Twenty-five years ago, three domes of a medieval mosque in a UP town came crashing down. Throughout the 20th century, Hindu supremacists had fought a long battle to change the character of the nation. This was their first moment of decisive triumph. They have not looked back since then.
Their idea of India was that of a nation of and for the Hindus. People of disadvantaged castes and Hindu women would find a place in this nation but on subservient terms. Converts to other “Indian faiths” like Buddhism and Sikhism would also be accommodated but not converts to “foreign” religions — Islam and Christianity. Their adherents would either have to leave India or to live here as second-class citizens.
For long, the supporters of this alternate idea of India were a minority. They rarely fought the British rulers, preferring instead to combat the humanist pluralism of the Congress led by Mahatma Gandhi. Matters came to a head when the country was torn into two along religious lines, and a million people died in Hindu-Muslim riots on both sides of the border. Hindu nationalists were convinced that since Pakistan was a Muslim nation, India should be a Hindu nation.
But Mahatma Gandhi defended the idea of secular India with his life. Meanwhile, many supporters of the idea of Hindu India joined the Congress. Therefore, there were many contestations to the granularity of the uniquely Indian secularism when India’s Constitution was drafted. But leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar and Maulana Azad — and the Constitution — upheld the right of every Indian to practise and propagate their faiths, even as the Indian state had no religion.
The RSS withdrew from public life in the first two decades of India’s freedom, sullied as it was with the taint of the ideology that led to Gandhi’s assassination. Its political front, the Jana Sangh, never attracted a majority of Hindu voters. However, sympathisers of Hindu nationalism penetrated the Congress, resulting in the party playing a partisan role during episodes of communal violence. The state was often tacitly complicit in the persecution of minorities, in denying them equal development chances, and in the passage of cow slaughter ban laws.
In the battle against what many believed to be the growing corruption and authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi’s government, the socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan built a large anti-Congress front, into which he invited the Jana Sangh. This was the moment that the RSS was waiting for, to wash off the tarnish of Gandhi’s murder and acquire the political respectability to enter the mainstream of India’s political life.
In the 1980s, the RSS sought a new symbol to stir Hindu nationalist fervour. It found this in the movement to build a grand temple to Ram at the exact site where a mosque built by the Mughal emperor Babur stood. The sub-text of the campaign was to paint Indian Muslims as inheritors of a historical tradition of violence by Muslim kings. The inaccuracies of this version of history did not matter to the RSS. It also ignored the fact that most Muslims in India did not descend from the Muslim aristocracy, which came from other countries and made India their home. About nine out of 10 of them are converts from low-caste Hindus who were attracted to Islam’s message of equality.
As the movement for the Ram temple gathered support, the Congress floundered. It sought to appease both Hindu and Muslim communal sentiment by opening the locks of the Babri Masjid for Hindu worship and passing a law to bar divorced Muslim women from maintenance. BJP leader L. K. Advani travelled across the country in a chariot from Somnath Temple, which had been plundered by the Turk invader Ghazni in 1024. Anti-Muslim communal sentiments were roused to a fever pitch throughout this journey, peaking at levels unsurpassed since the Partition riots.
I was posted in a district in Madhya Pradesh at that time and watched India change before my eyes as Advani’s chariot cleaved the country, leaving a trail of blood everywhere it passed. The Union governments that followed, led by V.P. Singh with the support of the BJP, and then a Congress government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao, were weak-kneed when it came to discharging their constitutional duties. The day came when, cheered by senior leaders of the BJP and RSS, the mosque was demolished by a frenzied mob.
But this battle was never about one more temple for Ram. Many such temples exist in Ayodhya itself. In any case, few would object to the temple if it was built adjacent to the mosque. The demand was to build the temple at the very site where the mosque stood. This demand was a powerful symbol of the terms on which Muslims could be “allowed” by the Hindu majority to live in India. As minorities, the Muslims must know their place — that of second-class citizens — and if they resist, they must be violently taught their place in the country.
This Hindu supremacist triumphalism paved the way for the political rise of the BJP. What was unthinkable 50 years earlier came to pass when the BJP-led coalitions formed the government at the Centre in 1996 and 1998. In 2014, led by an even more openly hard-line Hindu nationalist leader, Narendra Modi, the party was voted to office with a comfortable parliamentary majority.
Since then, we have witnessed a surge of hate speeches by BJP leaders and an increase in attacks on Muslims, Dalits and Christians. It is open season for the BJP leaders to question the secular pledges of the Constitution. RSS head Mohan Bhagwat has declared that a Ram temple alone will be built at Ayodhya with the same stones that people had gathered from around the country a quarter century earlier. If indeed the BJP government builds a Ram temple at the site of the demolished mosque, India’s secular Constitution will be shredded to tatters.