, depriving the Hindu side of the lead that it had built on the scholars’ and archaeologists’ findings.

Moreover, the Hindu negotiator appointed by the Supreme Court was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, which raised some eyebrows. His record in interfaith discussions was rather spineless, with booklets about Christianity and Islam churning out the usual flaky sentimental pap, and a video debate with Zakir Naik bandied about by Muslims as a shattering victory for their side. On the other hand, he has set up a network of meditation centres in the Middle East, which is extremely meritorious and makes up for any shortcomings by far; but it also makes him vulnerable to blackmail from the Muslim side. However, during this episode, he consulted with a very goal-oriented VHP, that monitored the mediation closely. At any rate, the sell-out that some observers had feared, never materialized. No one wanted to give up his claim, as the judges had hoped. So, a disappointed Supreme Court gave up on this mediation gambit and took up the process of judgment again.

The verdict that resulted was predicated partly on other considerations (like the status quo factor confirming the extant Muslim possession in 1885 and the extant Hindu possession in 2019) than the long-available proof for the temple, which had earlier already informed the UP High Court’s verdict. But if the evidence had not been there (let alone if it had pointed the other way), it is strongly to be doubted that the Supreme Court would have awarded the contentious site to the Hindus.   



         One of the buzzwords of Subaltern and other Grievance Studies is “space”. The third speaker, Knut Axel Jacobsen, dealt with “Hinduization of Space and the Case of Ayodhyā”:

“This paper discusses Hinduization of space as a historical process in India. It presents some central features in the development of Hindu pilgrimage sites and makes some comparisons with modern and contemporary developments. The close connection between political power and expansion of sacred sites is analyzed and the paper looks in particular at sacredness as a form of land appropriation and the function of parikrāmas as a way to construct and mark religious boundaries. The paper looks at different ways Hindu sacred sites have been constructed and expanded in the past and compares these processes with the present Hinduization of space in India and especially with the contemporary centre of Hinduization policies of Ayodhyā.”

Throughout the whole field of Hindu Studies, you just have to get used to the omnipresence, though in different doses, of the Marxist-inspired reduction of religion to worldly categories. Prominent among these is “appropriation”, as in e.g. “cultural appropriation” or indeed “sacredness as a form of land appropriation”. There are power dynamics, to be sure, but you’re never going to understand Rama worship and the place of the Ayodhya site in it by forever dragging it down to the political level; just as Romila Thapar or Richard Eaton were fated never to understand the Muslim invaders’ iconoclastic zeal given their reduction of temple destruction to a mere political statement. It is an occupational hazard of post-religious scholars of (or opinionators on) religion that they just don’t understand the passion involved in their subject, including the destructive passion springing from a religion’s iconoclastic doctrine.  

To be sure, economic and political dimensions of religious activity also exist, and may present legitimate objects of study. We can’t hold it against Jacobsen individually that he chose this theme, but having followed the scene for decades, we know that the academic authorities in this field do channel all scholarly energy towards this reductionist view of Hinduism. This is much less true for other religions: it is Hinduism that is very disproportionately targeted for reduction to its external dimension.


The Marwaris

Another form of reductionism focuses on the financial dimension of Hindu initiatives. Thus, Jeremy Saul dealt with “The Ayodhya Decision and Marwari Merchants: Financing Ram Devotion Through Hanuman”:

“This talk focuses on the decades leading up to the Ayodhya decision as a time of Marwari merchants’ cultural activism, when they championed devotion to Hanuman as a representation of Ram. The rise of Hanuman worship was thus a stand-in for the long-stalled Ram temple-to-be in Ayodhya. The Marwaris, prosperous merchants who reside in cities throughout India but trace their ancestry to northern Rajasthan, modified their longstanding reverence for ancestral shrines in their Rajasthan homeland, long reified as a symbol of ancient Marwari dignity, into Vaishnava (Ram-oriented) temple devotion in that region. They thus adopted the Hindu nationalist ideology of reviving Ram’s mythological domain onto Marwari ancestral piety. Thus, this talk argues, the chronology of Marwari donations to Hanuman temples in Rajasthan has closely paralleled the historical trajectory of the Ram Janambhumi movement. The patronage arose as a consequence of the formation of urban Marwari devotional organizations dedicated to Rajasthani folk manifestations of Hanuman during the late 1980s, just as public enthusiasm for the Ayodhya movement was reaching its climax in the destruction of the Babri mosque.”

This was an interesting but perfectly inconsequential piece of research in the margin of the very consequential Ayodhya affair, the kind that our academics fill their time with to distract from the real issue. The noteworthy aspect was a little contemplation on the Kothari community. It was mentioned that among these Marwaris in Kolkata were the Kotharis, who count in their ranks the brothers Ram and Sharad Kothari, who were martyred during the Ayodhya agitation in late 1990. The speaker claimed that the Kothari sub-caste belongs to the Terapanthi Oswal Jain community, which doesn’t practice murtipuja (“idol-worship”).

That is when discussant Deepak Sarma intervened, who said his very own wife is a Kothari Jain. He agreed that it was odd for the Kothari brothers to be that deeply involved with Vaishnava worship when they shouldn’t have been into “idol-worship” in the first place. He was smirking and dismissive of the Kotharis’ doctrinal inconsistency.

In fact, this intervention exemplifies how estranged the Indo-American secularists are from the reality of India’s religious landscape. As we have been able to ascertain ourselves in Delhi and Gujarat, there is no fixed boundary between Vaishnavism and Jainism, they are communicating vessels with lots of intermarriage within the Bania class. Mahatma Gandhi was a Vaishnava Bania but had the Jains’ extreme concern for non-violence. We have visited the Kothari family’s home in Kolkata to pay our respects to the martyred brothers, and we saw nothing non- or anti-Hindu there. The idea that Jainism (or Sikhism, Virashaivism etc.) is separate from Hinduism, a kind of anti-Hindu revolt, is a figment of the secularists’ imagination. They cultivate the Christian misconceptions about religious boundaries (which they think can only be crossed by “conversion”, e.g. Khushwant Singh describing Banda Bairagi’s entry in the Khalsa as a “conversion”), as if they are first-time tourists bringing their baggage of Christian categories to Hindustan.



         Through the chat facility, I put the following feedback in writing:

“Contrary to what Christopher Fleming claims, the court-ordered excavations in 2003 did yield evidence that the structure replaced a Hindu temple: this (rather than the plentiful documentary evidence) was the main ground for the UP High Court's 2010 verdict. It confirmed what earlier partial excavations since 1974 had found. Far from being a ‘Hindutva concoction’, it was confirmed by the participant senior archaeologist KK Mohammed. The High Court also called a line-up of ‘eminent historians’ who had earlier pleaded in public that there never had been a temple there, to the witness stand. One after another, they collapsed and were reduced to stammering: ‘I have never been to the site’, ‘I am not an archaeologist’; their evidence for a non-temple scenario amounted to exactly zero, and they were fiercely reprimanded by the Court for their misuse of authority to mislead the public.

“The Ayodhya evidence debate has presented the hilarious sight of an entire academic and mediatic establishment in India and abroad denying what had been a matter of consensus till the mid-1980s, and this on the strength of strictly no evidence at all. In all these years, documentary and archaeological evidence for the demolished temple has been accumulating, and some has kept on coming to light even after the debate had ended. This to the extent that the judges simply couldn't push a verdict going against this wealth of evidence. Now that the Ayodhya dispute is over, the question remains when all these academics are going to climb down from the denial of history on which they had staked their august reputations. The present power equation, which has allowed them to get away with this historical negationism in years past, and to keep the lid on their defeat now, is not going to last forever.”

Talking to those people is like tossing a message in a bottle into the ocean. Probably it will go nowhere, but there still is that slim chance of someone somewhere picking it up. It just might set a consciousness revolution in motion. 

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