Keep these years in mind: 1856-57; 1949-50; 1992-93; 2019-20. What do they have in common? They are the years in which the state was compelled to intervene, one way or another, in the Ayodhya dispute. It remains to be seen if the Supreme Court's judgement is the end of the story, the middle, or the beginning of a new one (Kashi, anybody?)
What else do these years have in common? They are years of flux. They are years in which the entire political destiny of India was being shifted. In each case, parties to the Ayodhya dispute were both participants in that shift and attempting to benefit from it. In 1856-57, as the judgement points out, "...riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims in the vicinity of the structure. The colonial government attempted to raise a buffer between the two communities to maintain law and order by setting up a grill-brick wall having a height of six or seven feet. This would divide the premises into two parts: the inner portion which would be used by the Muslim community and the outer portion or courtyard, which would be used by the Hindu community." What else happened in 1856? Well, that was the year the British took over the administration of Oudh from the nawabs using the (in)famous Doctrine of Lapse. A new power structure; communal conflagration and contestation over Ayodhya; and then bifurcation.
Then consider 1949-50, as India emerged out of British rule and became a republic. The winter of the first Republic Day was also when another concerted attempt was made to change the facts on the ground at Ayodhya: in the words of the Supreme Court, "the mosque was desecrated by a group of about fifty or sixty people who broke open its locks and placed idols of Lord Ram under the central dome." The judgement's narration of events also makes it clear that the then district magistrate was, if nothing else, complicit in the events. Once again, at a time of changing political equations, the birth of a new dominant politics, and Ayodhya is the symptom of that change. When the Hindu Mahasabha took the matter to court following this event, it was clear on what it thought had happened: "upon India regaining independence, there is a revival of the original Hindu law as a result of which the plaintiffs [the Waqf Board, etc.] cannot claim any legal or constitutional right." The Mahasabha's victory was not complete - it was still Gandhi's India, not yet Godse's - but they did indeed change the facts on the ground, again.
Then came 1992-93. We all know what happened on December 6, 1992; the facts on the ground were changed yet again. But what was the political context this time? Above all, the change in guard in the state, with the BJP firmly in charge of the police entrusted with the security of the site. The fact that the then Prime Minister, the grossly overrated and incompetent Narasimha Rao, was at best weak and at worst scheming and complicit, is also relevant.
And so we come now to 2019-20. This final judgement by the courts on a simple land title dispute is so much more than that. The Court has gone to great pains to explain how the exact nature of religious belief is being kept out of the equation when it comes to its decision. But a close reading of the judgement reveals how the increasing points of contestation over the sacred geography of Ayodhya over time are, in fact, the very basis for the Court's crucial findings of fact and thus its decision. In other words, what we must live with henceforth is the final acceptance of the changes of the facts on the ground brought about by successive acts of violence, conflict and intimidation. And, in the larger political sphere, we are today witness to the final political transformation that was the underlying aim of one side of the participants in each of the above incidents.
The Prime Minister has told us in advance to not to see this as a victory or a defeat for anyone. But this is a hard instruction to follow, especially given the historical context outlined above. We are (still) not a Hindu Rashtra in name. But those who have for more than a century been fighting for one will understandably celebrate today. They will certainly see this as a long-desired, long-denied victory. And, like 1857, 1950, 1992, this is a moment of profound political change. The centre ground in politics, the glue that holds India together, the very foundation of India's nationalism, have all been altered, and this verdict sets the seal on this fact as much as did the emphatic victories of 2014 and 2019.
The power of politics is to make what was once bitterly contested seem inevitable when it eventually comes to pass. Today, the Ram temple seems inevitable; but that is because of completeness of the victory of temple politics. There may be no major outbreaks of violence today; but that is because the Indian state has bowed to the history and potential of majoritarian violence that this dispute embodies. That is why the losing side today includes those who have no particular stake in temples, mosques, or any sort of belief - but merely in the rule of law, of impartiality, and of equality. We are closer than ever to turning into cold reality the Mahasabha's 1950s predictions about what Indian independence means for law and for rights.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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