Religion And Politics In India: A Comment

Volume 17, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/07/2020
  |
Karim F Hirji

A retired Professor of Medical Statistics who also writes on educational, political and cultural issues

Karim Hirji comments on `Babri Masjid: A Case of Criminal Trespass’ (Awaaz Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 3) by Nandita Haksar

The Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India was built five hundred years ago under the first Moghul emperor, Babur. What, if any, structure had stood at the site? Was it a Hindu temple? A year-2003 report by the Archeological Survey of India supports the case that the site was home to an ancient temple. Other archeologists dispute this finding. Yet, these are not just academic questions: they lie at the heart of Hindu-Muslim relations in India today.

After a Hindu extremist mob illegally demolished the mosque in 1992, the issue landed in the courts. The long legal battle culminated in November 2019, when the Indian Supreme Court issued a ruling reserving the entire site for a Hindu temple. In effect, the Court endorsed the claim of an ancient Hindu temple existing at the site. Was it a just ruling, based on evidence and constitutional law? Or was it a politically driven, lop-sided decision?

In an article entitled `Babri Masjid: A Case of Criminal Trespass’ (Awaaz Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 3) Nandita Haksar presents a strong case that the Supreme Court verdict set aside available evidence and repudiated its constitutional mandate - in a secular, democratic nation - to render judgments not influenced by religious or political considerations. The ensuing miscarriage of justice does not, in her view, bode well for interreligious harmony in India and the region.

The Babri Mosque has been a flashpoint for ignition of serious conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India and its neighboring states for two centuries. Haksar is appropriately cognizant of its social import. However, her article focuses unduly on legalistic analysis, does not attend to the fundamental function of law and courts in society, gives a circumscribed overview of the socio-historic context, and projects the dubious view that a single event or ruling can determine the course of regional and national history. While granting that India did make significant progress towards realizing democratic norms and practices, viewing the issue simply in the framework of the `world’s greatest democracy’, obscures the play of relevant structural factors. The Supreme Court ruling together with the recent trends in Hindu-Muslim relations in India cannot be understood without addressing these points.

A Synopsis of Hindu-Muslim Relations in India

A small Muslim presence had existed in India since the 600s. Six centuries later, a large scale Islamic influx ensued. As Muslim armies gained territory, several Islamic sultanates were established. The Delhi Sultanate, which began in 1206, was the most powerful one. Islamic rule stimulated greater conversion to Islam. Non-Muslims in these states paid a special tax and did not have the same rights as Muslims. Some Hindu temples were also damaged or destroyed.

Starting from 1526 and lasting until 1720, the Moghul Empire displaced existing kingdoms and sultanates and came to cover most of India. The initial Moghul rulers, especially Akber, though, displayed a remarkable level of tolerance towards Hindus, Christians and other faiths. Akber supported constructions of Hindu temples and had an advisory council composed of scholars from several faiths besides Islam. The tax on non-Muslims was abolished. But, the last Moghul emperor of note, Aurengzeb, reversed these policies. Under his rule, several temples were turned to dust.

Overall, the Mughal era was an era of relative peace, extensive economic and technological development and a flourishing culture. India evolved into the dominant player in the world economy, an export powerhouse accounting for about a quarter of the global manufacturing output. A significant degree of interplay and integration between Hindu and Muslim cultures also occurred during this period.

Starting in 1600, incursions by the British India Company led to a gradual decline of Moghul rule. By playing off one raja or sultan against another raja or sultan, and employing savage tactics, the Company eventually prevailed over the entire Indian sub-continent. Harsh taxes and fees were imposed on farmers, landowners, traders, and craftsmen. No religious group was spared. Company officials looted the coffers of local princes, sultans and wealthy merchants without compunction. Its thuggish rule culminated in the uprising of 1857 in which Hindus and Muslims joined hands to evict the Company. A couple of hundred colonists and their families were killed. In retaliation, the British instituted a barbarous onslaught of mayhem and murder that tortured and killed thousands.

Company rule was abolished and direct rule was instituted in 1858. The British set up provincial and national legislative bodies that coopted the local elite - Hindu and Muslim - into the colonial system. But these bodies had no real power. The final decision always lay with the British Governor. From the early days, the colonizers displayed a keen awareness of the power of unity between Hindus and Muslims. The policy of divide and rule took shape. A separate voting register was established for the Muslims, who formed their own political party, the Muslim League. Several incidents of violent strife between Hindus and Muslims occurred. Yet, on the whole, extensive solidarity between Hindu and Muslims persisted at the grassroots level. Key Muslim leaders worked with or within the Indian National Congress. But under the influence of Agakhan III, Mohamed Iqbal and later on, Mohamed Jinnah, the calls for the formation of a separate Muslim nation grew louder.

On the contested issue of the Babri Mosque, in 1936, the colonial courts handed over control of the place and adjacent areas to a Sunni Muslim board. Shia Muslims disputed the decision. In 1946, a judge ruled in favour of the Sunni board.

In 1940s, the Congress launched a nationwide Quit India movement and refused to cooperate with the British effort during World War II. Many leaders were rounded up and placed behind bars. But the Muslim League, which extended its support to the colonizers, was spared and its leaders were free to launch political campaigns. For the first time, the League was able to gain a majority among the Muslim voters. The trend towards establishing a separate Muslim nation became irreversible.

The partition of colonial India into two independent nations, India and Pakistan, in 1947 was accompanied by a callous orgy of violence involving Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. About a million and a half were butchered in cold blood, over ten million were displaced, tens of thousands of women were raped, infants were burnt to death and much property was destroyed. The atrocities were committed by all the sides.

In 1949, a few Hindu zealots illegally entered the Babri Mosque and placed idols and images of Ram, a Hindu god, in the interior. But they held that these things had appeared spontaneously, by a miracle. To avoid more strife, the government locked the gates to the building. Both Hindus and Muslims were denied access. And both groups subsequently filed court cases for the right to offer prayers and control the site. A series of small scale street level confrontations also occurred.

The year 1969 saw the outbreak of the first instance of serious communal strife in independent India. Surprisingly, it was confined to the state of Gujarat, which thus far had experienced a remarkable degree of peaceful coexistence between Hindus and Muslims. Up to 2,000 people died, thousands were injured and tens of thousands suffered property loss. The brunt of the excruciating pain was borne by Muslims. While the conflagration was sparked by small incidents with a religious import, the roots lay in the growing unemployment and economic dislocation in the area.

In the 1980s, Hindu extremist groups launched vigorous political campaigns and marches for gaining access to the Babri Mosque. For fear of losing political support, the Indian government, controlled by the Indian National Congress, had the locks on the gates removed. Hindus were permitted to conduct an annual prayer session in the Mosque. In 1989, the BJP and its parent Hindu supremacy advocating groups, RSS and VHP, turned the Babri Mosque dispute into a major issue for the national elections. All this heightened Hindu-Muslim tensions across India.

In 1992, a Hindu extremist group hammered the mosque to dust. Riots broke out across India. About 2000 people, mostly Muslim, were killed. An official commission report later implicated some senior leaders of the BJP for their role in precipitating the illegal demolition. One was taken to court and jailed. The attack on the Mosque sparked violent attacks on Hindus in adjacent Muslim majority nations—Bangladesh and Pakistan. Many Hindu temples, homes and shops were destroyed as the police looked on. The relations between India and Pakistan deteriorated to a significant degree.

In February 2002, a train wagon carrying Hindu pilgrims from the Babri Mosque site caught fire as it stood at a station in Gujarat. Fifty eight Hindus died. The cause of the fire remains unknown, but Muslims on the station platform were accused of torching the wagon. The incident sparked three months of an anti-Muslim pogrom in which over 2,000 people (mostly Muslim men, women and children) died, hundreds were disappeared and thousands were injured. The gruesome mob-based murders came together with rapes and extensive looting and destruction of property. About 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, became homeless. Some 200 police officers were killed as they tried to control the riots.

Reports from human rights organizations, independent journalists and scholars have placed much of the blame on the state government, which at the time was led by Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India. State officials and security organs were accused of not just standing by but also of inciting the violence. Yet, the report of an investigative team appointed by the Supreme Court did not find  these accusations credible. While the Court subsequently endorsed this report, and cleared N Modi, his international reputation went into a nosedive. In particular, he was banned from visiting the US.

In 2010, the Allahabad High Court accepted the historic existence of a Ram temple at the Babri Mosque site. Two thirds of the land was allocated to Hindus and the rest to Muslims. Both parties appealed the judgement. In 2011, the Supreme Court suspended the High Court ruling. But the out-of-court settlement between the disputing parties it proposed did not transpire. In 2019, the Supreme Court ordered the transference of the entire site (3 acres) to a trust for the purpose of building a temple. The Sunni Muslim Board obtained 5 acres of land elsewhere. As the Board said it would not appeal the ruling, this seems to be the end of the dispute. But was it?

Interreligious Strife

In all societies where a diversity of religious belief systems exist, a long term view of history reveals that periods of peaceful, if not amicable, coexistence far outnumber periods of open conflict. Violence is rare, but when it occurs, it leaves lasting bitter memories. Interreligious strife is generally exacerbated when there are impending major economic, social and political changes in society. As the lives of people are destabilized, feelings of insecurity and uncertainty take the centre stage. Depending on the nature of the changes, a greater level of religious harmony may ensue or the situation may worsen in their aftermath. On top of the underlying causes, history and memory - factual or mythical - affect the outbreaks of such strife. And they have momenta of their own. Their effect, moreover, is a cumulative one.

Throughout history and in the present era, the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in India has been affected by economic and political factors. In precolonial and colonial times, that fact was apparent. Through the policy of divide and rule, the British, in order to cement their rule and extract economic value from the colony, worsened the relationship between these communities. In the post-Independence era, the presence of the underlying economic and political factors has been more masked and subtle. Yet, such factors, as in the case of Gujarat in the 1960s and later on, have played a major foundational role in the outbreaks of religious strife.

While religious (or ethnic or racial) strife can be and often is triggered by minor incidents, conditions have to be ripe for it to spread on a wider scale and persist for a long while. In the modern era, neoliberalism provides the underlying destabilizing condition. In ways more than one, it is a potent fuel for social unrest. As the Chief Minister in Gujarat, N Modi implemented a pro-business agenda that enriched the wealthy, gave benefits to the middle class but generally spawned an atmosphere of economic insecurity at the bottom. His party deftly played the religion card so that the Hindus saw the Muslims as the cause of their problems. Such divisive policies prevail across the world today. They dominate the modern day political discourse in India as well. Hindus are constantly bombarded with the message that all will be well if India becomes an authentic Hindutva nation. The record of abysmal failures of the traditional social democratic, secular parties to implement their policies of improving the lives of the masses is a major reason why bigoted messages now take hold in the public mind. The traditional parties talked of socialism but pursued pro-business goals, and that in an inefficient and corrupt manner. This occurred not just in Asia and Africa but in the UK and USA as well. Tony Blair created the platform for Boris Johnson, as did Clinton-Obama for Bush and Trump, and as the Congress Party in India did for the BJP.

These are times of unemployment, indebtedness, job insecurity, rural despair and poverty. A few make billions while the majority struggles to make ends meet. The masses, fed up with the political hypocrisy and economic incompetence of the old guard, are placing their hopes on strong men with clear agendas, no matter how pungent the agendas are. They remain oblivious of the truth that it is the billionaires and multi-millionaires who stand to and do gain, more than ever before, from the new policies. 

This is the economic and political context for the ongoing religious strife in India. And the situation, as exemplified by the move on Kashmir, the new citizenship law, the National Register of Citizens, recent hate-filled elections in Delhi, attacks on university campuses by police and extremist thugs, and flagrant anti-Muslim riots, has been worsening as days pass. Major institutions in the civil society like the media and entertainment industry, and organs of the state like police and the courts are shedding whatever stance of neutrality they had in the past and aligning themselves to the BJP creed. Muslims are declared the prime enemies of the nation who must be dealt with firmly. The BJP demagogues adorn religious garbs, make appearances at charitable functions and pontificate on making the nation great, and the masses uncritically ingest all the fantasies they conjure up. 

Law and Courts

Law and courts in any society are not purely neutral entities designed to dispense justice fairly to all citizens. Even under the best of circumstances, their actions and proclamations are circumscribed by the existent social and economic structure and the interests of the dominant class. In the advanced industrial capitalist nations, their bias is generally of an institutional nature while in the Third World nations, it extends to state officials and business tycoons. The basic pillars of the legal system under neoliberalism are protection of corporate power, facilitating international commercial intercourse and legitimation of state actions.

The Supreme Court of India has a decent record of taking up cases and rendering judgments that are not biased towards specific individuals or identity groups. It has issued rulings in support of democratic norms and backed moves to implement the rights of disadvantaged minority groups in India. Yet, it too has not been immune from structural bias and bias towards state authority. Its rulings in 2002 in relation to the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat were clear manifestations of that bias.

Now as the neoliberal system becomes more entrenched but fails to deliver the promised goods, the Supreme Court, like other civic and state entities, is shedding its hallowed tradition of impartiality and showing signs of greater overt bias towards the policies and personalities of the BJP.

The Bottom Line

Within the context outlined above, it is not appropriate to formulate, as N Haksar does, the November 2019 ruling of the Indian Supreme Court on the Babri Mosque purely in the framework of a constitutional democracy, Hindu extremist conspiracies, criminal trespass, and matters of fact and evidence. This ruling is not just about a particular case; it is effectively a ruling on the history and status of Muslims in India.

In the first place, there is no objective way of verifying the claim that the Mosque stands on the site where the Hindu god Ram was born. The very existence of Lord Ram cannot be established by any means at the disposal of the Court. It is a matter of faith. On that ground alone, the case should have been thrown out of court. Yet, despite the shaky nature of the evidence for the existence of a temple at that site, the Court went ahead and accepted it as the basis for its ruling.

This was not a case of one mosque and one temple. It was a case of mosques and temples in India; it was a case about history. In that respect, as our review of history indicates, Muslims do not have clean hands either. From the days of the sultanates to the Moghul era and during the colonial times, Muslims damaged or destroyed many Hindu temples and shrines. During the partition days, both Hindus and Muslims engaged in orgies of blood and destruction against the other side. Further, the Babri Mosque case has to be viewed in the light of events in Pakistan and Bangladesh. While Hindu mobs attack mosques in India, angry mobs in those nations descend on Hindus and their temples. By basically sidelining this history, N Haksar article displays an implicit pro-Muslim bias. Her formulation of key events and issues is strewn with inconsistences that also reflect such a bias.

After Independence, Hindu extremists in India have been on a warpath to exact revenge for alleged and actual historical wrongs. And the general social, economic and political trends have played into their hands.

Suppose the Supreme Court had issued a ruling giving control of the land to the Muslim appellants. What would have been the outcome? Most likely, violent riots, murder and pillage targeting Muslims. I speculate that the Court was aware of this possibility and forestalled it.

The question remains: Could the Court have rendered a fairer verdict, a verdict that recognizes the rights and wrongs of both sides. Consider one scenario: Convert the entire mosque site into a large public park under municipal supervision which families and children could visit during specified hours for rest and recreation. And assign two small pieces of land at the two ends of the park. At one end, the Hindus could erect a place of worship, and at the other, the Muslims could do likewise.

To envisage such a scenario under the present political and economic conditions is to daydream. The courts have succumbed to neoliberalism and extremism. Now is the time for concerted action at the grassroots level. Ordinary Hindus and Muslims have to form a united front to address all the basic problems facing them. Activists, human rights campaigners and progressive political parties have to make broad unity the main feature of their strategy. The process of resolution of ethnic and religious conflicts has to be integrated within the process of the general struggle for social justice and inequality.

And to advocate this strategy is not daydreaming. It is already happening. There are tens of millions of people of goodwill on both sides. During the 2002 anti-Muslim rampage in Gujarat, many Hindus and Dalits, despite threats to their own safety, gave shelter to besieged Muslim families. The ongoing, spectacular sit-in protest against the policies of BJP and police brutality at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, which has been going on for more than 3-months, has been attended by thousands of mostly Muslim women. But many Hindus, Sikhs and Christians have come to express their solidarity. Priests and religious elders from these faiths have conducted interfaith prayers together with the Muslims. The creativity, solidarity, enlightened objectives and persistence displayed at Shaheen Bagh, which has led to similar protests in other Indian cities, provide much room for hope.  

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