Wednesday, October 06, 2010
Babri issue has lost its political traction
This appeared on the day the Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi verdict was pronounced by the High Court. In my view it is a majoritarian verdict. Let us see what the Supreme Court has to say.
India stands once again at a watershed moment. By clearing the way for the High Court to deliver the judgment on the Babri Masjid title case, the Supreme Court has brought the issue — which has caused riots and mayhem and cost thousands of lives—to its penultimate stage. The High Court bench will now deliver its verdict and the case is then likely to be kicked upstairs to the Supreme Court itself. But the substantive part of the verdict, which could be delivered as soon as this week, is not likely to change, considering the time and attention that the High Court has already given to the case. For most of the country, politicians, those party to the suit, indeed, the average citizen of the country, the overwhelming desire is for a closure to a terrible period in our history and to move on.
What the tensions, some of them media-driven, have done in the past month or so as the verdict was anticipated, are to have compelled the country to confront the demons of the past. And some of those demons have indeed been terrible. Beginning with the holocaust of the Partition, there was an almost continuous string of what were euphemistically called “communal riots” in the country.
The historian Paul R Brass has noted that between 1954 and 1982, there were 7,000 in which five hundred Hindus were killed and nearly three times as many Muslims. You do not have to be a mathematician to realise that disproportionate violence was visited on the minority Muslim community.
Since then, the intensity of riots became, if anything, worse. There were riots in Moradabad (1980), Biharsharif (1981), Nellie (1983), Bhiwandi and Hyderabad (1984), Ahmedabad (1985), Nawada and Allahabad (1986), Meerut-Maliana (1987), Bombay (1988), Bhagalpur (1989).
Beginning with Mr L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra in support of building a Ram Mandir in place of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1990, a new cycle of violence began— Kanpur (April-May 1990), Lucknow (October 1990), Agra (November 1990), Benares (May and November 1991) which culminated in another holocaust period in the wake of the mosque’s destruction in December 1992 when riots rocked Bombay, Ahmedabad, Surat, Calcutta, Kanpur, Malegaon, Bhopal and Delhi. In the ensuing decade, there were some 150 smaller riots, in addition to some bigger ones at Coimbatore, Kanpur and Malegaon. The Gujarat massacre of 2002 must be included in this list because its ostensible cause was the burning to death in a train of 59 Hindu kar sevaks who were returning from Ayodhya.
The communal climate has since improved in incendiary places like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but there are states like Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh where politics continues to fuel communal violence.
So are there still parties and individuals who would like to use the issue to stoke tension and provoke violence? We need to understand that by and large communal violence is an organised activity and it is only the apathy or active connivance of the administration and the police that makes it virulent.
The high-tide of emotions in support of a Ram Mandir that brought the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kalyan Singh to power in Uttar Pradesh in 1991 began to ebb almost immediately thereafter. Though the party used the Mandir movement to enhance its position in Parliament, reaching the point where it was able to finally form a government there in 1998, it was never able to establish itself in the strategic state of UP. Though there may still be individuals in it who seek to use the verdict to further their own cause, most of the party now understands that the issue is unlikely to have much traction with the electorate and has, indeed, become a mill-stone around their necks. The party almost certainly lost its chance to continue its rule at the Centre in 2004 because of the Gujarat killings.
There is a new generation of leadership in the party which finds that good governance is likely to deliver better long-term returns, than the short-term spikes that emotive issues like the Ram Mandir can provide—the comparison between Shivraj Singh Chouhan and his one-time predecessor, Uma Bharti could not be starker.
The other set of people who could want to disturb the current flow of events are the radicals in the Muslim community. For the Islamists, be they in outfits like the Popular Front, or the so-called Indian Mujahideen and the Students Islamic Movement of India, any step that leads to a cooling of communal tempers in the country goes against their game plan. Fortunately, such people are in an extreme minority. The bulk of the Indian Muslims have realised that their numbers give them sufficient clout to influence the outcome of elections in the highly fractured Indian polity of today. Many observers claim that tactical voting to ensure the defeat of the BJP has become a feature of Muslim electoral behaviour.
History never repeats itself, either as a tragedy or a farce. That is the reason why the outcome of the Babri Masjid case is unlikely to cause the kind of mayhem that the destruction of the mosque did. That event occurred when the country was already at an edge. The years 1989- 1991 were perhaps the worst in contemporary Indian history. There were four changes of government in a period of 18 months. Two states of the union—Punjab and Kashmir— were in a state of rebellion, India was insolvent to the extent that its gold reserves were transported to London because our creditors wanted iron-clad guarantees for further loans, and, tragically, in 1991, a former and possible future prime minister of the country was assassinated. The country itself was in turmoil as two political mountebanks sought to trump each other—one by announcing reservations for the Other Backward Classes and the other by declaring indirect war on the minority Muslims by demanding the destruction of the Babri Masjid.
The country of 2010— is comprised of some 40 or so percent people who were born after the Babri Masjid demolition and its immediate aftermath—is decidedly different. It has had reasonably stable central governments since 1999, led by pragmatic and centrist prime ministers. High economic growth for the past decade has dramatically improved the mood of the country. There is more money in people’s pockets, there are expectations for the future. There is little purchase for ideas that seek to either transform the world, or, for that matter the Indian political landscape. Poverty and misery may still abound in the land, but there is also, after a long time, opportunity to move ahead, and people sense this and would not like anything to destabilise this period in their history.
There are bound to be rowdy elements who may seek to use the verdict to provoke violence, but they will find that it is not easy to gain traction today. It goes without saying that vigilance against such elements is a must. The lessons of the past decades are such that no party, be it the VHP-Bajrang Dal or the Islamist radicals, can take the response of the people of the country for granted. Indeed, any attempt to opportunistically use the verdict to aggravate the situation could well backfire on them.
That in itself is the best insurance for communal peace in the coming period which could well be a prelude to an era, foreseen by our founding fathers, when the people of the country begin to keep their religious beliefs in the private sphere.
Mail Today September 30, 2010