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Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Places of Worship Act has been challenged. Here’s why this is dangerous

Salman Khurshid writes: Upholding the challenge to the Act will reopen old faultlines and jeopardise the path to reconciliation shown by the Ayodhya verdict.

Written by Salman Khurshid |
Updated: March 19, 2021 9:02:18 am
The path opened by the latest notice is wide and endless; Mathura and Varanasi will not be the final destination. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

I have defended the Ayodhya judgment knowing that many enlightened Hindu friends have been critical of its conclusions. I have defended it for the legal correctness of its arguments and the greater cause it serves of national reconciliation. Amongst the arguments I marshalled in support was the explicit finding that the Places of Worship Act conclusively put a lid on all other disputes by freezing the status of places of worship on 15 August 1947. Five justices of the Constitution Bench stamped their approval on the far-sighted Act passed in the aftermath of the December 6, 1992 demolition of Babri Masjid. Understandably, the validity of the Act was not under challenge and the Court did not expressly hear arguments on either side but the fact remains that the Constitution Bench stamped its approval. Technically speaking, the notice issued by the Supreme Court might be correct, but the implications are far-reaching and might undermine our efforts to persuade the general public, including Muslims, about the correctness and virtue of the Ayodhya judgment. Inevitably the sceptics who opposed the acceptance of the alternative piece of land for a mosque will steal a march over those of us who support reconciliation. What is worse the country will once again descend into the spiral of conflict and lack of faith, not something that any god would want to inflict upon us.

The path opened by the latest notice is wide and endless; Mathura and Varanasi will not be the final destination. Filial piety will entirely be replaced by paying for the “sins” of ancestors. For all of us who have condemned Partition and accepted that the national unity of India of 1947 is more important than imagined insecurity or perceived slight to dignity, we are suddenly being subjected to a new Partition. But having repudiated it once, we will reject it with greater emphasis this time. It matters not that a further price has to be paid. We will pay the price without the least hesitation. Yet a question must be asked: Do people who are pushing India away from acceptance of pluralism know where it will lead us? Modern-day liberal societies are for reasons of principle or pragmatics fast becoming multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Our own contribution to the changing colours and contours of global societies is considerable. We celebrate Indian-Americans reaching out to place their footprints on the soil of US politics. Questioning, if not stifling, pluralism at home can only be signs of myopia or at worse, hypocrisy. We have expressed outrage at racism in the UK targeting the first Indian woman President of the Oxford Union accused of insensitive racial tweets. But our government pretends not to hear similar, and worse, slurs and insults directed at our own people. Protest and patriotism have become the two boxes to tick on the peril of social media onslaughts and police prosecutions. Yet we are aggrieved that other democracies in the world find that disturbing.

India is engaged in a battle for the mind and soul. We would like to believe that we speak for the light against the darkness espoused by our adversaries. Be that as it may, the battle, not of our seeking, will be a long and arduous one. Yet we will prevail in the end because the soul of India will not be suppressed for long. But sadly we remain scattered in our separate ambitions to become victors against oppression and deceit. The truth is that what matters is we vanquish the forces that have sought to destroy the India we cherish, and not who wears the laurel leaf of triumph and acclaim. The rules of recognition will emerge organically from the struggle itself. Legacy and ambition will have to take the back seat as we equip ourselves for a battle with an adversary who has changed the rules of engagement and turned hate and avarice into lethal weapons.

In all historic battles, the experienced and youth march shoulder to shoulder to accomplish the toughest of tasks. Unfortunately, our times have seen the unwholesome estrangement of the young from the old. The impatience and frustration felt by the former and the insensitivity shown by the latter have brought us a wide gap. A remarkable popular protest against NRC-CAA was marred by speeches and actions by young activists that provided fuel to the detractors. Freedom belongs to us all and cannot be a monopoly of some. Freedom and its claim come with corresponding responsibilities. Short cuts might appear attractive and even heroic but if they hurt the idea of Freedom, they are no less oppressive than the very acts being opposed. Those who defend Freedom must be morally superior to those who desecrate it. Mahatma Gandhi must be our constant pole star in the process.

Even as we balance ourselves to steady the ship of State, we cannot and must not steer away from the Supreme Court. Despite periodic disappointments and some signs of accommodation of majoritarian perceptions, the Supreme Court is what stands between the rule of law and the rule of whims. Like other members of society, judges too are a product of and respond to circumstances. They are trained to appeal to higher values of our society that we lesser people overlook for selfish concerns. It is for that reason we place constitutional faith in our judges.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 19, 2021 under the title ‘Don’t reopen old wounds’. The writer is a senior Congress leader and former external affairs minister.

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