The birth of the Ramayana, as we know it, is in an act of grief. A nishada hunter strikes down the male of a pair of krauncha birds. The unslain female bird utters a mournful cry. Unable to bear the separation, she too dies. This primal scene of crime, and the anguish it generates, prompts Valmiki to compose the Ramayana. But the deep sorrow of that crime haunts the story. Ram has his triumphal moments — vanquishing Ravana, establishing Ram Rajya. Ram always sides with duty, some exalted high ideal that makes his own desires irrelevant. That is his greatness. But there is also no escaping the fact that Ram himself never finds inner repose. His deepest moments of anguish arise precisely when he acts as a sovereign, overcoming his natural karuna, sidelining it for some kingly duty. It is almost as if his most political of acts, the banishment of Sita, is contrary to his own nature. It is when Ram acts as a political agent, that his torment is most pronounced. His political acts, sometimes, make him guilty of wrongdoing. He is saved, if at all, only by the forgiveness of Sita as Bhavabhuti perceptively noted. It is Ram in the end who is most in need of karuna. The fact that Ram politically triumphs is not always the moment that he is morally redeemed, or made whole.
So Ram has triumphed politically. The Supreme Court has declared that he, in his incarnate form, has sovereign rights to 2.77 acres of disputed land. Any other claimants to the land, especially the waqf board, cannot claim adverse possession to the land. The sovereignty of Ram’s empire over the hearts and minds of Hindus has been resoundingly affirmed. He is an object of worship, a locus of faith whose importance cannot be denied. He has politically triumphed over all the deniers: Those who denied he existed, and those who denied that there was an attempt to erase his temples. He has triumphed because a way has been cleared for the central government to manage Ram’s land, to create a grand structure to mark his divinity. His sovereignty, and our faith in him, can now be affirmed in legalese, and etched in stone.
The Supreme Court had a difficult job on its hands. It is a reflection on the state of India’s politics that the idea that the pre-1991 status quo ante would be restored was ruled out right from the start. It is hard to imagine what Indian politics would be like if the Court had asked for the restoration of the Babri Masjid. So, the only two other options were a victory for the Hindu side, or some imaginative solution that did equal justice to all kinds of claims involved in this dispute. The Allahabad High Court judgment, flawed as it was, was very explicitly a balancing act: Divide the property, respect all faiths, and put the past behind us. In some ways, this judgment has gone for a corner solution. It does say, none of the claimants can prove adverse possession; it does recognise that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was an act of political vandalism. It provides compensatory relief for the waqf board. But in its operative part, this judgment is the opposite of the Allahabad High Court — no division of property; one faith nominally given priority over another, and an affirmation that long gone historical wrongs can continue to be the basis of new legal claims.
But will this moment of political triumph solve Ram’s inner torment? Or will it only exacerbate it? We hope that the judgment, right or wrong, will de-politicise the issue. It has been settled. Let us move on. This would be the best option, a chance for Indian secularism to get a fresh start. But there are reasons to be nervous on three fronts: Psychological, institutional and political. For Hindu nationalists, this is a moment in a long historical struggle. They identify Hindus as subjugated. The demolition of the Babri Masjid was a cathartic moment, and the building of a temple will be the denouement for a long-repressed civilisation.
Has that cathartic need now been satiated? Or will this simply embolden those who see politics as an apocalyptic conflict between Hindus and others, to assert their pride even more insistently? Second, in public form we all respect the unanimous view of the Supreme Court. But let us not pretend that, if not in this case, in a wider context, the Court’s credibility is in serious doubt. Will marginalised groups read this as a loss of faith in the fairness of Indian institutions or not? Politically, does this judgment deepen the fusing of religion and politics? In some ways, the institutional fusion has been deepening for a while — the political, legal and religious movements have all intermingled. But with a central government trust, now in charge of effectively building a temple, the state is the medium through which Hindu sovereignty is now being exercised. The political reconfiguration of Hinduism, where political rather than spiritual forces now represent it, is now complete.
We all ardently wish that India moves on. The settlement should take the issue, and all allied psychological complexes of Hindu subjugation off the table. But here is an outlandish thought. A government trust will now determine how worship at the site will be materialised. Is it just possible that instead of a triumphal monument to Ram’s political glory — for this is all that the temple will be under present circumstances — can we build something genuinely congruent with Ram’s greatness? Something that marks a new kind of holiness not predicated on the revenge of history or the narcissism of group identities? Can we create a new liturgy that is genuinely inclusive of all religions, and looks to dawns of the future rather than glories of the past? What this might be can be left to more imaginative minds to devise. But such a gesture would be, in the face of this legal triumph, an even more poignant way to move on. It will save both secularism from identification with majoritarianism and Hinduism from identification with a prideful communal identity. The Court decision does not foreclose this option, and it would be entirely in keeping with Ram’s karuna. No one disputed Ram. But making the fate of 2.77 acres of land a litmus test of respect for Ram, and for the fate of a civilisation, was an act of vandalism on Hinduism as well. Ram’s political triumph should not leave him, like in Valmiki’s Ramayana, with an inner torment, at war with his better more compassionate self.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 10, 2019 under the title ‘Ram’s political triumph’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express
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