The Ayodhya Verdict:  What Does it Mean for Hindus?

 

AyodhyaNov2019

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).

BabriMasjidDestruction

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.

advani_rath_yatra_20110926

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.]

 

14 thoughts on “The Ayodhya Verdict:  What Does it Mean for Hindus?

  1. The diversity within Hinduism poses one of the great challenges to the Hindu nationalists: how can you have religious nationalism with a religion that is itself so divided? The lower castes too have had a centuries long track record of opposing Brahminical Hinduism: how can one incorporate them into the “Hindu fold”? It was therefore a stroke of genius for them to mobilize the Ram devotional tradition, by all accounts a bhakti and essentially non-Brahminical tradition, for their purposes. It is truly remarkable how across the country they have done the same thing. In Kerala, where Ram may not have as much emotive power, they seized on the Sabarimala opportunity. This needs to be understood in that way: before constructing Hindu nationalism it is necessary for the Hindu nationalists to construct Hinduism itself, appropriating local devotional traditions for their purposes. They haven’t had as strong a foothold in Dravidian politics dominated Tamil Nadu yet, but I would not be surprised to see Murugan agitations in the near future.

  2. No one has answered why the demolition of Babri Masjid was worse than the demolition of the temple by Babur. It was justice that an illegitimate mosque that was sitting on the ruins of a destroyed temple was destroyed. I do not understand why people who are always talking about how bad British colonialism was in India say nothing about the hudreds of years of Muslim colonialism before that which looted India and tried to destroy Hindu culture. Britishers were bad but at least the Britishers did not try to convert every Hindu to Christianity like the Muslim rulers did.

    • Narayan, Please read my response to Promod’s comment. The same applies to what you have mentioned as well, except that here I have to add that there is no demonstrable evidence of the destruction of a temple, much less a temple built on what is now claimed to be the Ramjanmasthan. Even the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which was under great pressure to support the view of Hindu nationalists, was not able to confirm that there was any Hindu temple as such. Your other remarks about conversion are equally unsubstantiated. Nearly everywhere where Muslims became rulers, the people eventually converted. You would have to ask why, if most of India was under Muslim rule for 700-900 years, the country remained predominantly “Hindu”. I have to stress, once again, that there is no question that Muslim rule led, in some cases, to the destruction of Hindu temples and perhaps even to forcible conversions, though most historians of India agree that conversions took place largely on account of other factors, including the example of pirs and the desire experienced by lower castes to escape the stranglehold of caste oppression. Please do not for a moment imagine that the British were comparatively benign. What some Muslim rulers–say Ghazni or Ghori–did has everything to do with conquest and very little with religion. If you are unable to understand this, then you’re stuck with the communalist framework of the interpretation of Indian history.

  3. When people say:

    “Men oppressed women!
    White people oppressed Indians!
    Upper castes oppressed lower castes!”

    The response: wow what an intellectual, enlightened fellow.

    When people say:

    “Muslims oppressed Hindus!”

    The response: what a bigot, sanghi, Hindu nationalist

    • Frankly, your note is simply an empty polemical retort. Of course, there were Muslim political dynasties in India, but they did what rulers in power do — whether they be Hindu, Muslim, white, Han Chinese, or anything else. You have to distinguish between the “politics of religion” and the “politics of conquest”. Some Hindus suffered under Muslim rulers, no doubt, just as many Hindus suffered under Hindu rulers as well. If you do not begin to analyze what’s happening, then you’ll just end up with the cliches that you have embraced.

    • Let me add one further note, for both you and Narayan. It is interesting how both of you have dodged the central argument of my piece–namely, that we have to understand the implications of the SC verdict for Hindus. Of course, for you to be able to respond to that, you would need some framework for the interpretation of Hinduism which is not colonial or Hindu nationalist, which is pretty much the same thing. Of course Hindu nationalists don’t recognize how deeply they are implicated in the colonial framework of knowledge, even as they think they are “liberating” Hinduism.

    • It’s also important to note that the earlier forms of oppression you mention in your comment still exist. Patriarchal gender relations, continuing economic and cultural neocolonialism of India and the rest of the Global South, and caste-based oppression are alive and kicking even today. However, in India, there is no systemic oppression of Hindus by Muslims, whatever the history may have been. Indeed, it is getting to be the opposite.

  4. It is unclear which values within Hinduism the BJP and the other self-styled protectors of Hinduism wish to promote. In this Ram dispute, they have attempted to change the way people think of Rama in North India by promoting the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” over “Jai Siya Ram” because a devotional chant which so much as mentions Sita is anathema to those who wish to promote a masculinist view of Hinduism. This Supreme Court order will no doubt embolden those on the Hindu right to destroy other historic Indo-Islamic structures (already we hear some of them saying they will come for the Taj Mahal next). This is also indicative of a feeling of fear (they hold the paranoid view that Hinduism is under constant attack from Muslims, Christians, leftists, and any other fictitious threat they may conjure up), as well as an inferiority complex which presumes that Hinduism will be unable to survive if it does not have backing from a modern nation state and its chief judicial body. I believe your earlier piece on India’s transformation into a republic of inhospitality is also relevant here, as Hindus are losing their previous hospitable tendencies toward the other (Indian Muslims are, of course, as Indian as Hindus but many Hindus are starting to think of them as foreigners). Particularly after we have seen the horrific implementation of the NRC in Assam and the BJP’s threats to expand it to the rest of India, it is clear that a deep xenophobia is overcoming a sizable portion of the Hindu middle class. The phrase “atithi devo bhava” which, one would think, the defenders of Hinduism should support, has no place for them. It is worth considering the etymology of the word “atithi”, literally meaning someone who one runs into without a “tithi”, or planned appointment, hence “a-tithi”. “Stranger”, therefore, seems to be a closer translation than the commonly used “guest”. The Bangladeshi illegal immigrants whom they wish to render stateless are the perfect example, then, of an atithi, as they are in India illegally. But of course, they are not interested in actually promoting any Hindu values, but rather in converting Hindus into a race, rather than a religion, whose fate is to be tied into that of the Indian nation state, similar to the Zionist project when it comes to the global Jewish population.

    • Well said, Pranav. I have made these points in my own language elsewhere, in a number of writings scattered in journals, newspapers, and books. In fact, I have made some of these additional points in a slightly longer version of the article that will be appearing soon. There are so many issues at stake here and what India is undergoing at present is not merely another chapter in the diminishment of secularism.

  5. Some say they will make India Hindu Pakistan some day they will make India Hindu Israel some say they will make India Hindu Nazi. None are true: they will take India on a uniquely Indian path to a majoritarian state.

  6. This is problem of modern day journalist. Please just report news not editorializing. We Hindus can think about what it means for us.

    • Whatever made you think I’m a “journalist”? In any case, the notion that journalism is about reporting not editorializing itself needs to be questioned. When you say “We Hindus”, you appear to be saying that you can speak for all Hindus. Really? By what right?

  7. Yesterday was Mahaparinirvana Diwas of Dr. Ambedkar. One cannot but wonder if his harsh criticisms of Hinduism have been given some weight in recent years. Maybe it is indeed necessary to abandon “Hinduism” as a label. Indian religion existed for millennia before that label came into being and will live long after it is gone. Indeed, it seems that Hinduism exists only to be in opposition to Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, and so on. People are, of course, free to practice their religion however they wish, but the creation of a “Hindu community” in both India and the diaspora has been rather disastrous, I must say.

    • “Hinduism” as such only dates back to the 18th century. Hindus today will argue for the term sanatan dharma, but the history of this term needs to be unearthed as well. The problem, though I cannot delve into it at this moment, lies with the term ‘religion’ as well. By this I don’t mean merely that we have no term of religion as such in most Indian languages. The word ‘dharma’ has a half-page entry in a Hindu sabdakosh because it means law, conduct, morality, and a host of other things. The problem is that every “religion” from the late 18th century began to be shaped in the image of Protestant Christianity. I have hinted at the profound consequences of this in writings over the years. In short, in response to your comment, Nikhil, I would say that I agree in good measure, but we would need a more detailed discussion of these points.

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