For the last few days India’s Ayodhya verdict, pronounced on Saturday, had created a buzz. And, the talk was it would be in favour of building a temple for the Hindu god Lord Rama.
When the judgment came few were surprised that it was in favour of right-wing Hindu groups fighting for the temple.
The ruling by a powerful five-member Constitutional bench of the nation’s Supreme Court all but ends what is considered one of India’s longest legal battles – one that began in 1885.
The dispute was between the 16th-century Babri mosque, built by Mughal Emperor Babur in 1528, and the demand in its place for a temple as some sections of Hindus believe that it was the exact place where the prominent god Rama was born seven millennia ago.
Groups affiliated to the BJP-RSS believed that Babur had destroyed a temple and built a mosque in its place. On December 6, 1992, after prolonged protests, a violent right-wing mob demolished the mosque.
However, the legal battle over the ownership of the land continued between Muslims and Hindus which culminated in the Supreme Court ruling. The Muslims wanted to rebuild the Babri mosque while the Hindus wanted the land to build a temple.
The issue over the last three decades helped the rise of the right-wing BJP to power in the country and also brought to the fore politics based on religion, which was once considered anathema to the secular values espoused in the country’s constitution.
The Ayodhya verdict is a watershed moment in India as it gives religious beliefs legal weight and takes into account the existence of supernatural entities that until recently had rarely merited consideration in official or legal discourse.
For example, the court in its judgment has stated that the demolition of the Babri mosque was in violation of the country’s laws. Yet, it states that the belief of Hindus that the Ayodhya site was the birthplace of Lord Rama should be taken into account and the property is granted to them based on this belief.
For the last few days, the government had alerted security agencies, state governments and its intelligence apparatus to fan out to pre-empt any possible violent reactions to the verdict.
The court, in its ruling, granted five acres of land for Muslims in lieu of the demolished Babri mosque where a new mosque could be constructed. But this land will be nowhere near the existing site. It has directed the government to find a “prominent” spot for the mosque’s construction. Though a consolation, the order misses the point which is that the issue was never a simple property dispute in the first place.
The Ayodhya dispute had taken the contours of a majority versus minority issue with the BJP-RSS combine manoeuvring the issue to make it out to be one of inter-community relations.
The BJP also successfully used the Ayodhya dispute to make it appear as if Hindus were victims in their own land and that minority communities including Muslims were being pampered by governments, especially the Congress party.
In fact, two recent moves by the federal government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP can be perceived to be targeting the Muslim community. The first was its legislation to ban the practice of triple talaq, second was the abrogation of special status to the Muslim-majority state of Indian-administered Kashmir. The cherry on top is the court verdict supporting the ruling BJP's stance – the construction of a Rama temple in Ayodhya.
Interestingly, on Saturday day when the court verdict was imminent, Prime Minister Modi and Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan were inaugurating the specially-erected Kartapur 4.7 km corridor which gives access to Indian Sikh pilgrims from India’s Dera Baba Nanak shrine to Pakistan’s Durbar Sahid gurudwara.
Whether it was a coincidence or not that Modi chose to open the corridor on the day of the Supreme Court verdict, the opening of the Kartapur corridor is considered a silver lining for peace amidst recent tensions between the two countries over a variety of issues.
The prime minister claimed that the court verdict was not a victory or defeat for anyone and it should be viewed in the national interest. But the issue is too deeply intertwined with politics to separate one from the other for anyone to buy Modi’s claim.
India’s secular opposition, meanwhile, appears to be almost speechless at the verdict. While the Congress supported the construction of the temple in Ayodhya, other parties did not seem sure how to react. For, the Ayodhya dispute has been a deeply divisive issue between a section of the country’s Muslims and Hindus.
The ruling in favour of the temple is a dilution of India’s cornerstone principle of secularism where, unlike in Europe, all religions have equal footing under the constitution. The BJP’s projection of issues like Ayodhya have earned it massive support, and weakened opposition parties like the Congress which stand for inclusive politics.
Opposition parties, which are now in power in a handful of states, have still not chalked new strategies to challenge the rising tide of right-wing religious politics in the country. After securing an absolute majority in the May 2019 general elections, the BJP has managed to come to power in the northern Indian state of Haryana while becoming the single-largest party in the key state of Maharashtra, proving that the politics of religion is still a hot draw in India.
It is in this context that the Ayodhya verdict needs to be seen now that the Rama temple will shortly be a reality. And, if opposition parties do not come up with attractive alternatives, India will find itself mired in right-wing Hindu nationalist politics.
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