What are the social implications of the Ayodhya verdict?
The Ayodhya verdict, which hasn’t fortunately led to frenzy, spawns multiple possibilities, depending on how the stakeholders – meaning community leaders -- act in future. It can be best if other disputes aren’t raised, for if they are, it may just signal a complete shift in power relations in support of the majority.
Twenty-seven years ago, when the Babri mosque in Ayodhya was razed to the ground, there were riots across the country and many towns from the north to the south were under curfew for days on end.
The situation was so tense that multiple Hindi film stars, Hindu and Muslim, acted in a video in which one actor after another would feature for a few seconds, performing to a song -- which was an appeal for harmony -- sung by singer Udit Narayan.
Three days ago, as the Supreme Court pronounced the Ayodhya title suit judgment, the reactions were very different. The Sunni Waqf Board soon afterwards announced that it would not file a review petition. The Muslim litigant, thus, accepted the judgment.
There were some arrests based on social media posts and celebrations by some, but the overall mood involved a serious discussion of the verdict. Some called it a statesmanlike verdict that sought to put a lid on an old dispute. Some others wondered in dismay why the court ended up awarding the whole disputed site to Hindus even while finding the demolition of the mosque – to fix responsibility for which a special CBI court is hearing a case in Lucknow – a violation of the rule of law, and even after finding no conclusive proof of a Ram temple underneath the Babri mosque.
However, there was no frenzy this time around. People went about their work as if not much had happened, something very different from 1992 when the country was engulfed in flames.
What does this augur for the future of inter-community relations in a secular nation-state?
One way of looking at the welcome development of a harmonious closure to the title suit is that communities – particularly the minority community – are weary of the long-drawn dispute and want to move on. This, indeed, would be the most crucial upshot of the judgment from the point of view of social harmony, if such indeed is the denouement.
However, this would require reaching out to the Muslim leadership by Hindu religious and cultural institutions. And, for this, there needs to be an assurance that no other disputes will be politically raked up in future. That the Hindu institutions got Ram Janmabhoomi – perceived by millions as Lord Ram’s place of birth – should make them more accommodative to minority concerns. That may well ease out the tensions of the past and make the verdict indeed pave the way to greater trust and harmony.
However, the moot question is whether this can be guaranteed. Even a few years from now, one statement of a prominent Hindu politician or spiritual leader regarding another disputed site can create an atmosphere of inter-community distrust. And we know that Mathura and Kashi (Varanasi) have in the past been talked about as two other disputed sites, even though raking them up legally may no longer be an easy option, after the apex court cited the Places of Worship Act, 1991, explicitly, as academic Faizan Mustafa has brought out in a piece in The Hindu. However, even political demands on other sites can disturb the harmony.
In some propaganda material, there is mention of several other disputed sites Hindu organisations claim. There should be a political assurance that the settlement of this dispute will usher in an era where further disputes will not be raked up in the public sphere.
If this can indeed be the last such dispute to be raked up politically, at least the harmony the Supreme Court’s judgment has itself found to be necessary can come closer to becoming a reality.
Large sections of Muslim opinion have accepted the judgment as a fait accompli. They seem to think that there is no other way out. Hindu assurances that the future would be dispute-free can be a way of making the Muslim leadership’s acceptance of the verdict a starting point for a harmonious future.
Yet, if some Hindu leaders begin to think that this is an institutional acceptance of disputes being won by the majority – and that Muslims are not in a position to voice their reservations – the “harmony” isn’t actually going to be a real harmony but the coming into being of power relations where the majority has its way. If so, this would militate against Freedom of Religion and the guarantee for the protection of the cultural rights of the minorities in the Indian constitution.
This is something best avoided.
Be that as it may, an argument offered by some Hindus is that Ram Janmabhoomi – or the perceived birthplace of Ram – is not just any other land. It is a spot very central to the faith of millions of Hindus. In other words, it is to devotees of Ram what perhaps Mecca is to Muslims across the world.
In this case, one just wonders – as historian Harbans Mukhia did in a recent piece, in which he also found the court's collapsing of mythology and history as professionally disturbing – that if the Sunni Central Waqf Board had withdrawn its claims earlier as a matter of goodwill and demanded, reciprocally, that the “Muslim gesture” should be accompanied by an assurance by Hindu organizations that they would not raise the question of the disputed claims around other sites, would radical Hindu elements not have received a setback? Would it have led to greater sympathy for Muslim concerns and greater support for pluralism in the minds of common Hindus in India?
One does not know this for sure. It is perhaps likely that it would have made many common Hindus feel a sense of gratitude for the minority, thus weaning them away from fringe elements in terms of how they view disputes. However, this speculative question comes with a new approach to the majority-minority equation. Till now, inter-community harmony as an idea in India puts a prime onus on the majority to make minorities comfortable. This perhaps owes itself to Mahatma Gandhi’s brand of reconciliatory politics, where Hindus as the larger community had a responsibility towards the smaller communities. Professor Mukhia’s thinking aloud also suggests the opposite model, in conjunction with the previous model: that minorities, as well as the majority, should make gestures of goodwill. And that gestures from both the majority and minority – or a sense of reciprocal goodwill – is the best for social harmony.
One does not know the answers to many of these questions. Nor do we know what a Ram temple at Ayodhya – now not too far away – would mean for inter-community harmony or lack of it. But the issue does raise several questions to mull over and also spawns multiple future possibilities – depending on how influential voices in the two communities choose to read it.