The Ayodhya Verdict:  What Does it Mean for Hindus?



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.

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*“The Problem of Kashmir” and the Inner Demons of India & Pakistan

(For the preceding part of this essay, see the previous blog, “Nationalism in South Asia:  India, Pakistan, and the Containment of Terrorism”)

Within the present geopolitical framework, a “solution” to the Kashmir problem appears to me to be all but inconceivable.  Still, unless one is to accept the notion that the two countries must be prepared to live in a state of perpetual low-intensity warfare, descending into open and increasingly lethal conflict every decade or two, it behooves us to reflect on whether the “problem” that persists in relations between Pakistan and India has been correctly identified.  Many commentators who have lived in, or traveled to, both Pakistan and north India have identified the cultural ethos and modes of lifestyle that they share in common, and the indisputable fact is that both India and Pakistan are largely afflicted by the same problems.  Both countries have a singularly dismal record in meeting the minimum and legitimate needs of their citizens, whether that be access to decent schooling, electricity, safe drinking water, healthcare, or anything that comes close to resembling a social safety net.  The most polluted cities in the world are in South Asia; women in both countries lead imperiled lives in various respects; and both countries suffer from massive unemployment and under-employment.  One could go in this vein ad infinitum, and the narrative remains unpleasant to the extreme.

Zia-ul Haq

Muhammad Zia-ul Haq ruled as President of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988. He declared martial law in 1977; he died in a plane crash. The Islamicization of Pakistan did not, contrary to common belief, commence with him; but the pace of Islamicization doubtless greatly increased under him. He is shown her with army staff officers; photo: White Star archives.

However, much also divides the two countries, and with the passage of time the rifts have grown deeper.  It has been said that Pakistan is an army with a state, which is not merely a reference to the fact that there have been long stints when Pakistan was governed by army officials.  The army has entered into the very sinews and pores of Pakistani society.  Some who are uncomfortable with the outsized role of the Pakistani army in the affairs of the country have nevertheless argued that without the stability furnished by the army, Pakistan would have disintegrated long ago.  India is thought to offer a sharp contrast in this respect, and it can certainly be said that in India a concerted attempt was made to keep the army out of civil society, though, as nationalism becomes a potent and even unmanageable force in Indian life, encroachments on this critical feature of democracy are becoming more common.  But such conversations are grist to the mill of the traditional political scientist and, in my judgment, do not engage with still more fundamental questions about what ails the country today.  What is most germane to an understanding of how Pakistan has evolved, more particularly over the course of the last four decades, is the country’s steady drift towards the most extreme and intolerant versions of Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia and the close links that the political and military elites of both countries have forged.  Muslim ideologues in Pakistan have for decades sought to persuade ordinary Pakistanis that the proximity of Hinduism to Islam contaminated South Asian Muslims, and that the deliverance of Pakistan’s Muslims now lies in an inextricable bond with Saudi Arabia, the purported home of the most authentic form of Islam. Pakistan, according to this worldview, must unhinge itself from its roots in Indic civilization and repudiate its Indo-Islamic past.  The insidious influence of the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia can now be experienced in nearly every domain of life in Pakistan, from the growing intolerance for Sufi-inspired music to the infusion of enormous sums of money to introduce Saudi style mosques and “purify” Pakistani Muslims.  This remains by far the gravest problem in Pakistan.


Amjad Sabri, a famous Pakistani Qawaali singer, was assassinated in June 2016 in broad daylight in Karachi.

India, meanwhile, has veered towards militant forms of Hindu nationalism.  The sources of the explosive growth of Hindu militancy are many, and many commentators, myself included, have written about these at length.  Not least of them is the anxiety of Hindus who imagine that they are besieged by Muslims and who contrast the worldwide Muslim ummah to the fact that historically Hindustan remains the singular home of Hindus.  The last few years in particular furnish insurmountable evidence of the disturbing rise of anti-Muslim violence.  The intolerance towards all those who cannot be accommodated under the rubric of “Hindu” has increased visibly.  Hindu militants brought down a 16th century mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, in the wake of which portions of the country were engulfed in communal violence.  Ten years later, a pogrom directed at the Muslims in Gujarat left well over 1,000 of them dead and displaced another 100,000.  Since the ascendancy of Narendra Modi—who was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 and under whose watch the perpetrators of the violence acted with utter impunity—to the office of the Prime Minister of India in 2014, civil liberties have eroded, dissenting intellectuals have become sitting ducks for assassins who murder at will, and Muslims have been, in the jargon of the day, ‘lynched’.  The fact that roving mobs have attacked many others, among them African students and Dalits or lower-caste Hindus, should offer clues that while Indian Muslims may be soft and convenient targets for Hindu militants, the real problem goes beyond the question of the place of the Muslim in contemporary India.


Narendra Dabholkar, an Indian secular intellectual who was a staunch advocate of rationalism, was assassinated by two gunmen in Pune on 20 August 2013.

Some scholars have spoken about the collapse of the consensus around secularism during the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Prime Minister from 1947 until his death in 1964; others, myself included, would also like to consider the evisceration of the Indian ethos of hospitality.  Nationalism may be a scourge worldwide, but among Hindus it is also animated by what is deemed an awakening after centuries of oppression and slumber. Just as Islamic preachers in Pakistan exhort Muslims to rid themselves of the creeping and often unrecognized effects of Hinduism in their practice and understanding of Islam, so Hindu nationalism rests on a platform of resurgent Hindu pride, the construction of a glorious past that is said to have been contaminated by foreigners (the Muslim preeminent among them), and the notion of a Hindu Rashtra (nation) where everyone else, particularly Muslims, is dependent on the goodwill of Hindus.  What is transparent in all this is that, howsoever much India is tempted to blame Pakistan, it has plenty of work to do to confront its own inner demons.


The Babri Masjid, a sixteenth century mosque in the North Indian city of Ayodhya, was destroyed by Hindu militants on 6 December 1992.

As I have already averred, no resolution to what is commonly described as “the problem of Kashmir” appears even remotely possible within the present socio-cultural and geopolitical framework.  If military action by either country carries the risk of blowing up into a full-scale war, and is nearly unthinkable owing to the unprecedented fact that the two neighbors are nuclear-armed powers, diplomatic negotiations are also unlikely to alter the status quo.  Indeed, for the foreseeable future, low-intensity gun battles, exchanges of fire, and skirmishes along the Line of Control will almost certainly continue, punctuated only by very occasional and ceremonial declarations by one or both countries to introduce “confidence-building measures”, improve trade relations, and encourage limited border crossings.  I suspect, however, that the dispute over Kashmir can only be “resolved” if, in the first instance, both countries are attentive to the problems that are present within their own borders.  Kashmir, it must also be said, is a region unlike any other in India: though the dispute has been cast in the popular imagination as instigated by animosity between Hindus and Muslims, one third of Kashmir is overwhelmingly Buddhist. Even in the Kashmir Valley, which is predominantly Muslim, the long and complicated history of religious sensibilities renders obtuse a history that is shaped merely around a modern notion of “religion” and a demography based on the idea of religious communities as, in the language of the scholar Sudipta Kaviraj, “bounded” rather than “fuzzy”.  I would go so far as to say that the day when South Asian Muslims—in Pakistan and Bangladesh as much as India—began to recognize the Hindu element within them, and, likewise, Hindus acknowledge the Islamic element within them, both countries will be well on the way to resolving the problem of Kashmir and acknowledging that Kashmiris alone have the right to move towards the full autonomy that they deserve.


The two parts of this essay were published as one single essay in a substantially shorter form, “Nationalism in South Asia and ‘The Problem of Kashmir'”, in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (4 April 2019).

*Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The French feminist Luce Irigaray speaks for many intellectuals when she voices the opinion that “the dominant discipline in the human sciences is now history.”  The likes of Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom argued that the Yoruba had never produced a Beethoven, Bach, Goethe, or Shakespeare, but no insult is calculated to arouse as much anger indeed outrage as to suggest to a people that they have no history.  Eric Wolf captured this idea in his book, Europe and the People without History:  however else colonized people may have been perceived by their vanquishers, they were often rendered as people bereft of history.  India, a prominent colonial official and intellectual wrote in 1835, had a “history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.”   If this was true of an ancient civilization, one that had even aroused the admiration of some of Europe’s most prominent intellectuals and writers, could it at all be doubted that Melanesians, Polynesians, Africans, Australian Aboriginals, and many others were a people ‘without history’?

Irigaray speaks of history becoming predominant in the present.  History had, however, become ascendant much earlier, certainly by the early part of the nineteenth century as I have already hinted.  When, to continue briefly with the case of colonial India, James Mill and Thomas Macaulay sought in the first half of the nineteenth century to demonstrate that Indians were not much given to rational thinking, they adduced as evidence the lack of interest in history among Indians and the sheer inability of Indians to deliver even simple chronologies.  Europeans marveled at the fact that the only historical work produced by pre-Islamic India, Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, a 12th century chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir, enumerated kings that were said to have ruled for three hundred years.  If any Indian was disinclined to believe the European charge against Indians, all that was required was to flaunt Gibbon, Hume, Macaulay and later Ranke before the skeptic and ask if any Indian text could even remotely meet the standards of historical reasoning that had become commonplace in Europe.  As I have written elsewhere at great length, in the History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India [rev. ed., Oxford UP, 2005], nationalist intellectuals took it as their brief to respond to the colonial charge.  Thus the nationalist response remained oblivious to the consideration that Indians may very well have disavowed any intellectual or social interest in history, except that they did so for very good reasons and never saw it as a lack.  I suspect that our forefathers generations ago would have been astounded by the idea that a sense of history should be construed as a sign of a people’s capacity for rational thinking or the maturity of a civilization.

The relationship between history and the nation-state has been well established.  No sooner is a nation-state born than an official version of the history of the nation in the making is authorized.  Postcolonial studies’ practitioners have sought to show how all such histories are partial, often as oppressive as the colonial histories that they seek to supplant.  One response has been to ensure that those who were written out of history – women, religious and ethnic minorities, and so on – are written back into histories.  That such enterprises may be nothing more than ‘additive histories’, barely questioning the template of dominant histories, is also well understood.  The resurgence in ‘world history’ in the United States has been another response, and its many defenders and practitioners have been fired by the noble sentiment that the history of the world should no longer be, as it has been so often, the history of the West.  They also presume that world history is the best antidote to national history (and, in the US, to proverbial American insularity), though here, as is often the case, what is good for the West is presumed to be good for the rest of the world.

There have been other, yet more sophisticated, responses to the problem of history.  Dipesh Chakrabarty has made a case for ‘provincializing Europe’, though the gist of his argument is, in many respects, encountered in Rabindranath Tagore’s Nationalism, published in 1917; he has also argued, quite rightly, that the reference point for histories, even those of India, Africa, or Latin America, somehow always remains Europe.  But Chakrabarty remains unwilling to disavow the language of history:  not only are all critiques of history made within the space of history (but such is the case for critiques of the nation or of modernity), but he views a sense of history as empowering, indeed as a necessary tool of ‘citizenship’.  The incapacity of historians to make any substantive contribution to contemporary debates, even those revolving around the question of ‘historical truth’ and questions of evidence, was driven home when, in 1992, the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque, was destroyed by Hindu extremists.

My point, then, is three-fold, suggesting in what manner we need to go well beyond the framework of postcolonial studies with respect to the question of history.  First, a more radical reading of the particular ways in which a sense of history may be unproductive or disempowering is needed.  One may have some form of historical awareness and yet not be committed at all to the sense of history: if the adage, ‘a nation that has no history is a happy nation’, is at all to be intelligible, it can only be so on the supposition that the task of forging a nation is a bloody one, and history is almost always complicit in such an enterprise.  The historian need not be pulverized by the thought that such an argument is calculated to make her or him obsolete.  Secondly, we shall have to enter into a more sustained conversation with other modes of accessing the past, among them myth.  If the choice word of abuse for the Marxist critic is ‘romantic’, for the historian it is surely ‘myth’.  And, yet, who would want to settle for the historical narrative of the origins of a city – for example, Bengaluru [Bangalore] or Mumbai — when the myth is so much more interesting or richer?  Thirdly, if a persistent case has been made for remembering, an equally persistent epistemological, cultural, and philosophical case has to be made for forgetting.  It may well be that certain forms of forgetting are yet ways to remember the past, but the postcolonial critique of history cannot be said to have even remotely ventured in this direction.

See also:  The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism:  Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

Thesis Two:  Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

*Another Partition: Some Questions about the Ayodhya Judgment

One of the most keenly awaited judicial decisions in independent India was handed down on September 30th by the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court when it passed judgment on the title suits regarding ownership of the disputed land on which once stood the Babri Masjid.  There is something askance, one might say, in the language that I have used, since the question of “title suits” appears to obscure the brute fact of the demolition of the mosque on 6 December 1992.  One might easily argue that the court was not called upon to comment on the demolition, but that view too easily permits one to obliterate the very fact that, in some respects, riveted the nation’s attention upon the title suits.  Who would have been paying attention to the title suits had the Babri Mosque not been brought down?  The judges may not have had any legal obligation to address the question of the demolition of the mosque and assign responsibility, though one may assume that none of them condones the mosque’s destruction, but what of the ethical burden placed upon them?

The judgment, not yet two days old, has already been replayed endlessly across television screens, and reasonable people have had to add the proviso that all interpretations of the judgment must be viewed as tentative until such time as it has been studied at length.  Running to close to 8,200 pages, the High Court’s judgment is very unlikely to be read in its entirety, and we shall have to await the assessment of assiduous aspirants for the doctorate degree to get some sense of the small print.  Yet, the bold brush strokes with which the judgment has been painted permit one to pose some striking questions.  What does it mean, for example, that questions of theology should have to be resolved by a court of law?  Courts in other democracies are not generally called upon to adjudicate such questions as were brought before the three judges.  Has it become something of a habit in India to turn to our courts for matters that cannot by a sensible person be viewed as falling under the purview of jurisprudence or legal reasoning?  What does it say about civil society in India that a court should have been asked to adjudicate whether the ‘disputed site’ was the birthplace of Rama, and what can a court tell us on this matter that might not have been told to us by historians, archaeologists, or other scholars?  Do we not have enough resources among us as a people to be able to come to some common understanding on these matters?

Justice Sharma gave it as his opinion that one could not speak of the destruction of a mosque since no mosque ever stood on the alleged Ramjanmasthan site.  He does not deny that a building was brought down on 6 December 1992, but he denies that the building was a mosque, even if it bore the name of ‘Babri Masjid’.  On Justice Sharma’s view, the structure that came to be known as the ‘Babri Masjid’ was not built according to the tenets of Islam, and therefore it cannot be construed as a mosque.  Perhaps the detailed judgment will reveal how Justice Sharma came to this conclusion, but even then some questions will persist on the politics of the knowledge that he embraces.  One would think that this matter ought to have been left to Muslim theologians and legal experts, who perhaps are best positioned to pass judgment on what standards a building must meet before it can be viewed as a mosque.  I do not recall encountering in the voluminous literature surrounding the mosque or ‘disputed site’ this particular argument.  If Justice Khan could not think of any objection to calling the Babri Masjid a mosque, why should this matter have struck Justice Sharma?  Since when did Justice Sharma become an expert on Islam and the protocols that guide the construction of mosques?  And, most tellingly, how does Justice Sharma presume to speak for Muslims, in effect telling them that they have not been scrupulous in adhering to the canons of their faith and that it behooves them to consider whether the Babri Masjid ever bore the characteristics of a mosque?

A “massive Hindu religious structure”, Justice Sharma intoned in his judgment, is proven to have existed at the same site where the ‘Babri Masjid’ once stood.  Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that he is right.  But how can that fact, if fact it is, be construed to mean that it was the site of a temple built to mark the precise spot where Rama took birth (i.e., the Ramjanmasthan)?  Even Justice Khan does not deny that the Babri Masjid was most likely built with the remnants of a Hindu temple.  Yet, the two arguments are dramatically different both in intent and in their command over how the past can be best put to interpretation.  Many temples were built and destroyed, not always or even often at the hands of the Muslim conqueror; some fell to the elements, others were vandalized, and yet others bore the brunt of battle, sometimes between Indian rulers.  Who can deny that the architects and masons picked up pieces of temple sculpture and wove them into the architecture of the new mosque?  It would have been foolish to do otherwise; and if at all one is going to speak of facts, as Justice Sharma purports to do, then it is instructive that not only Muslims but Hindus and Jains in India, and Christians elsewhere in the world, did exactly the same, utilizing the remains of previous religious structures to build new ones.  Much of history, one might go so far as to say, is nothing but spoliation – we plunder and rob not only religious structures but the past, sometimes as the only way of making the past alive, co-terminus with the present.

Justice Sharma similarly insists, again rather erroneously, that it is a proven fact that this is the site where Rama was born.  This site, and no other?  No Hindu text bears testimony to such an assertion.  Tulsidas has nothing to say about the exact birthplace of Rama; indeed, Rama’s most righteous devotee, who was writing around the time that the temple would have been destroyed, is stunningly silent on the question of the alleged destruction of the temple.  Now, had Justice Sharma really gone with the softer version of his argument, he might have had a better case:  he could have maintained that it is a proven fact that Hindus have believed that this is the birthplace of Rama, the Ramjanmasthan.  But, even then, there are pressing questions:  since when did Hindus begin to believe so strongly in the Ramjanmasthan in Ayodhya?  Did they always believe this, or did they begin to profess this belief after the Babri Masjid was built?  And if such a belief can only be traced to relatively recent times, might it have something to do with the particular ways in which Hinduism was starting to get political in the nineteenth century?

In a further post, I hope to speak briefly on a question on which I have written extensively in the past, namely the particular role of historical discourse in the conflict over the Babri Masjid – Ramjanmasthan.  Meanwhile, readers can turn to my long 1994 paper, “The Discourse of History and the Crisis at Ayodhya”, available online at, and subsequently included in a revised version in my book, The History of HistoryPolitics and Scholarship in Modern India (Oxford University Press, 2003; new rev. ed., 2005).