The demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 by a frenzied mob of kar sevaks was a dark day for Indian democracy. It has been 24 years since that fateful day, but not a single election in Uttar Pradesh has gone by without a reference to the issue. Despite a whole generation being born and brought up in the post-Babri period, the issue continues to remain politically potent.
An estimate based on the 2014 electoral rolls data suggests that one-third of UP’s electors were either born after 1992, or were just five or six years old then, with little direct memories of the event. What does this change in UP’s electoral demography mean for the mandir-masjid issue? Is the event that formed the master-narrative in much of north and west India for over two decades no longer significant for a vast section of UP’s electorate?
The surveys conducted by the Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) have tracked the mandir-masjid issue for more than two decades now. Since 1996, the respondents have been regularly asked what according to them should be built on the site of the demolished mosque. The data presented in figure 1 shows the changes in public sentiment on this issue. In 1996, 58 per cent of Hindus said that only a temple should be built at the disputed site, while almost an equal proportion of Muslims (56 per cent) said only a mosque should be built there. Support from both communities for their respective place of worship largely remained unchanged in the 2002 UP assembly election post-poll survey. There was no moderation in either community’s stance in this period and considering the violence in Gujarat that year, this is understandable. Since then, there has been a substantial change in people’s opinion on this question. Support for only building a temple declined sharply among Hindus by 2009, and by 2012 support for building only a mosque among Muslims also declined significantly. In the 2012 UP assembly election post-poll survey, less than one-third of Hindus and Muslims demanded only a temple and a mosque at the disputed site respectively.
However, in the latest survey conducted in July 2016, there has been a sizable increase as compared to 2012 in support for a temple among Hindus, while the opinion among Muslims for a mosque has remained almost the same. Approximately half of the Hindus in the state (49 per cent) said only a temple should be built at the disputed site, while 28 per cent of Muslims say only a mosque should be built at the disputed site. Similarly, as evident in figure 2, the gap among Hindus and Muslims who support construction of both a temple as well as a mosque at the disputed site has also increased. Muslims in comparison to Hindus of Uttar Pradesh were more likely to say that both temple and mosque should be constructed at the disputed site in Ayodhya.
What explains this divergent trend among Hindus and Muslims of Uttar Pradesh? In our opinion, there has been sharp polarisation on religious lines in the state for the past few years. In an extensive analysis of increasing communal incidents in Uttar Pradesh, Appu E. Suresh reported that over 12,000 communal incidents took place in the state between January 2010 and April 2016. The report indicates that there has been a spike in the number of communal incidents recorded in most districts of the state. The analysis in the report also suggested that the frequency of incidence is relatively higher in Western UP, which seems to have become the hotbed of communal politics in the state post-Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013. Since then, there have been numerous attempts by the hindutva groups to stoke communal tensions in the area. A few months after the Lok Sabha election, these groups raised the bogey over love jihad, followed by the tragic incident in Dadri and a campaign to enforce the ban on cow slaughter, and more recently the allegation by Hukum Singh, the BJP MP from Kairana, that more than a hundred Hindu families have left the town under threat from Muslims.
This spree of incidents aimed at stoking communal fears among the Hindus seems to have polarised their opinion on the mandir-masjid issue. But what explains the decline in support for a mosque among Muslims? In our view, the decline in support for a mosque does not mean that Muslims have developed a secular outlook towards the mandir-masjid question. Rather, the moderation in the Muslim viewpoint signals something more dangerous to the democratic ethos of our country. It seems that a large section of the Muslim community has lost hope that their demand of a mosque at the disputed site would ever be met. Probably, they have internalised a belief that the current system cannot address their concern in a fair manner. The evidence on other questions relating to problems faced by the community from the July 2016 survey support this claim.
The respondents in the July 2016 survey were asked whether they think that discrimination against Muslims has increased in the past few years. They were also asked whether they think that Muslim youths are being falsely implicated in terrorism related cases. Muslim respondents, no matter what their opinion on the mandir-masjid question was, overwhelmingly said Muslim youths are being falsely implicated in terrorism-related cases. Similarly, a majority of them felt that discrimination against Muslims has increased in the past few years. This sense of alienation and internalisation of a second-class status among India’s largest religious minority is not a good sign. It not only violates the constitutional obligation to treat minorities as equal partners, but also gives a platform to radical groups to misuse such sentiments among Muslim youths.
Another aspect of this time-series trend on the mandir-masjid issue, which is equally alarming, is that the educated Hindu youth (matric-pass and less than 30 years old) is relatively more polarised as compared to others. Figure 3 shows that educated Hindu youth in both urban and rural areas are more likely to support the construction of only a temple at the disputed site. Also, rural Hindus in UP are much more likely to support such a view than their urban counterparts. This evidence clearly points out that alongside the campaign on development and governance by the BJP in 2014, there was a subterranean mobilisation of hindutva sentiments, which helped the party in making massive inroads in rural India. The data from the 2016 survey also shows that the BJP’s voter base is massively in favour of constructing only a temple at the disputed site.
It remains to be seen how the mandir-masjid issue would play out during the 2017 assembly election campaign in the state. However, the government must make efforts to rein in elements stoking communal fears. PM Modi commands the political capital needed to steer the government on an urgent basis to safeguard the interests of religious minorities, to instill confidence among them and make them feel as equal citizens. This would be the most patriotic thing to do at the moment.
The writers are associated with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi