Sunday Times of India, July 5, 2009
By Swapan Dasgupta
When asked about the impact of the French Revolution, Mao Zedong is said to have quipped: "It's too soon to tell." In missing the deadline for his report on the Ayodhya demolition of 1992 some 48 times, Justice M S Liberhan may not have been driven by any such noble quest for detachment. Yet, we need not be too harsh on this deft management of superannuation. In the context of a 480-year-old dispute, the delay isn't even a footnote: 17 years may be a long time in politics, but it is a mere blip in history.
The long campaign for a grand Ram temple on the site of the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was, at a very basic level, an issue of faith. The belief that one of Babur's generals had destroyed a temple commemorating the birthplace of Lord Ram and replaced it with a mosque in 1528 had been a source of tension in Awadh. There were various attempts by Hindus to regain control of the site and it culminated in the mysterious appearance of idols in the mosque in 1949. This resulted in the Babri Masjid becoming, for all practical purposes, a Ram temple. The Ayodhya movement was aimed at replacing a Mughal building with traditional Hindu temple architecture.
Ideally, the law should have stepped in to resolve the conflicting claims. The issue went to the district court in 1951. In 1955, the Allahabad high court regretted that a decision was not forthcoming even after four years. Some 58 years later, the litigation continues in the high court.
The equally contentious issue of whether or not a temple predated the Babri Masjid was referred to the Supreme Court after the 1992 demolition. In 1994, the apex court returned the reference under Article 143 "unanswered". Was the court signalling its inability to settle a dispute that, ideally, needs a social and political resolution?
However, it was not merely religiosity and exasperation with the judicial process that catapulted a local dispute in Ayodhya into a signature tune of turbulence. The Ayodhya movement encapsulated a larger disquiet over the state of India. The proposed temple symbolised a churning over the meaning of national identity and, at a more subliminal level, the relationship between history and historical memory. The movement generated intellectual debates of a kind that India hasn't experienced since. To reduce the ferment of that decade to selective images of boisterous sadhus and unruly kar sevaks would be an act of arrogant condescension.
There was a context to the Ayodhya movement that won't emerge from Liberhan's prose and superficial TV discussions. Ayodhya was also a revolt against a failing Nehruvian consensus centred on the Congress' manipulative politics, the Left-progressive control over intellectualism and a closed economy built on controls and cronyism. The symbolism of the first (Rajiv Gandhi-approved) shilanyas in 1989 coinciding with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall shouldn't be dismissed casually. Ayodhya, too, was a movement for change and it too was energised by a staggering participation of youth.
Was this belief in a new direction dissipated after the colossal misadventure on December 6, 1992? To those who witnessed the frenzied six hours, it was a clear case of a riotous mob targeting two symbols of its hate - the Babri structure, in its eyes the reviled symbol of conquest; and a media which it saw as the personification of cosmopolitan derision. Those who blamed P V Narasimha Rao for his failure to save the "disputed structure" underestimated the size and the frenzy of the crowd. Military action would have led to a massacre far bigger than Jallianwala Bagh.
The first draft of history having a distinct liberal bias, it has become obligatory to view the demolition as an act of fanatical vandalism. This is only half the truth. In its 1994 judgment on the presidential reference, the Supreme Court pronounced that the "Hindu community must... bear the cross... for the misdeeds of the miscreants..." At the same time, the court allowed Hindus the right of worship and, more important, endorsed a Privy Council judgment of 1940 that rejected the principle of "once a mosque, always a mosque". Hindus won a technical victory but were awarded a post-dated cheque as punishment for jumping the gun on December 6.
The law is said to stand above politics and passion but reality is more awkward. The guilty men and women of December 6 haven't suffered from legal retribution (but nor have they been exonerated) because the demolition enjoyed a wide measure of Hindu endorsement, cutting across party affiliation. This is a truth that will never be formally admitted.
Since then, India has moved on. Ayodhya has been disentangled from politics and left to history to judge, or even leave unanswered.