Ironically, the problems that were to be Rajiv Gandhi’s eventual undoing began when he was still a novitiate prime minister with high personal popularity. The first crisis over which he floundered is known as the Shah Bano case. As early as in 1981, an elderly man named Mohammed Ahmed Khan had filed in the Supreme Court an appeal against a lower court’s judgment requiring him to pay his divorced and indigent wife, Shah Bano, a pittance — Rs 179.20 per month, to be precise — as maintenance. Khan’s submission was that he had fulfilled his duty under Islamic law by paying her an allowance for three months. As usual, it took four years for the case to reach the judgment stage. On April 23, 1985, the apex court rejected Khan’s appeal. To do so, the Supreme Court bench invoked Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), whereby a divorced woman was entitled to claim an allowance from her ex-husband if he had remarried (as Khan had) and she hadn’t, and was unable to maintain herself (as, indeed, was the case with Shah Bano).
Had the court left the matter at that, there might not have been any repercussions. But in the post-Emergency era of judicial activism on one hand and growing religious orthodoxy and intolerance on the other, the situation became both controversial and tense. In the unnecessarily long verdict, the judges had chosen to make ex cathedra observations to which many in the Muslim community took strong objection. One of these was that since the Quran did not disallow reform of Muslim personal law, the time had come to have a unified civil code, which Article 44 of the Constitution had recommended but had “remained a dead letter so far”. A common civil code, the judgment added, “will help the cause of national integration by removing disparate loyalties to laws which have conflicting ideologies”. To make matters worse, the judges also gave expression to the widespread feeling that the “fatal point in Islam was degradation of women”. At the same time, the judges had also stated that Hindu law-giver Manu too had prescribed that “women did not deserve independence”. This balancing act made no difference to most Muslims, who felt highly aggrieved and denounced the judgment as an “attack on Islam”. Mosques across the country resounded with the voices of clerics denouncing both the Supreme Court and Shah Bano. So much so that the poor woman, now aged 75, was coerced into disavowing the Supreme Court’s judgment and declaring that she opposed any judicial interference with Muslim personal law!
That is where Rajiv Gandhi’s dangerous flip-flop on this highly emotive issue came in. Initially, his instinct was to stand by the Supreme Court’s judgment. Indeed, he asked one of his junior ministers, a Muslim and a fluent speaker, Arif Mohammad Khan, to welcome it, which he duly did. Later, the Congress, with its overwhelming majority, defeated a private member’s bill aimed at excluding Muslims from the operation of Section 125 of the CrPC. Soon after, Arif had to rue the day when he had spoken at Rajiv’s behest. For, almost immediately, the prime minister, shaken by the steadily increasing fury of the Muslim community, especially its clerics, reversed his position. This time round, an older and conservative minister, Z.A. Ansari, delivered a three-hour speech attacking the Supreme Court verdict as “prejudiced, discriminatory and full of contradictions”. The judges, he said, were “small men who were incompetent to interpret Islamic law”.
As soon as Rajiv Gandhi reversed his position and announced that he would pass a law to undo the Supreme Court’s judgment — which was done some weeks later — there was the inevitable Hindu backlash amidst shouts of “Muslim appeasement” and “vote-bank politics”. For quite some time, Hindu extremists, represented by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other affiliates of the RSS, had been demanding the construction of a Ram mandir at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, which many Indians believe to be the Ram janmabhoomi (Lord Rama’s birthplace). The problem was that they wanted the temple to be constructed at the precise spot where a mosque, reportedly built by the founder of the Mughal dynasty and therefore named Babri Masjid, stood. This potentially explosive issue had been the subject of litigation since the 19th century. In 1949, when some primitive images of Hindu gods and goddesses mysteriously appeared in one section of the unused mosque, a local court had locked its gates and prohibited prayers there by either Hindus or Muslims. Limited prayers by exactly three Hindu priests in the area where Hindu deities had appeared was, however, permitted. For this purpose only a small side gate could be used. Both communities had accepted this “compromise court order”, and it was being obeyed even after the eruption of Muslim anger over the Shah Bano case.
And then, on February 1, 1986, the district judge of Ayodhya ordered that the gates that had remained locked for 37 years should be opened to permit worship by all at the small Hindu shrine. It is inconceivable that the district judge could have acted swiftly on a petition by a local lawyer on his own. It is generally believed that the judge’s order really came from New Delhi, from the prime minister’s office, no less. The local administration also seemed aware of Delhi’s directive. For the locks were opened within an hour of the court’s verdict, and state-owned TV was in attendance to cover the rush of huge crowds in that little space, demanding that their god be freed from a “Muslim jail”. Rajiv Gandhi, it seems, had acted on the advice of his cohort and cousin, Arun Nehru, who believed that, with the Muslim extremists having been conciliated by the revocation of the Shah Bano judgment, the opening of the Ayodhya gates would satisfy chauvinists on the other side. What really happened was that the government had the worst of both worlds, thus infuriating both Hindus and Muslims.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator
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