The History and Future of a Demolition Without End

The destruction of the Babri Masjid was an act long in the making and the processes it involved are still very much with us


The destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 was not merely an instance of state-sponsored lawlessness. Neither was it a momentary lapse in the enforcement of rule of law. While it is seen by many as just an episode or a trigger that unleashed forces of Hindu religious nationalism, it was, in fact, the culmination of a process that began in the 19th century. European modernity, orientalism, ideas of reform, restatements of society and religion were the ingredients that went into the making of an Indian nationalism in that century. It was just that: one idea of India rather than many ideas of India.

Out of a dazzling constellation of sects, doctrines, philosophical arguments, rites, rituals, practices, social realities, identities and differences, a unique entity called Hinduism was confected. Its central purpose was to be compatible and commensurate with the idea of sovereignty and the state.

In order to exist and to be legitimate, this version of Hinduism depended on certain affirmations. The first was its own centrality as religion and its salience as the core of national identity. In being so, it had to be modern, scientific and rational. Affirmation of caste was the second element. It resurrected the ideal of the cerebral brahmin as the repository of culture and tradition. But it also celebrated the ideal of the kshatriya as the embodiment of force, violence and masculinity in the service of maintaining order, stability, and justice. The kshatriya was no longer just the dispenser of punishment, waging just war: he held independent charge of the instruments of violence and retributive justice. Early Indologists and orientalists contributed to this effort. Texts and scriptures were often quoted out of context in the belief that texts scientifically and empirically reflected the social and historical reality in India.

The mild Hindu, the Muslim zealot

A third element in constructing the Hindu self-image appears at first to be a contradiction of the previous two elements, but was, indeed, a legitimising device for the new Hinduism that was taking shape. This was the myth of the mild, peaceful, soft, otherworldly, non-materialistic, tolerant, and all-embracing Hindu.

In constructing this shared myth, two processes were at play. A subtle internalisation of the caricature of Muslim identity was the first of these elements. From the 18th century onwards, the caricature of Muslims portrayed them as religious zealots, with the Qur’an in one hand and sword in the other, exhibiting a fierce theocratic unity and religious fervour, but, more importantly, as a people ready to die for their religion and nation. Nineteenth century restatements of Hinduism were bewitched and mesmerised by their own caricature of the Muslim. This view has had an unusual longevity; hence in its 20th century formulation, it could still impel V.D. Savarkar to exult that this religious unity and fervour made the Muslims ‘irresistible’. While part of this caricature was absorbed for the sake of fabricating the ‘new’ Hinduism, the Muslim also had to be distanced. Temple destruction was one such element that went into the process of demonising the Muslims. Despite this, another view of the Muslims as sensuous, lascivious, indolent – Bankim’s bearded, opium-eating degenerates – existed side by side and was used when convenient, often in conjunction with the first (as in the modern Hindutva myth of ‘love jihad’ and its earlier variants)

The shared myth of the mild, soft, peaceful, reasonable and tolerant Hindu also helps in escaping any serious discussion of the excesses of caste. While many nationalist thinkers expressed pious sentiments regarding the plight of the Dalits, they did little to alter the primacy of the upper castes or the social structures that supported caste oppression. Symbolic gestures were offered periodically but every single one of these were geared towards bringing about a preconceived, elite-driven Hindu unity for the sake of the nation. Not only did the shared myth help in muting any serious discussion of caste, but it also attempted to whitewash violent and invective-ridden antagonisms between Hindu religious sects.

Casting aside the shackles of citizenship

Indian nationalism and the modern Indian state were crafted out of these affirmations. In a deft and effortless move, the word ‘Indian’ replaced the word ’Hindu’. After 1947, while Indians were formally citizens governed by a constitution, there was an unspoken understanding among many (within both the Congress and the sangh parivar) that ‘we’ were governed by a pre-political and pre-social unity that transcended the Constitution and the rule of law. The conflict with democracy and its institutions dates back to 1947 and is not something that is a recent development. This is how the conflict unfolded.

Democracy and its institutions sought to convert the shared myths of the Hindus into reality. It was no longer a question of self-image or self-identity. The concept of citizenship meant the Hindu had to be mild, soft, reasonable and tolerant and submit to the rule of law. The cerebral brahmin had to admit to other versions of tradition and culture. The kshatriya could no longer possess the instruments of violence, punishment and retributive justice. The Constitution spoke of equality before law, unmindful of caste, class, gender or religion. This inaugurated a slow but steady distrust in the institutions of democracy while retaining a ritualistic faith in elections as a means of conferring legitimacy on the central tenets of the shared myth. The demolition of the Babri Masjid was the unshackling of this impulse and an attempt to reappropriate the instruments of violence.

The Mandal movement went a long way towards disturbing this pre-political and pre-social consensus. The Dalits, more than any other section of Indian society, have a greater stake in the promises and hopes the Indian Constitution offers. It offers, above all, radical equality, if only on paper. The various ‘Backward Class’ and Dalit movements – and their growing resurgence – also give a lie to the myth of Hindu unity and a chimerical Hindu vote bank.

The elections of 2014 and the emergence of a BJP majority in Parliament has only consolidated the process that started in the 19th century. While there is much to cheer from the election results in Bihar, three major trends have emerged from 2014.

The good days roll

There is, firstly, a move to ensure that the ‘nation’ takes over the state. The ’nation’ is often defined in terms of numbers, but also tradition and culture. The simple formula is that whoever wins a majority in parliament represents the ’nation’ – the mandate, in other words, is the ’nation’. This ’nation’ is arbitrary, wilful, intolerant and aggressive. It is above principles and legal niceties.

The second trend is of greater significance. It lies in the realisation that not only Hindutva but the 19thcentury version of Hinduism can only exist with the help of the state. For the mild, soft, tolerant, reasonable and peaceful Hindu to survive, the state has to ensure that differences be eliminated in the name of unity, that plurality be eliminated in the name of the survival of a scientific and rational Hinduism. The enemies of this state-supported Hinduism could be the folk and the tribal traditions, the Dalits, the Muslims and all forms of free expression.

Given the contestations within the democratic framework, where elections can be lost on grounds of mis-governance and non-governance, a neutral space for the ’new’ Hinduism to survive had to be found. This space had to be modern, technologically savvy, and scientific. But it also had to divorce governance from its details, reducible to technocratic and managerial solutions. The exhortation is to look at the larger picture, one that invariably excludes the poor, and involves atrocities on Dalits, women and minorities. It is a space that systematically represses alternative views, dissent and ideology, branding them dirty and manufactured. Politics itself had to be neutralised: it has to be reduced to throwing up a majority in the service of order and stability. The public space is to be sanitised from all enemies of stability and order, even if they are Indian citizens: they have choices now of either going to Pakistan or being branded terrorists or anti-national.

This neutral space is the zone of progress and ‘vikas’, or development. It envelops the traditional upper castes, and also upper classes and corporates. But its formal logic and appeal also includes farmers, Dalits, women and minorities. It is today’s version of the 19th century ideal of making Hindu men more manly. Married to the rhetoric of nationalism, progress and development is all about the physical and economic muscle of the ’nation’. Here, GDP figures replace principles and basic freedoms. The ideal of India as an economic superpower, encashing its quiet, supine, uncomplaining, orderly and disciplined demographic dividend is the 21st century culmination of the myth of the mild, soft, reasonable, peaceful, otherworldly and non-materialistic Hindu. In the 19th century, this myth was created to serve the demands of sovereignty and the state. It fares no better in our century.

Jyotirmaya Sharma is professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, India, and is currently Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna.