Babri mosque is a long-standing political, historical and socio-religious dispute. India’s Supreme Court recently declared a landmark verdict thwarting Muslim claims to the site where in a 1992 Hindu mob led by BJP activists destroyed the 491 years old Babri Mosque that had been built by the first Moghul ruler Babur in 1528. Hindus were awarded control of the disputed site said to have been the birth place of the Hindu god Rama where allegedly a temple had existed. Charge has been given over to a Hindu committee to build a temple over the ruins of the mosque. Muslims will be given five acres of land at an alternative site in Ayodhya. What is behind this dispute and how can we understand and evaluate this verdict?
Historical documents record that the Babri mosque was built on a large mound in the centre of Ayodhya that was called by the people the Ramadurg or Ramkot (the fort of Rama). There was no temple in 1528 supposedly destroyed by Babur or Muslims but a just a mound containing ruins of some sort, possibly a temple, buried there for many centuries that gave a certain elevation to the site and the Babri mosque to-be-built.
A major deity of Hinduism, Ram or Rama is the seventh and one of the most popular avatar (incarnation) of the god Vishnu. The story of the life and deeds of god Rama, the Ramayana, is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. Today it is playing an important role in popular Hindu culture such as folk theatre in India. The story has been adapted as one of the most popular series in TV of popular Hinduism, thus present in the minds of virtually all Hindus. According to the story Rama was the son of the king of Kosala by the name of Dasharatha. With its capital Ayodhya the kingdom was situated in northern India, today’s Uttar Pradesh (UP). When that kingdom is said to have existed and Rama had lived is estimated to have been somewhere between 1100 and 500 BC. In 500 BC Ayodhya was conquered by the neighbouring Buddhist kingdom of Magadha. If at all he is a historical personality Rama must have lived well before Buddhism took over about 2700 years ago in Vedic times, well before 500 BC
As the administrative headquarters of Faizabad district (officially Ayodhya district) of UP, India. The modern city of Ayodhya is identified with the legendary setting of the epic Ramayana. The accuracy of this identification is central to the Ayodhya dispute: some modern scholars variously believe that the present-day Ayodhya is same as the legendary Ayodhya, others think that the legendary setting of city is a mythical place that came to be identified with the present-day Ayodhya only during the Gupta period around the 4th-5th century AD. Another reading is that the present-day Ayodhya can be identified as the location of ancient Saketa, which was an important city of the kingdom of Kosala in the first millennium BC, later serving as its capital.
After almost 500 years of undisputed existence the Babri mosque came under dispute in connection with the Hindu-Muslim riots during British colonial rule when Hinduism was consolidated into one religion by the British in the early nineteenth century. The first recorded instances of religious violence in Ayodhya occurred in the 1850s over a nearby mosque at Hanuman Garhi. The Babri mosque was attacked by Hindus in the process. Since then, local Hindu groups made occasional demands that they should have the possession of the site and that they should be allowed to build a temple on the site, all of which were denied by the colonial government. In 1946, an offshoot of the Hindu Mahasabha called Akhil Bharatiya Ramayana Mahasabha (ABRM) started an agitation for the possession of the site. In 1949, Sant Digvijay Nath of Gorakhnath Math joined the ABRM and organised a 9-day continuous recitation of Ramayana by Tulsi, at the end of which the Hindu activists broke into the mosque and desegregated it by placing idols of Rama and Sita inside. People were led to believe that the idols had ‘miraculously’ appeared inside the mosque. The date of the event was 22 December 1949.
While Jawaharlal Nehru insisted that the idols be removed, local official K. K. K. Nair, known for his Hindu nationalist connections, refused to carry out orders, claiming that it would lead to communal riots. The police locked the gates so that the public (Hindus as well as Muslims) could not enter. However, the idols remained inside and priests allowed entry to perform daily worship, the mosque was thus de facto converted into a temple. Both Hindu and Muslim organizations filed civil suits in a local court staking their respective claims to the site. The land was declared to be under dispute, and the gates remained locked. After the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) was formed in 1964 it started agitating for the Babri Masjid site. District Magistrate Nair, who refused to carry out orders, was eventually dismissed, but he became a local hero and subsequently a politician of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. In 1984 a Hindu temple committee was formed by the VHP to spearhead the construction of a temple on the site. On 6 December 1992, a large group of Hindu activists of the VHP and allied organisations demolished the mosque in after a political rally organised by Hindu nationalist organisations at the site turned violent. About two thousand people, mostly Muslims, were butchered in the process. People have remained fixed on mortar and bricks but ignored the grievous loss of lives, somehow everyone seems to have missed this blatant atrocity by the Hindu extremists.
Archaeologists began a court-directed survey in 2003 to determine whether a Hindu temple existed at the site, this survey indicated evidence of a temple beneath the mosque, but many archaeologists dispute the findings. Parts of the findings have been quoted in the recent verdict and from that it is clear that even if the remnants of buildings that have been found at the site have once belonged to a temple it is not at all clear if that was Rama’s birthplace, how old are the remnants and if today’s Ayodhya is the mythical capital of Kosala and supposed home of Rama. If anything most of it is conjecture, the SC verdict has not been based on facts but pragmatism toeing the extremist BJP line.
The Ayodhya verdict thus does not come as a shock. The ruling BJP government and its PM Modi himself, a lifetime member of the RSS, are closely connected to the intentions of Hindu nationalists that consider Muslims either as aliens and the fifth column of Pakistan or best as misled converts who through a cleaning ceremony (gharvapsi) should be brought back into the folds of Hinduism. BJP a Modi’s policy has already cost the lives of thousands of Indian Muslims, be it in 1992 Ayodhya or in 2002 Gujarat or in the countless anti-Muslim riots that have taken place in the course of India’s “secular” history. The reason for even more concern is the fact of India’s Supreme Court (SC) fully blowing into the same Hindu horn as the BJP. This verdict comes after the SC has already endorsed the single-handed scrapping of Article 370 and 35(a) of the Indian Constitution which strengthens doubts about the independence and impartiality of this court. Many senior Indian analysts, including many retired SC justices questioned the verdict as not being based on facts but on perceptions. The verdict was announced ‘amid heightened security in Ayodhya and across the country’.
Will that be enough to keep the Muslims of India quiet? Indeed one may well ask whether defending Muslims is solely Pakistan’s domain? Maybe Afghans and Bangladeshis, who are also muslims of South Asia, feel the same frustrations as their muslims brothers within India being harassed and persecuted? Indeed one may well ask, with so many muslim countries, both Arab and non-Arab, where have all the muslims gone?
Ikram Sehgal is a defense and security analyst while Dr Bettina Robotka is formerly of Department of South Asian Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin