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Babri Masjid still critical in shaping Indian politics,

By Ajaz Ashraf

On 6 December, 1992 the Babri Masjid was demolished. Not only did it cease to exist in the physical world, but the plot of land where it stood was also not even kept vacant to mark its disappearance from Ayodhya. This was because in its place, over a day or two, a makeshift Ram temple was built. Thus began the afterlife of the Babri Masjid, as contentious in its absence as it was in its presence, as powerful a political symbol and a tool of mobilisation today as it was before its demolition.

The Babri Masjid leapt into national prominence because the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates launched a movement to appropriate it. The Sangh’s claim was that the Babri Masjid was built in 1528 after destroying an ancient temple that had existed on the spot where Lord Ram was supposed to have been born. This narrative of the Sangh was vigorously contested by the Muslims.

It consequently led to the insertion of a hyphen between the Ram Janmabhoomi and the Babri Masjid to signify that the ownership of the site in Ayodhya was disputed between Hindus and Muslims. In the afterlife of the Babri Masjid, the hyphen has been more or less obliterated from most textual narratives. It surfaces only in media reports on court proceedings pertaining to what is called the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit. It is likely that some will point out that the Babri Masjid should be before the hyphen, not after. With the demolition of the Babri Masjid, something of India too disappeared.

In its afterlife, the Babri Masjid could not possibly have had a hyphenated existence in pictorial representations of the demolition, an annual feature since 1992. It is possible to hyphenate two words, not two pictures. Editors were faced with a cruel choice – either they featured the photograph of the makeshift Ram temple and wrote a caption saying it sprang up after the Babri Masjid was built. Or they published the picture of the Babri Masjid as it was before its demolition, with or without Sangh activists, aka as kar sevaks, atop its domes in a triumphant mood.

Such photographs seem to have constructed altogether a different reality for the Babri Masjid in its afterlife. In a video story that Outlook magazine produced last year, a photograph of the Babri Masjid was shown to a group of individuals in their 30s and 40s. Their predominant response was that the Babri Masjid or its remnants still existed in Ayodhya.

On ground zero, though, the Supreme Court allowed the new reality of the makeshift temple to acquire the solidity of permanence. In January 1993, the Union government acquired 66.7 acres of land in Ayodhya, including the disputed 2.77 acres, where on a part of it the Babri Masjid had stood before 6 December, 1992. Not only did the Supreme Court uphold the acquisition through its majority judgment in the Ismail Faruqui case, it ruled that the status quo as it existed before the acquisition was to be maintained. It meant that neither the makeshift Ram temple could be removed nor the puja there stopped.

Two judges dissented from the majority decision in Ismail Faruqui and injected new meanings into the disappearance of the Babri Masjid from Ayodhya’s landscape. They faulted the majority judgement for not taking into account that the “structure thereon had been destroyed in ‘a most reprehensible act. The perpetrators of the deed struck not only against a place of worship but at the principles of secularism, democracy and the rule of the law’”.

In its afterlife, the Babri Masjid has become shorthand for the undermining secularism, democracy and the rule of law, of which India has had several examples in the last four years or so. The demolition of the Babri Masjid also provided glimpses to the consequences when the majoritarian will goes amuck. A large swathe of the nation was soaked in blood. In its spread, the violence in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition paralleled that of the Partition of India in 1947. Its intensity was undoubtedly less. But it did transform India’s polity radically. There emerged a new and powerful constituency of Hindu voters, whose regressive sentiments not even secular parties dare to question now.

In the Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, which the Paris Institute of Political Studies, popularly known as SciencePo, maintains, Violette Graff and Juliette Galonnier provide the death toll in cities that were sucked into a vortex of violence. There were 180-190 deaths in Surat, nearly a 1,000 in Mumbai, which witnessed two cycles of rioting and serial bomb blasts, all linked to Ayodhya. Around 150 people perished in Bhopal, 73 in Karnataka, 60 in Rajasthan, 87 in Assam, 35 in Kolkata, 11 in Kanpur, 12-16 in Delhi… A large part of north India lived under curfew for days to end.

But the grisly violence of 1992-93 was largely forgotten as the focus on the Babri Masjid, in its afterlife, shifted from streets to courtrooms – and to the Liberhan Commission of Inquiry that was appointed to investigate the happenings of 6 December, 1992. There was an exception though – when the coalition government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power in Delhi and Rajnath Singh was the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an RSS affiliate, declared at the Kumbh Mela of January 2001 that it will start the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya any time after 12 March, 2002.

In February 2002, a train ferrying kar sevaks from Ayodhya was set on fire at Godhra, Gujarat, in which 59 of them perished. It triggered a statewide rioting lasting for days, fanning anxieties about the Sangh’s construction plan. The Sangh came under pressure to revise its plan. On 8 March, the government received a letter from Ramchandra Paramhans, president of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, a VHP trust, who said he wanted to do a symbolic puja on the undisputed portion of the acquired land in Ayodhya on 15 March. It was presumably a face-saver the hydra-headed RSS had worked out.

The talk of symbolic puja revived the memory of 1992. Then too, the Sangh had used the pretext of symbolic puja to assemble thousands and thousands of kar sevaks who eventually demolished the Babri Masjid. Then too, there had been a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh. As the anxieties over Ayodhya continued to rise, the Supreme Court disallowed the symbolic puja and prohibited religious activity of any kind in the 66.7 acres of land acquired in 1993.

The next significant date in the afterlife of the Babri Masjid was 30 September, 2010. Then the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court partitioned the disputed land three ways between Ram Lalla, Nirmohi Akhara and the Sunni Waqf Board. The judgment was acceptable neither to Muslim nor Hindu disputants. Not only did the Supreme Court stay the judgment, it received 13 appeals and cross-appeals in India’s hyphenated dispute that is also known as the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit.

Even as the Supreme Court gears up to hear the title dispute in January, Sangh Parivar leaders have taken a cue from the Vijayadashmi speech of their supremo, Mohan Bhagwat, to demand that the Narendra Modi government should either bring a law or promulgate an ordinance to build the Ram temple. Bhagwat has also in the past said that only the Ram temple will be constructed in Ayodhya.

Such a measure will terminate the afterlife of the Babri Masjid. It will also pose a fresh challenge to editors on how to remember 6 December, whether through a photograph of the Babri Masjid or that of the Ram temple. Perhaps their best option would be to strike off 6 December from the list of dates they draw to remember the past.