The destruction of the Babri Masjid set in motion events that are still unfolding.
It was no less than a clarion call to the Hindutva brigade to be prepared for action. On 24 November 2017, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Mohan Bhagwat announced that a Ram temple would be built in Ayodhya. “This is a firm fact and is not going to change,” he said. “The moment of it becoming a reality is near and we need to make the efforts to ensure it happens.”
The statement is no surprise. Nor the venue where it was made, a Dharma Sansad organised by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) in Udupi, Karnataka. What is notable is the timing, a fortnight before we mark 25 years since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992. It also comes days before the Supreme Court takes up the appeal against the Allahabad High Court judgment on the Babri Masjid/Ram Janmabhoomi dispute. The court’s ruling that the 2.77 acre disputed property, where the Babri Masjid once stood, should be divided between the Sunni Wakf Board, Ram Lalla (considered the main deity), and the Nirmohi Akhara, has been challenged.
By raising the Ram Janmabhoomi issue just before Gujarat votes in the assembly elections, Bhagwat is sending out a clear signal to the ruling party that it should not forget that it was the mobilisation around the Ram temple that initially gave it a leg- up politically. Since 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not used the Ram Janmabhoomi issue as an election strategy but clearly, if the vikas (development) plank does not work, the fallback strategy will be strident Hindutva. This is already becoming evident in Gujarat. The unequivocal tone of Bhagwat’s statement also reminds us that for the RSS, and the BJP, there is no dispute as far as Ram Janmabhoomi is concerned. It was settled on 6 December 1992 when hundreds of kar sevaks, carrying pickaxes and rods, clambered over the 16th century mosque, in full view of police, politicians and the media, and reduced it to dust. They claimed then that they were avenging a historical wrong. They ended up altering, perhaps irreversibly, the contemporary history of independent India.
To remember 6 December 1992 is to acknowledge that history consists of inflection points, of triggers that began the changes that we only recognise after a time lapse. On that day, when the images from Ayodhya made their way through a live broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), as the current Indian cacophonous news channels did not exist then, to all parts of the country, there was apprehension of trouble. But we were not to know then that this callous and destructive act, on the part of people who believe that history needs to be erased to construct the new narrative they want to impose on India, would set in motion a level of brutality and hatred we had not seen for some decades.
For the city of Mumbai, then Bombay, the aftermath was particularly traumatic. Living under the delusion that it was “cosmopolitan”, that Hindus and Muslims lived together with tolerance, and as joint sufferers of urban blight, the rage that spilled onto the streets and neighbourhoods after 6 December left even the most complacent shaken. Twenty-five years later, the fact that the perpetrators of the violence and killings, as well as those who planned, encouraged and cheered as their foot soldiers destroyed a mosque, still remain unpunished, has ensured that there is no closure. Compounding this has been the absence of political will on the part of successive administrations, irrespective of their political colour, to ensure that those guilty of these crimes are punished. Together this has fertilised the ground for the phenomenal growth of sectarian and majoritarian ideologies in India in the last 25 years.
What these 25 years have also marked is not just the ascendance of the BJP in politics but also the explosive growth of sectarian hatred to the point where Muslims are afraid to exhibit any outward symbols of identity. Only last week, three men wearing namaaz caps and scarves were beaten on a train in western Uttar Pradesh. The attackers mocked them saying, “You wear caps? We will teach you to wear caps.” We also cannot forget that earlier, 16-year-old Junaid Khan was stabbed to death for no other reason than that he was identified as a Muslim. From celebrating the destruction of a structure to creating permanent structures of oppression for a minority is indeed a deadly journey.
There is good reason then to reflect and to remember, especially at a time when all reason appears to have been abandoned as the line between cultural memory, tradition, and historical fact is being erased. As historian Harbans Mukhia points out in the special issue that looks back at 6 December (p 25), even the process that led to the belief that a Ram temple once stood on the spot where the Babri Masjid was built, illustrates the blurred lines between tradition and historical evidence. It is also evident in 2017, that what was set in motion on 6 December is, as political scientist Zoya Hasan points out (p 28), the initiation of a “new deference to Hindu sensibilities in the public sphere” as also “the subordination and subjugation of the minorities.” And as for Mumbai, the party named by a judicial commission as responsible for violence is now in power, and almost no one has been punished. The aftermath of 6 December lives on.