Monday, October 25, 2010

Ayodhya verdict & our secular conscience: Part Two

The three members Bench of Justice D.V. Sharma, Justice S.U. Khan and Justice S. Agarwal has ruled by a 2-1 majority that all the parties in the title suit, i.e. Bhagwan Shree Ram Lalla represented by his sakha (close friend) Triloki Nath Pandey, the Nirmohi Akhara and the Sunni Waqf Board will have one third equal share each of the disputed property and declared the litigants joint title-holders. Justice Sharma has disagreed with the decision of the majority that one-third of the disputed land should be given to Muslims for construction of a mosque. Dismissing the suit filed by the Sunni Waqf Board for a declaration and possession of the site so that Muslims can rebuild the demolished mosque on the same spot, the Bench has allotted the portion right below the central dome of the demolished Babri Masjid to Bhagwan Shree Ram Lalla Virajman with a caution that the defendants should not obstruct or interfere the area in any manner. The areas covered by the structures of Ram Chabutra, Sita Rasoi and Bhandar in the outer courtyard were allotted to the Nirmohi Akhara. The two Hindu litigants will share the remaining unbuilt area within the outer courtyard “since it has been generally used by the Hindu people for worship at both places.” The Bench has allotted the rest of the area where the Babri Masjid stood, including part of the inner courtyard and if necessary also some part of the outer courtyard to the Waqf Board stating that “the share of Muslim parties shall not be less than one third (1/3) of the total area of the premises”. To alleviate the progress of such a three-way division, the Bench has advised to use some parts around the disputed land presently under acquisition of the Government of India. The judges also ordered that the prevailing status quo which is currently under state control shall be maintained for a period of three months.

The Bench has ruled that the area right below the central dome of the three domed structure where at present a makeshift temple exists is the exact “place of birth of Lord Rama as per faith and belief of the Hindus”. (Emphasis added) Justice Sharma and Justice Agarwal have accepted the claim of the Hindu litigants that the Babri Masjid was built after demolishing a Hindu temple. Justice Khan contradicted them by saying that “the mosque was constructed over the ruins of temples which were lying in utter ruins since a very long time before the construction of the mosque and some material thereof was used in the construction of the mosque.” Both Justice Agarwal and Justice Khan decided that the shrine that existed until 1992 was a mosque but here Justice Sharma has differed with them. He did not agree that the disputed structure was a mosque as he found that it was built “against the tenets of Islam. Thus, it cannot have the character of a mosque.”

III. Reactions

Reactions of the Hindu groups came in as expected. Expressing an “obvious sense of joy” over the verdict, RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat has said that the verdict has “paved the way for the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya. […] We invite everybody, including Muslims, to help build the temple”. Following the verdict, jubilant VHP leaders have been found self-congratulating each other and distributing sweets. Welcoming the verdict the VHP has said that “the ruling has established without doubt that the place where Ram's idol was existing was the birthplace of the Lord”. The RSS constituents lost no time to circuitously ask the Muslims to unilaterally give up one-third of the land on which the court has now given them legal right. VHP international general secretary Pravin Togadia, has demanded that the total disputed land including the 67 acres of land acquired by the Government of India in 1993, “are part of the birth place of Lord Ram and we hope that a grand temple will be built in this total area.”

Calling the verdict “historic” and “positive,” the BJP has said that “the judgment upholds the right of the Hindus to construct a temple, it is a significant step forward toward the construction of a grand temple of the birthplace of Lord Ram.” Firebrand Hindutva crusader and former BJP leader Uma Bharti phrased the verdict as “the happiest moment of my life,” and further suggested that “Now, Advaniji and the VHP […] should initiate a dialogue with Muslims to arrive at a consensus on building a grand Ram Temple at the birthplace of Lord Ram.” Senior lawyer and BJP leader Ravi Shankar has appealed to the Muslims to, “accept this verdict with all humility.” Prasad, who represented the Hindu Mahasabha on behalf of Ram Lalla Viraajman in the case has advised them to “help the Hindus willingly construct a temple at the Janmsthan, it will pave the way for a new resurgent India.”

“The verdict was not only partly disappointing but also against the settled principles of law and evidence adduced by the Muslim side,” said Sunni Waqf Board counsel Zafaryab Jilani. He has further spelt out that the “High Court's formula of one-third land is not acceptable to the Waqf Board and it will go to the Supreme Court,” as the “proposal for surrender of mosque cannot be entertained.” The verdict, Jilani remarked satisfactorily, has annulled VHP’s standpoint that building of a Ram temple is a matter of faith which cannot be decided by the courts and firmly established that “courts can take up such issues.” Criticizing the ruling of the Bench that the spot under the central dome of the mosque was precisely the place where Ram was born, convener of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) legal cell Yusuf Muchhala has said that, “A court of law has to go by hard facts and the provisions of the law. There is no scope to go by theology.” However, the oldest litigant, 90 years old Mohammed Hashim Ansari has welcomed the verdict and appealed to all Muslims “…not to get upset over the decision as our fight has now become tough.” The chief cleric of Jama Masjid, Shahi Imam Bukhari has reacted by saying, “If we do not get our rights we will never be able to walk in this country with our heads held high.” As anticipated, the Hindu litigants involved in the case have also decided to challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court.

IV. Criticism

The mainstream Indian media has generally tried to keep itself cautiously cocooned under a synthetic fear of serious ramifications that might stem-up from any critical opinion or observations on the issue. Several of them recognized the verdict as an intriguing compromise which has offered a unique opportunity and space for an amicable resolution and so must be good for the country. “Some may object to the fact that it seems too much like a compromise,” wrote Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express. “The question to ask is not whether it is a compromise. The question to ask is whether the compromise takes us forward in the direction of the constitutional values we cherish,” Mehta strongly argues endorsing the verdict. (Source)

One of the most scathing criticisms came from Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu. In his pointed argument Varadarajan has pointed out that the court’s decision “on the basis of an unverified and unsubstantiated reference to the ‘faith and belief of Hindus’ […] inadvertently provided a shot in the arm for a political movement that cited the very same ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ to justify its open defiance of the law and the Indian Constitution.” Questioning the authority of “the Hindus” the court has referred to and “how their actual faith and belief was ascertained and measured,” Varadarajan has found it strange that “a court of law should give such weight to theological considerations and constructs rather than legal reasoning and facts.” He has argued that there can be no legal relevance in the 21st century “even if a temple was demolished in the 16th century to make way for the Babri Masjid.” (Source)

In Times of India , Manoj Mitta raised serious objections about the way the Allahabad High Court “made little effort to examine the legality of the 1949 act,” referring to the installation of Ram Lalla idol in the mosque. Instead of questioning the legality or validity of this mischievous act to convert a masjid into a mandir, the three judges, argued Mitta, “adopted the common approach of treating the forcible installation of idols as a fait accompli.” He disparagingly observes that the high court while dwelling “extensively on the Hindu ‘bent of mind’ in the context of the belief about the exact location of Ram’s birthplace” did not attempt to analyze the mentality that encouraged the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. According to Mitta, “The verdict could have been radically different had the judges mustered the courage to analyze this critical issue.” Pointing out at Justice Sharma’ judgment, Mitta bitterly wrote “Sharma’s judgment is an unabashed celebration of the fundamentalist Hindu perspective on the Babri Masjid.” (Source)

Terming the verdict as a “panchayati solution,” senior advocate Rajiv Dhawan has harshly criticized it for taking away “the legal rights of Muslims” and converting “the moral sentimental entitlements of Hindus into legal rights.” He had argued that the verdict gives the impression that “India's secular justice was majoritarian in nature without lending dignity to India's minority”. “If the court accepts that the Waqf Board is entitled to one-third of the land, it can't dismiss the suit. If the court dismisses the suits, it can't give only a portion of the land,” remarks another senior advocate P.P. Rao. “Whether or not Ram was born at that particular spot,” observes political scientist Zoya Hasan “is not a ruling that can be based on clear evidence.” She senses that by ruling on that issue, “the court could legitimize the majoritarian position on the matter.” Renowned historian Irfan Habib has criticized the court for giving too much weight to belief instead of historical facts. “Things that are totally clear historically, the court has tried to muddy,” he noted with dismay. Supriya Verma, who was one of the observers of the ASI excavation, has termed the verdict as “a judgment of theology.”

Javed Anand wrote in The Indian Express that Muslims felt a “huge sense of relief” that the verdict didn’t go in their favor. “In the last week or so the media has discovered a magic word: reconciliation,” he observes sarcastically. Pursuant to this observation he further remarks, “…it seems that India’s Muslims are reconciled to a ‘reconciliation’ out of fear for their life and limb.” Anand therefore feels that in the best interests of the country and the community, “Muslims must gift away even the one-third of the plot that for the moment is legally theirs.” (Source)

V. Debating the verdict

The Ramjanmabhoomi movement, as top BJP leader Sushma Swaraj had once acknowledged, was a “purely political movement in nature” which had “nothing to do with religion”. The movement was assiduously promoted by the saffron brigade only for its political objective. The RSS and its affiliates including the BJP seems to have recognized that beating a dead horse doesn’t make much sense today. The movement has lost its original fire and is no longer a political weapon to exploit. Also keeping the Bihar elections in mind, the BJP is extra cautious about not loosing Nitish Kumar, a vital ally who has already shown clear signs of vexation and unease about the provocative anti-minority postures and fire-spewing politics of the BJP and its militantly inflexible colleagues. The apparently subdued and lenient tone adapted by the RSS which wields moral control over the saffron family, must be viewed within this particular context. Just like a leopard can’t change his spots, the RSS also cannot change. It has only retreated a bit to fit into the contemporary milieu where a whole generation has grown up without any institutional memory of the combustible movement. Their cataclysmic politics, perhaps, doesn’t make much sense to this self-seeking generation.

Several questions can be raised regarding the judgment. How did the Bench assume that an extremist section of Hindus backed by a particular political party are representing the entire Hindu community? Can the judiciary resolve a dispute on the basis of the faith and belief of one particular community? What are the historical evidences available that supports the assertion that Ram was born exactly where the idols were surreptitiously kept on the night of December 22, 1949? How many Hindus actually believe that the particular spot is the exact birthplace of Ram? How can a court that can only decide upon documentary evidences reach to its conclusions by relying on unfounded evidences of belief, mythology and history? By allowing faith to supersede over historical evidence and judicial reasoning, the judges have duly legitimized RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat’s claim that “... earlier there existed a temple and it was demolished to humiliate the Hindu society. It was an act of invasion.” But what kind of evidence the court has relied upon to establish the claim that the architects of the mosque were the ones who did the demolishing? How can the judges who are neither historians nor trained archaeologists adjudicate on the basis of opinions and reports which are both controversial and contradictory?

The verdict has also immensely helped L K Advani to beat the drums of his toxic agenda. The sly politician has construed that the verdict has vindicated his 1989 temple campaign and has upheld the “desire of those millions” who wanted a Ram temple to be constructed. By validating the RSS version of history the Ayodhya verdict has therefore created a disquieting precedent that will further weaken the ongoing cases pertaining to the Babri Masjid demolition.

What if the verdict had gone against the Hindus? Would the “mature” reactions of our country, the “peaceful reception” of the verdict still have remained the same? Would the RSS and its affiliates have continued with the same moderate tone which they have chosen to play today? Could the most communally sensitive parts of the country have been able to retain their normalcy? One would have to be fairly optimistic to even visualize such a scenario. The reactionary and poisonous ideology that flows in the veins of the extended RSS family does not really permit us to visualize such an image. It is quite likely that if such a situation had indeed surfaced, the magnanimity and reconciliation jabberwockies would have never been heard. Pravin Togadia’s remark that “the area in question, is the birthplace of Ram Lalla and (we) will not hand it over to anyone,” or VHP leader Ram Vilas Vedanti’s warning that the VHP will honor the judgment if only it supports the case of Ram Mandir are obvious indications of what could have happened if the verdict had gone in favor of the Muslims. The corrupt and criminal gang of holy warriors that the RSS has so meticulously nurtured is sufficiently enough to spoil the grand illusion of a modern India. From this perspective, the Allahabad High Court verdict must be unanimously hailed by all secular and peace loving Indians. It has indeed helped to prevent another bout of scheming bloodbath – at least for now.

VI. Conclusion

The demolition of Babri Masjid was an integral part of a larger agenda designed by the saffron brigade to terminate India’s secular-democratic composition and turn the country into a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation). Building a “grand” temple after demolishing a mosque indeed has a strong symbolic message – the message of Hindutva supremacy over the minority Muslims. The demolition was therefore not just an act of vandalism on a medieval religious structure but an utterly vindictive attack on the Muslim mind too. The Ayodhya verdict has failed to heal this profound wound. The Hindutva leaders are now appealing to the Muslim community to be magnanimous and asking them to contribute their part of land for the sake of a “grand” Ram Mandir. L.K. Advani has strongly supported BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s suggestion that Muslims could build a mosque “outside the complex.” Why can’t we raise an opposite appeal to these “eternally magnanimous” Hindus to donate their part of land for rebuilding the Babri Masjid?

By ruling in favor of a tripartite partition, the High Court has clearly delivered a political judgment to gratify the two religious groups. At the same time, by allotting the area below the central dome to the Hindu litigants as Ram’s exact birthplace, the judges have legitimated mythology over historical facts and embossed judicial approval to the ideology of Hindu hegemony. But even so, it is for sure that the verdict has offered just a momentary respite to the multifarious problem. It is definitely not an end of the ongoing narrative.

Christophe Jaffrelot: The Hindu National Movement and Indian Politics
A.G. Noorani: The RSS and the BJP – The Division of Labour

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