The Ayodhya Verdict:  What Does it Mean for Hindus?

 

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Ayodhya:  November 2019.

The Supreme Court verdict of November 9th on the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute case, resolved unanimously in favor of the Hindu parties, has deservedly come in for much criticism by Muslims, liberals, and many others who remain anguished over the diminishing prospects of secularism and the future of the Republic.  It remains unnecessary to recapitulate everything that may be found wanting or contradictory in the court’s judgment, though some aspects of the ruling will surely continue to puzzle those who have more than a rudimentary understanding of the issues at the heart of the dispute.  Just how did the Supreme Court, for example, arrive at the view that “on a balance of probabilities, the evidence in respect of the possessory claim of the Hindus to the composite whole of the disputed property stands on a better footing than the evidence adduced by the Muslims” (paragraph 800)?  The reasoning here seems to be perfunctory, to say the least:  since the Court admits that Muslims did offer worship from 1857 until 1949, it must have some account of what purpose the Babri Masjid served for the 300 years preceding 1857.  It doesn’t.

The Supreme Court ruling is, in spirit, contradictory and even disturbing in yet more fundamental ways.  The Court went so far as to say that “the exclusion of the Muslims from worship and possession took place on the intervening night between 22/23 December 1949 when the mosque was desecrated by the installation of Hindu idols. The ouster of the Muslims on that occasion was not through any lawful authority but through an act which was calculated to deprive them of their place of worship” (paragraph 798). Similarly, the court condemned in clear and unequivocal terms the destruction of the mosque on 6 December 1992 as an “egregious violation of the law” (paragraph 788, sec. XVII).  Why, then, should law-breakers and the perpetrators of violence be rewarded rather than penalized, which is doubtless what appears to have happened in this case?  Those who have come out in defense of the judgment have of course argued that the Court only weighed in on the matter of whether the Muslims or the Hindus had a better claim to the land, but this reasoning cannot remotely be reassuring to those who would like the nation to contend with the one indisputable fact:  a mosque that once stood there for almost five centuries is no longer in existence.  The Court’s tacit uneasiness with its own judgment is conveyed in the ringing declaration that “the Muslims have been wrongly deprived of a mosque which has been constructed well over 450 years ago” (paragraph 798).

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The Destruction of the Babri Masjid, 6 December 1992.

It is perhaps for this reason, among others, that the court’s judgment has also come in for some praise, and not only by those who one might expect to be jubilant at the outcome:  here the argument seems to be that the Supreme Court had to deal with a very difficult and potentially explosive situation, and that it made the best of an altogether bad situation. The acknowledgment by the court of the harrowing loss of the mosque and the harm to the Muslim community may be read both as an act of contrition and as an exemplary demonstration of the delicate balancing act that judicial bodies in India may have to perform at a time when a Hindu nationalist party controls nearly all the levers of power.  The recent statement signed by some 100 Muslims, among them prominent artists, activists, and writers, as well as farmers, engineering students, and home-makers, urging their fellow Muslims to refrain from further litigation cannot of course be construed as signaling their agreement with the Supreme Court’s decision, but it acknowledges the brute fact that “keeping the Ayodhya dispute will harm, and not help, Indian Muslims.”  Their note makes for painful reading, reminding Muslims that every iteration of the dispute has led to the loss of Muslim lives:  “Have we not learnt through bitter experience that in any communal conflict, it is the poor Muslim who pays the price?”

Many commentators of liberal and secular disposition have thus sought to consider the implications of the Supreme Court verdict for the future of the Muslim community.  But there is another equally critical, and little considered, question:  what does it mean for Hindus?  The answer seems too obvious to most commentators to even require mention.  The project of building a Hindu rashtra, on this view, has received a massive boost.  Both the supporters and critics of the court verdict are in agreement that the transformation of India from a secular polity—to the extent that it has been one—to a Hindu nationalist state will be witnessed in most domains of life, from educational and cultural institutions to cultural norms, altered patterns of social intercourse, and claims on the public sphere.  The process of altering textbooks to suit new narratives of Hindu glory has been ongoing for many years; it will almost certainly receive more state funding.  The secularists will deplore the increasing intolerance on part of Hindus, while the nationalists will argue that, for the first time in a millennium, the Hindu can finally feel at ease in the only country which he can justly call his own.  The supposed “tolerance” of the Hindus will, on the secular-liberal view, be put to a severe test and they are almost certainly bound to fail the test; from the standpoint of the Hindu nationalist, Hindus will no longer feel ashamed to own up to their religion and the entire world will be compelled to recognize India for what it is, namely a country that in its origins and soul is fundamentally Hindu.

What is at stake for Hindus is, however, something yet more profound.  Let us consider briefly some implications, each of which lends itself to much greater explication.  First, Hinduism, as even those who are not Hindus recognize, may reasonably be said to be more accommodating of diversity than any other faith in the world.  Some who call themselves Hindus do nothing more than read the Gita, the Ramayana, the Bhagavatam, the Upanishads, or one or more of hundreds of texts; others visit temples; and yet others do neither but may only meditate, perform seva, or undertake a quiet form of puja at home before their ishta devata.  One may think of a thousand other scenarios and we would not still be even remotely close to approximating the fecundity and diversity of religious practices that have been gathered under the umbrella of Hinduism.  Yet there appears to be a gravitational shift towards “temple Hinduism”, a growing intolerance not merely, as right-minded people would argue, against Muslims and Dalits but rather within the faith itself towards adherents of other practices and conceptions of Hinduism.  Temple Hinduism may be viewed as a mode of establishing communality, but it is also a public display of one’s religious adherence and a tacit declaration of the strength of numbers. The question is whether the Supreme Court verdict does not feed into this worldview of temple Hinduism.

Secondly, if one considers that the entire Ayodhya movement has been a loud, aggressive, and garrulous enterprise, is it not the case that the entire tenor of what it means to be a Hindu has changed radically over the last several decades?  Hinduism has never, as I have already suggested, been one thing; nevertheless, the Hinduism that some of us grew up with was the religion of the sants and bhaktas, of sweet and often mesmerizing devotional songs, and of the quiet devotion of one’s mother (and sometimes father) at home.  The modern phase of the Ayodhya movement, by contrast, started with the rath yatra in 1990, undertaken by Advani across the country in an air-conditioned Toyota retrofitted as a chariot.  It was nothing if not a raucous affair, orchestrated as a spectacle and designed for the media; much the same can be said of the various other stages of this movement, from loud displays of their devotion to the cause by kar sevaks to the very visible, media-driven, and almost outlandish destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992.  In its verdict, the Supreme Court, which does not appear to have given much thought to this matter, and which in any case would have been outside of its purview, has perhaps inadvertently surrendered to this loud, restless, and even strident form of Hinduism.

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The Rath Yatra of L.K. Advani, 1990:  the slogan at the head of the bus says, ‘From Somnath to Ayodhya’. Photo:  Outlook India.  Mahmud of Ghazni’s multiple attacks on Somnath 1,000 years ago have long rankled many Hindus, especially Hindu nationalists, and the resconstruction of the Somnath temple became one of the principal projects of the new nation-state following the attainment of independence in 1947.

Thirdly, however unpalatable such a proposition may be to especially middle-class Hindus, those who might be described as the most likely supporters of an aggressive Hindu nationalism, Hinduism is a religion of mythos rather than of history.  Its most remarkable strength has been that it is singularly devoid of a historical founder, just as it has never had any “scripture”—a word that must always be used advisedly when speaking of Hinduism, and that here I use with extreme reservation—that may be construed as the equivalent of the Quran or the Bible.  No “Hindu” until comparatively recent times was ever bothered by the fact that neither Rama nor Krishna could be viewed as historical figures in the vein of Jesus or Muhammad.  But history has, alas, become the master narrative of our modernity, and in the verdict of the Supreme Court we see the tragic and nearly always destructive tethering of history to the telos of the nation-state.  Hindus may have won a temple and, as they think, avenged their “humiliation” and gained back their pride, but if the nation continues along this trajectory they would have lost their very religion.

 

(First published under the same title at abplive.in, here.]

Translated into Hindi as सुप्रीम कोर्ट के अयोध्या फैसले का आखिरकार हिंदुओं के लिए मतलब क्या है? and available here:  https://www.abplive.com/blog/the-ayodhya-verdict-what-does-it-mean-for-hindus-1245933

A much longer version has been published with the slightly revised title of “The Ayodhya Verdict:  What It Means for Hindus” (8 December 2019), at thebeacon.in here:  https://www.thebeacon.in/2019/12/08/the-ayodhya-verdict-what-it-means-for-hindus-between-the-lines/

[Note:  My previous piece on Ayodhya dates to 2 October 2010, and was written in the wake of the judgment of the Allahabad High Court.  It can be accessed here.]

 

The Profound Ambivalences of Thanksgiving ; Part I:  Jefferson on an American ‘Tradition’

(in two parts)

 Los Angeles, Fourth Thursday of November 2019

As an immigrant with a certain political sensibility, I have always been filled with ambivalence towards Thanksgiving—and that is putting it mildly.  July 4th doubtless has a more honored place on the American calendar in many respects, but Thanksgiving has long appeared to most people as the quintessential American holiday.  It was a religious celebration before it became a holiday and its history predates by more than 150 years the founding of the Republic.  Most holidays (of this kind) are full of good cheer, but Thanksgiving is much more than that, and not only because the Thanksgiving table is overflowing with food and that one eats to one’s fill—and more.  Thanksgiving appears to endorse a more democratic conception of what it means to be American:  thus, as an illustration, we may witness a 3-star General, or the Vice President, serving Thanksgiving meals to soldiers stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Thanksgiving, I was long inclined to believe, was that one day when the foreign student in the US was positively supposed to feel welcome and find herself invited to an American home.  On this singular occasion, at least, fellowship and conviviality often seemed to triumph over race, religion, and identity politics more generally.

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Norman Rockwell, “Freedom From Want” (source:  Wikipedia)

My conflicted feelings towards Thanksgiving arise from far more than the fact that turkey is scarcely the most delectable of all meats, an opinion that is rather widely shared even if some people are, for reasons of sentimentality or political correctness, unwilling to go public with their view, especially on Thanksgiving Day.  But one may put this down to matters of taste and therefore relegate the question of the wholesomeness of the comestibles under which the traditional Thanksgiving Table groans to the sidelines, considering that the rather more stern misgivings about Thanksgiving which I now propose to delve into (especially in the second part of the essay) will be even less palatable to many readers.  There is, to begin with, the matter of the conflicted status of Thanksgiving as a secular holiday.  Thomas Jefferson was the principal architect of the idea of the separation of church from state, and it is his singularity as well that he appears to have been the only American president, at least among the presidents with wide recognition, to openly decry the public celebration of Thanksgiving.

Jefferson’s reservations against Thanksgiving are best understood in an exchange of views he had with Baptists. Congress had declared a national day of Thanksgiving after the American triumph of arms at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, but in the years following Thanksgiving was associated with fasting and prayer more so than with bountiful meals.  Sometime in late December 1801, in the first year of his first term as President of the United States, some Baptists wrote to him from Connecticut to express their concern that the state’s constitution did not have a specific provision safeguarding the freedom of worship and religious expression.  Was Jefferson, as President, they wanted to know, prepared to assure that they would have religious liberty? In reply, Jefferson wrote to express his firm conviction that no legislature of American people ought to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” His brief letter continues in this vein, pointing to his conviction that declarations of thanksgiving were expressions of religion; however, as the editors of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton University Press, 2009) note, he omitted from his draft reply a passage which, he was informed by friends, “might give uneasiness to some of our republican friends in the eastern states where the proclamation of thanksgivings &c by their Executive is an antient habit, & is respected.”  On Jan 1, 1802, addressing one Mr. Lincoln of the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson began with the observation that he was “averse” to receiving addresses, but was “unable to prevent them”; and so he sought to make the best use of each such occasion to sow “useful truths & principles among the people”, and on this occasion found it apt to explain “why [he] did not proclaim fastings and thanksgivings, as my predecessors did” (Vol 36, pp. 256-7).

That Jefferson was not averse to Thanksgiving as such becomes clear from a letter he penned to the Rev. Samuel Miller in 1808, during the second term of his presidency.  Here his argument is made to rest on a different consideration:  while affirming that the Constitution forbid the “government of the US” from meddling “with religious institutions, their doctrines, disciplines, or exercises”, Jefferson noted that the Constitution reserved “to the states powers not delegated to the U.S.”  It was then a matter best left to each state:  “Fasting & prayer are religious exercises.  The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them . . . and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.”  Thus, as Governor of Virginia, Jefferson had no qualms about declaring, as he did on 11 November 1779, “A Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer”; however, as President of the United States of America, he could do no such thing without violating the Constitution that he had sworn to uphold.

 

(to be concluded)

 

 

 

 

The Lynching of JNU

Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU as it is known in Delhi and beyond, has once again been in the news for the last three weeks.  Its students have been protesting not only against large hikes in hostel fees, but against other features of the draft hostel manual which imposes a dress code and sets a curfew for students.  The university and nearby residential colonies have been swarming with police, but the students have been successful in taking their demonstrations to many parts of central Delhi and the area around Parliament.  There are reliable reports, and video footage, of students, including some who are disabled, who have been beaten by the police.  Students have been lathi charged, and many have been detained.  The Delhi Police has, predictably, denied all charges of police brutality, and rests its case upon the fact that the imposition of Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which outlaws public assemblies of more than five people, means that the protestors are in violation of the law.

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JNU has long been one of the country’s most distinguished universities.  That, some might argue, says little considering that no Indian university, going by the Times’ Higher Education World University Rankings (2020), ranks within the world’s top 300 institutions of higher education, and JNU falls within the 601-800 rankings.  Even within Asia alone, JNU is ranked a measly 95th.  Nevertheless, the university has exercised an outsized influence in Indian public and intellectual life, and some of its graduates have gone on to gain global renown.  JNU justly celebrated the award of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics to one of its graduates, Abhijit Banerjee, and a number of its graduates now occupy very high positions in the present government and the civil services.

Such rankings should, in any case, be treated be severe skepticism if not dismissed outright.  JNU has much else to its credit, all of which has made it the target of the present government and the university administration headed by a Vice Chancellor who has shown himself utterly incapable of exercising independent judgment.  More than any other university in the country, JNU remains a site of dissent.  Whatever distinctions its graduates and faculty have earned in the academic sphere, in scientific research, or in public life, many of them have shown that in a modern civilized society it is imperative that the university be safeguarded as one of the last bastions of free speech and dissent.  Four years ago, the government attempted to silence some PhD students—among them, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya—by charging them with sedition and criminal conspiracy, for no better reason than they had held a demonstration against the sentence of capital punishment that had been handed out to Afzal Guru, convicted of an attack on the Indian Parliament.

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Kanhaiya Kumar, JNU Student Union leader. Source: Hindustan Times, 7 March 2016.

The culture of dissent, and independent thinking, cannot however by gauged only by an occasional show of protest, and what makes JNU stand out is the spirit of inquiry which informs intellectual and cultural life on campus.  This was demonstrated, in the aftermath of the government’s heavy-handed and much critiqued handling of the sedition case, by an extraordinary series of lectures on nationalism that were held outside the administration building.  The BJP government has sought, since it came to power in 2014, to capture nearly every state institution, and its inability to silence students at JNU has doubled its resolve to bring the university to heel.  JNU’s students are similarly emboldened to stand their ground, indeed for reasons that the government fears and cannot dare to acknowledge.  JNU is unique in that it draws half of its student body from families that live at the edge of poverty, living on Rs 12,000 or less a month. There are students whose fathers work as hawkers and landless laborers, and in hazardous industries as daily wage laborers.  The supposition of the government, of course, is that such students have no reason to study; they certainly have no right to dream of a better livelihood than their parents.

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If all of this were not enough to bring distinction to JNU, there is yet something more that makes the university absolutely singular in India. It is doubtless the first university to be publicly lynched.  The country has been witness for the last several years to many lynchings of Muslims and Dalits. Make hay while the sun shines, so goes the proverb, and some Hindu nationalists have been on the rampage knowing fully well that that they can commit, with full impunity, heinous crimes.  The idea of an institution being “lynched” may strike some as bizarre, but I doubt very much that the public lynching of JNU has any parallels in modern Indian history.  It may well be JNU’s misfortune that, being named after Jawaharlal Nehru, and having, on top of that, something of a reputation (deservedly or otherwise) as a left-wing institution, it was bound to exercise the attention of the present government, which absolutely loathes the name of Nehru and has lost no opportunity to ridicule the achievements and legacy of India’s first and longest serving Prime Minister.  Most recently, BJP Vice President Shivraj Singh Chouhan has charged Nehru with the “crime” of introducing Article 370 and “announcing ceasefire in war with Pakistan”, a view at once endorsed by Bhopal BJP MP Pragya Thakur who agrees that Nehru, having hurt “our motherland”, was “surely” a “criminal”. Thakur, we should remember, spent nearly a decade in jail on charges of being a terrorist and is technically still out on bail. One might speak of the pot calling the kettle black, but such proverbs would be lost on the illiterates who now command India’s destiny.

The government, having done whatever it deemed necessary to tame JNU, has now left the shaming and lynching of the university to the country’s middle class.  We all know of the television anchor whose trademark harangue, which would be comical if it were not so incendiary, begins with this line:  “The country wants to know . . .”  JNU students are now routinely accused of being anti-national, an allegation which makes a traitor of anyone who does not subscribe to the idea of Hindu supremacy.  But the demonization of JNU students has many other, equally disturbing, features.  A BJP MLA from Rajasthan’s Alwar District had claimed, following the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, that “3,000 used condoms, 500 used abortion injections, 10,000 cigarette pieces, among other things,” are found at JNU “daily”, and that “girls and boys dance naked in cultural programmes” at the university.

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Cartoon by R. Prasad, Mail Today.

What he claimed then is now claimed by thousands of middle class Indians posturing as guardians of public morals who are convinced that JNU is a den of vice:  here girls dance naked and they are shameless in flaunting their bodies, both girls and boys are hooked on drugs, and university hostels are little better than places where sex can be had for the cheap.  JNU students, it is being said, are generally engaged in worthless research and are, in any case, much too old to be students.  Social media is awash with such stories.  One story doing the rounds on Facebook, shared 1,400 times within hours of it being posted, represented a 43-year old woman as a student whose daughter was also a student at JNU!  The story circulated with the hashtag, #ShutDownJNU.  The 43-year old woman was a figment of the imagination.

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An illustration of the stories circulating about JNU in social media: this one has the endorsement of IIT Madras Junta Against Leftist APSC [Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle] and bears the hashtag #ShutDownJNU. Source: https://www.thequint.com/news/webqoof/jnu-protest-fake-news-pictures-of-student-protesters-fact-check

Those agitating for the closure of JNU, or stern disciplinary action against students, are pathetic for yet other reasons.  Some of them have taken recourse to the argument, drawn entirely from the playbook of American populism, that JNU is a drain on public resources and that “tax-payers” should not have to subsidize lazy, old, and left-inclined students so that they can write on worthless topics which do nothing for the country’s economy.  The sheer poverty of such thinking is what should alarm the country.  This is apart from the fact that India’s middle class is notorious for tax evasion, and it can be safely said that many objecting to the waste of tax-payers’ money are evading the payment of their own taxes.  India has a seriously ailing economy.  As the loud shouting against JNU shows, what ails the imagination in India is equally frightening.