Babri and the Birth of the Bhakt

Politics

Babri and the Birth of the Bhakt

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza/ Arré

I

still remember that chilly December morning of 1992. Television news had not yet become the omnipresent, multi-headed Hydra it is today, the word website did not exist in our lexicon, but word still found a way to travel. And word had it that Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh had been demolished. I remember seeing pictures of kar sevaks – little tridents and saffron flags in their hands – struggling to gain a foothold on the mosque’s dome. It was clear from their expressions and body language that they were celebrating.

I was then too young to comprehend the impact of those images, but even my adolescent brain could understand that a desecration of a holy place, was not good news. The men on the mosque’s gumbad appeared triumphant, like they’d just vanquished someone. It would be many years before I realised that they’d defeated – at least temporarily – the idea of a united India.

Advertisement

This was the moment that rent the secular fabric of the nation; another deep schism in the long, divisive history of this country; and yet another exercise in othering. A place of worship revered by Hindus and Muslims alike was going to become the site of a pitched battle, fought along deeply riven religious fault lines. The juggernaut that was set in motion in December 6 1992 is now manifest as virulent right-wing nationalism – the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bhartiya Janta Party’s vision of a Hindu Rashtra, now almost complete.

The move to demolish the mosque was not a “spontaneous” or “unplanned” expression of Hindu sentiment, the way some leaders had then tried to define it. Not only were the VHP and BJP cadres armed and trained for it – responding to the resounding call of “Ek dhakka aur do” – the rest of the country had been primed to accept the Ram Janmabhoomi movement through a careful socio-political-cultural campaign.

Four years prior to the demolition, streets across the country would empty out on Sunday mornings. People sat glued to Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana as if they were watching the very re-incarnation of their idols Rama and Sita. A couple of years after the series stopped airing, the VHP’s demands to construct a temple at the site of Babri Masjid began to grow louder. The movement gained serious traction in 1990, when BJP president LK Advani embarked on the Ram Rath Yatra that culminated in Ayodhya, to consolidate the political capital they had ceded to the Janata Dal. In the run-up to December 6, the VHP also encouraged villagers to consecrate bricks and send them for the construction of the Ram Mandir.

In the days preceding the historic 2014 general elections, much was made of Narendra “Vikas Purush” Modi’s rise on the “development” plank.

If you, like me, grew up in the 1990s, you’d know that it was impossible to escape the trident of Rama, Ramayana, and Ayodhya.

The Rama Janmabhoomi campaign was premised on the idea of correcting a historical wrong; an idea that continues to be recycled more than two decades later, as much in the BJP’s election manifesto as Twitter conversations and YouTube comments. It continues to hold that barbaric Muslim invaders destroyed scores of temples, a deep and grave insult to Hinduism and the Hindu psyche, that can be remedied only by reconstruction of those places of worship. This simple give-and-take Bhakt logic is coupled with marking out the minority community as a historic other, as a people to guard against. In many ways, the demolition of Babri came to symbolise a reclamation of power, a righting of wrongs, a 20th-century response to the medieval subjugation of Hindus in their own land.

Yet, as historians like Romila Thapar have pointed out, there are inherent dangers in treating history as a monolith. Many historians and anthropologists have written about how famous places of worship like the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi, despite claims of temple destruction, became sacred areas shared by both the communities. The Gyanvapi Mosque, for instance, was built by Aurangzeb, after razing the famous Vishwanath temple. A temple was later rebuilt behind the mosque. For virulent Hindutva ideologues, though, this syncretism is anathema and a reminder of their subjugation.

***

In the days preceding the historic 2014 general elections, much was made of Narendra “Vikas Purush” Modi’s rise on the “development” plank. He was sold as the new face of the BJP, a messiah intent on rescuing the country from the shackles of a corrupt, doddering, flat-footed Congress. Those who brought up the BJP’s history of regressive, majoritarian politics – or the fact that chief minister Modi’s government had presided over the 2002 Gujarat riots – were dismissed as “libtard sickular” voices.

Now almost three years since that historic election, we’re back to where it all began. Except now, the discourse on development proceeds hand in hand with a robust Hindu fanaticism, where a cow in the house of a Muslim man is worthy of a lynching. In 2014, a few weeks prior to the elections, the small town of Muzzafarnagar erupted in sectarian riots, on the ostensible pretext that a Hindu girl was molested by a few Muslim men. The media and many commentators treated these incidents as perpetrated by the “fringe” that had become emboldened due to the BJP majority in parliament. These analyses choose to ignore that for the Sangh Parivar, this “fringe” is the ideological core, the ultimate reality.

Bajrang Dal Workers Celebrate Anniversary Of Babri Masjid Demolition

Babri Masjid, in many ways, is the great Sangh experiment.

Courtesy: Hindustan Times/ Getty Images

Behind beef politics, love jihad, and the Ayodhya issue, is a dangerous re-imagination of the idea of India. A re-imagination built around constructed conspiracies of Hindu subjugation. In the case of Ayodhya, the subjugation was spatial. In the case of love jihad, the subjugation acquires a strong patriarchal overtone; an alarming conflation of a Hindu woman’s body with that of the nation at large. Every act of “protecting” Hindu women from the rapacious hands of Muslim men, is an act of protecting Mother India from desecration.

In the India of the 21st century, desecration has its consequences. During the Gujarat riots, the justification for the killings was that Hindus were first attacked at Godhra, which made retaliation a moral necessity. That Muslims had to be shown their place – the same rhetoric that was employed in Muzaffarnagar in 2014 and Babri in 1992.

Babri Masjid, in many ways, is the great Sangh experiment. And its success has meant that the BJP has a potent symbol that it can look upon with fondness as a baby step toward nation-building. What it leaves out, though, is a long history of the bond between two communities, forged in a common place of worship. The Babri Masjid once symbolised syncretism – it is now only a marker of contention and separation. And herein lies the sad history of secularism in the subcontinent: That instead of being a defining characteristic of modernity, it has been reduced to a buzzword of hate.

Edited by Karanjeet Kaur

This story was earlier published on December 6, 2016

Comments