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Ayodhya verdict opens door for claims based on community identity, construction of faith

Even as it is possible to criticise the Court’s ruling, what social and political spaces exist to critique, dispute and contest the political narrative in which the Ayodhya agitation originated?

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Updated: November 11, 2019 10:06:31 am
Being a unanimous ruling by five judges, the verdict will carry weight. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar/File)

There could not be a better birthday gift to L K Advani, though a day late. Under him, the VHP’s Ram Janmabhoomi agitation became a national issue leading to a pan-Hindu mobilisation. Now the Supreme Court’s judgement has paved the way for the construction of the temple at the disputed site at Ayodhya.

While the Court has recorded the illegality of the events of 1949 and 1992, it has chosen to restrict itself to the question of title. Following the established practice of determining the title, it has rejected the Sunni Waqf Board’s claim over the title of the disputed land. The Court then turned to the 1993 law passed by the Narasimha Rao government following the destruction of Babri Masjid and asked the Centre to hand over the land to an appropriate body.

Even if one agrees to the evidence-related conclusions drawn by the Court, two nagging issues will haunt us for a long time. If the case were to be resolved by the Court when the disputed mosque existed, would the site still be handed over to the party fighting on behalf of the deity? Does this then give a message that legal disputes can be won by creating a situation of fait accompli through political intrigue? The ruling will surely come under greater scholarly scrutiny, but the political implications of the judgement deserve attention.

A controversy such as this was never ideal for adjudication but we forced the Court to settle it.

This signifies a failure to arrive at political solution. Since 1949, we failed to reach a compromise on this sensitive matter involving two communities. Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid was a controversy that India’s democratic politics simply could not afford. But our politicians and political parties allowed it to linger, become complicated and finally, turn into a central theme of politics for over a decade — even more. Therefore, the Court’s ruling is also a moment to remind ourselves of the petty politics of cynicism that overtook robust democratic competitive politics during and since the late 1980s.

Ironic as it may seem, post-1992, despite the need for a political solution, there was a stalemate which defied a solution —- except one that came via the judicial route. A political solution required three things. One, it required frankness on the part of those who greatly contributed to the demolition to sincerely admit to their mistake and ask for forgiveness. That did not happen. Two, it required political statesmanship from the Muslim community. In the absence of a truly all-India and secular leadership, this could not happen. Above all, a post-1992 settlement required a steely determination by the government to ensure negotiation. That too was not in sight.

This reminder is not merely for purposes of brooding over our failure. It should stand as a warning. The politics over Ayodhya had a strong element of recklessness. Adventurism is not just an attractive political style, it has a lure of trumping competitive politics. Indira Gandhi thought it fit to stoke Sikh communal militancy probably expecting to benefit from it; both the country and she herself paid the price. One would have thought that that was a lesson for desisting from cynical politics. But immediately after that, the BJP adopted the path of adventurism. After Advani’s Rath Yatra in 1990, the BJP emerged as a major political force. Even after 1992, it retained its newly acquired support; it did not suffer a setback after Gujarat 2002. This inability of our politics to impose political penalties for such transgressions must be seen as a stark warning that India’s politics is often on the brink of community-based emotive mobilisations.

Apart from these larger political failures, this ruling has another deeper implication. Courts, when they broker peace, do not necessarily bring closure to disputes; they only give momentary space for disputes to reconfigure. One can go on listing court rulings that were initially upheld as major attempts to reconcile contesting claims, but were followed by even more acrimony and political controversy — besides lot of litigation. The present ruling is of that kind. The majesty of the Court in momentarily sealing the Ayodhya dispute might be somewhat impressive, but a series of political possibilities will be staring us in the face.

Being a unanimous ruling by five judges, the verdict will carry weight. But the rather casual manner in which the Court has sought to dispose of the illegality of 1949 and 1992 will not only have implications for jurisprudence, it will also have implications for the way collective and competitive claims are executed. The ruling also opens the door for any number of claims based on community identity and construction of faith. This is not only about Hindu-Muslim disputes, but also about inter-community disputes, more generally. To put it bluntly, post Ayodhya-ruling, claims based on community’s faith are bound to resonate with authenticity. In this sense, beyond the momentary breather this ruling may have offered, it will be unable to address the deeper issue which is fundamentally political, and not juridical.

For the BJP and the larger political family it belongs to, the present moment will constitute a moment of poetic justice that having been in the forefront of the Ayodhya agitation, the party now finds itself in power and also in a position to savour SC’s ruling — albeit with subdued celebrations. These celebrations, for the lay supporters, would signify a victory over one place, one mosque, one site. However, the real celebration would be over the larger success of transforming a community’s religious sensibilities into a political lever.

In the course of the Ayodhya movement, faith and religiosity got conflated with pride and identity. This allowed the homogenisation of the Hindu community. And, then the Hindu community constituted a political force that has only become stronger. Through the Rath Yatra, and symbolised by the events of December 6, 1992, Ayodhya ceased to be a question of Hindu faith; it became a signifier of Hindutva. The SC’s ruling has given a shot in the arm for the politics of Hindutva. Notwithstanding what the Court may or may not have said, in public imagination, the Hindus have scored over Muslims — the belief that a deity was born at a certain place has been upheld. This will bring a new respect for the idea of Hindutva, it will also bring new power to that idea. The respect it will have earned will mean that Hindutva will now march as the ideology of India and the power it has acquired will mean less space for dissent.

Hence the most crucial question: Will this ruling bring a closure? Such a closure does not merely mean stoppage of further litigation over Ayodhya. That too might not happen, though it should. But more than merely the land dispute at Ayodhya, will there be a closure on listing of sites across India and seeking their liberation? Will there be a closure on making a community stand constantly as an accused and as a suspect? Will there be a closure on competitive communalism that Advani so ably unleashed?

Even as it is possible to criticise the Court’s ruling, what social and political spaces exist to critique, dispute and contest the political narrative in which the Ayodhya agitation originated? Or is it that along with the Ayodhya issue, this moment portends closure in the realm of alternative political visions?

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 11, 2019 under the title ‘A breather, not closure’. The writer taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics

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