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 http://www.vinaylal.com, and subsequently included in a revised version in my book, The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (Oxford University Press, 2003; new rev. ed., 2005).