Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ayodhya still a festering sore (December 6, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

Justice Manmohan Singh Liberhan may not have fulfilled the brief that was given to him by the PV Narasimha Rao Government way back in December 1992: To unearth the real story of what happened on December 6, 1992, and why. In finally submitting his report after an excruciating delay, he has, however, fleetingly focussed political attention on the act of demolition. This year’s commemoration of December 6 will be a little more spirited than has been seen for a long time. Without the Liberhan report, an anniversary which stood in real danger of being forgotten amid the hurly-burly of the present stands the chance of a momentary revival.

For many politicians who saw the mandir-masjid controversy as an irritating diversion from a brand of politics they were more familiar with, the focus on the act of demolition isn’t unwelcome. Despite the VHP’s bravado, most middle-of-the-road Indians, particularly those for whom the demolition wasn’t a lived experience, are disinclined to view the complete negation of the rule of law as something to be celebrated. The passions of 17 years ago have given way to more sober reflection and a changed environment.

Such a mood may not repair the tattered reputation of Liberhan but it isn’t going to secure brownie points for the BJP either. Today, the mood is decidedly inimical to sectarian posturing; even righting the wrongs of history isn’t seen an issue worthy of immediate action. In the parliamentary debates on the subject, it would be in the BJP’s interest to focus on the omissions and commissions of Liberhan, rather than engage in furious chest beating over the divinity and omnipresence of Ram.
Tactically, it is not a good idea for any political party to take pot shots at the judiciary. It is doubly hazardous for the BJP. First, it has to live down its inability to live up to the commitments it gave the Supreme Court 17 years ago. Second, it is unwise to target an institution that is still hearing the case of the disputed property in Ayodhya.

What is tactically imprudent for the BJP is one thing. What is of larger public interest is the fact that a suit which was filed in 1951, which was subsequently resurrected, bunched together and promised a speedy verdict, is still hanging fire. On April 26, 1955, the Allahabad High Court observed that “it is very desirable that a suit of this kind is decided as soon as possible and it is regretted that it has remained undecided for four years.”

It is pertinent to point out a 58-year delay in settling a property suit because of the persistence with which many unthinking politicians parrot the “let the courts decide” mantra. In appearance, the question of who owns the land on which the ‘disputed structure’ once stood is a property dispute. In actual fact, the judiciary appears remarkably disinclined to treat it as such.

In 1993, the Supreme Court said a flat “no thank you” to the Centre’s plea to determine whether or not a Hindu temple predated the Babri Masjid at the disputed site. However, in upholding the Centre’s acquisition of the disputed property and adjoining areas, it also approvingly referred to the Privy Council judgement on the Shahidganj Gurdwara case in Lahore. It negated the principle of “once a mosque, always a mosque” and, in effect, gave the Hindu litigants a post-dated cheque. The question is: When can this cheque be presented to a bank and when will it be honoured?

These are difficult questions to answer. For all practical purposes, Ram Janmasthan has seen uninterrupted worship of a Ram idol since 1949. Despite all the security bandobast and the Government’s obvious reluctance to encourage too many worshippers, the makeshift Ram temple built by kar sevaks on the evening of December 6, 1992 is functioning.

There are many Hindus who are unperturbed by the fact that a grand Ram temple hasn’t been built yet. Taking a long view, 60 years of inappropriate roofing doesn’t disturb the equilibrium of the sanatan dharma. The community can wait another 60 or even 160 years without demur.

Yet, there is a more pressing issue. It is clear that a favourable verdict alone will not guarantee a Ram temple and not by humiliating another community. Past experience suggest that some court verdicts are impossible to implement without a wider political sanction. Will such a sanction be easily forthcoming, given today’s balance of forces?

Probably not. It may have been a different story had the NDA won re-election in 2004 and had LK Advani used his good offices in North Block to arrive at a negotiated settlement. To be fair Advani did try very hard and even roped in venerated religious figures (including the Shankaracharya of Kanchi and the Dalai Lama) to give a helping hand. There was also the unpublicised participation of Muslim religious figures in the talks.

For the past five years the Congress-led government at the Centre has abdicated this role. Its political calculation is that Ayodhya can well fester and that it makes more sense to focus on regaining lost Muslim support. It is not that the Congress will ever try to implement Rao’s knee-jerk promise 17 years ago to “re-build what has been destroyed.” Even the Muslim community knows that is impossible. What is possible, however, is the political will to quietly chip away in the direction of a settlement that has the larger effect of burying the ghosts of history once and for all.

To resolve Ayodhya when passions are running high on both sides is an impossibility. To broach the issue when the country has accepted other priorities would be prudent. But that requires courage, a willingness to take risks and accept failures. All these are in short supply. This is why Ayodhya will remain a festering sore.

Sunday Pioneer, December 6, 2009

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