On December 6, 1992, a frenzied mob demolished the Babri Masjid in Faizabad Ayodhya. After the partition of India on religious lines in 1947, it was perhaps the most seminal event in Hindu- Muslim relations in the sub-continent.
The events leading upto that fateful afternoon and the inaction of the then PV Narashima Rao government have been dissected to death and therefore require no reiteration. The subsequent communal riots across the country, the Mumbai blasts of 1993 and the continuing trial of the accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case as well as the final hearing of the property dispute, are all now too well-documented milestones in the continuing saga of this quagmire.
The fundamental question however is where do Hindu- Muslim relations stand a quarter of a century after that implosion?
Before addressing that question, let me relate a small anecdote. In July 1992, as the President of the International Union of Students (IUS), I traveled to Syria on the invitation of the student and youth faction of Syrian president Hafiz Assad’s political party, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. I informed prime minister Narashima Rao about the impending trip and a possible meeting with President Hafez Assad and other senior functionaries of the Baath Party.
Since Syria also had a mix of communities living together harmoniously and the Baathist ideology was fiercely secular, though Arab Nationalist, he asked me to try and find some templates of religious syncretism that could be germane to the Ram Janambhoomi–Babri Masjid context. At that point in time a protracted negotiation between the various stakeholders was playing themselves out with a myriad number of mediators, negotiators and cooks trying to both make and spoil the broth, exactly what Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is trying to do these days.
At that moment I did not understand the question but on a sightseeing trip around Damascus, it dawned on me what he meant. Damascus is home to one of the holiest Islamic places called the Umayyad Mosque. It is supposed to be the fourth holiest seat in the Muslim faith. Within the mosque, itself is situated the shrine of John the Baptist who is believed to have baptized Jesus Christ. There couldn’t have been a better example of interfaith harmony. A Christian shrine right in the middle of a Muslim mosque and both active places of worship even now.
I furiously clicked pictures on my camera from every conceivable angle, collected as much literature as I could and presented it to the prime minister upon my return. He enigmatically smiled and told me neither side would agree to this construct for the dispute is not about religion – it is not between Hindus and Muslims — but about politics. The matter ended there.
Back to Hindu-Muslim relations. The fact is that despite the conflagrations of 1992, 2002 and 2013 (in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, the Gujarat riots and the Muzzfarnagar conflagration, respectively) and the concerted attempts at polarization, relations between the communities still remain stable. Why this is so was best explained by one of India’s foremost strategic thinkers, the founder chairperson of the Observer Research Foundation, the late RK Mishra.
In the wake of 9/11 when the Americans were planning to invade Afghanistan a top American strategic thinker with the Pentagon was then in India trying to explore what role India could probably play in helping the Americans in Afghanistan.
I was a coincidental participant in that conversation. Mishra Ji told him that from 1000 AD till the British finally assumed control of India in 1857, India was subjected to a wave of invasions for eight hundred years. Most of the invaders were Muslims who came searching for bounty, beauty and realms. They also tried to impose their religion by the sword. But despite 800-odd years of persecution, they had not been able to change the essential character of India. This was because India has that intrinsic spiritual and transcendental strength to absorb, imbibe and assimilate extraneous influences without letting it impact its inherent civilizational genius. That is the biggest contribution India can make, RK said, in helping you to understand, unwrap and unravel the conundrum called South and West Asia. The American was bewildered. It had flown over the cuckoo’s nest. He gulped his coffee and made a quick exit.
Sixteen years later after blundering around the Middle East, creating anarchy and chaos leading to eleven civil wars in the larger WANA (West Asia and North Africa) region, the message has finally sunk home to American policy makers.
That is why former US President Barack Obama told Prime Minister Modi, “For a country like India where there is a Muslim population that is successful, integrated and considers itself Indian, which is not the case in some other countries, this should be nourished and cultivated”. He further cautioned Modi, “A country should not be divided along sectarian lines,” perhaps alluding to Modi’s sterling track record in this regard. This was not the first time Obama had delivered this rebuke. He had also done it at a Town Hall in New Delhi while visiting India as President in January 2015.
That is the essential message two and a half decades after Babri Masjid. India is a melting pot of diverse faiths, cultures, languages and ethnicities. Its intricate social balance requires a mature and sagacious leadership. It does not require the “Shamshan Aur Kabristan“ kind of nonsense that was so eminently displayed across Uttar Pradesh earlier this year.