By Swapan Dasgupta
A minor footnote to the recent public discussions on the Ayodhya controversy may be an eye opener for those who argue that India has "moved on".
A TV presenter with 'liberal' sympathies wrote on Twitter: "Whether or not Lord Ram is the rightful owner or a divine encroacher is…unlikely to be settled in a hurry." It was a harmless tweet marked by an impish turn of phrase. Unfortunately, a section of the twitterati didn't read "divine encroacher" so indulgently. They were outraged. Rather than risk an ugly controversy, the writer wisely decided to delete the tweet and 'move on'.
That Indians are disinclined to lace their earnestness with self-deprecating humour is well known. Also quite marked is their ability to take offence too easily, particularly on matters of faith and history. It does not require a Pope Benedict XVI to tell Indians, as he told Britons last week, to restore the "legitimate role of religion in the public square." Organised religion has never departed from India mohullas, so much so that 'secularism' has had to be expediently re-defined to suit Indian tastes.
What, therefore, underpins the proclamation that contemporary India has 'moved on' and broken decisively with its own past? There may be a justified reason for believing that the frenzied mobilisation witnessed during L.K. Advani's rath yatra and the fateful December 6, 1992 kar seva won't recur today. To link this wariness to a growing indifference to 'public' religion and a rising tide of secularisation (in the Western sense) is, however, facile.
Except to a clutch of sadhus who are still fighting the good fight, the Ayodhya movement wasn't merely about reclaiming Ram's desecrated inheritance. The largest-ever mobilisation of Hindus as Hindus was a robust assertion of political identity and an argument against being taken for granted politically. Ram was merely the symbol of the explosion, not its rationale.
As with many unstructured mass movements, not everything about the Ayodhya turmoil was enduring. The demolition didn't trigger either a revolution or a regime change; it merely heralded the end of Congress dominance and a change of government from 1998 to 2004. It nurtured Hindu pride but couldn't insulate this new nationalism from the challenge of caste assertion. And on the negative side, Hindu aggression fuelled Muslim angst which subsequently fed into the global churning in the ummah.
Yet, there is one legacy of Ayodhya that has withstood political ups and downs and India's transition from insularity to globalisation: Hindus have ceased to be defensive about their faith and ritual practices. Indeed, they revel in these with astonishing cockiness.
The phenomenon needs some explanation. Sustained exposure to foreign rule and Western 'enlightenment' had shaken the cultural self-confidence of the Hindu educated classes. The impression that their faith and ritual practices were somehow 'backward' and deficient in the index of modernity took hold of the enslaved Hindu imagination. Mahatma Gandhi, always a proud Hindu, contested the degradation by challenging modernity itself. However, being excessively practical, Hindu society found Gandhi's anti-modernity to be utopian and quietly brushed it aside.
In rejecting Gandhi's crankiness, Jawaharlal Nehru swung to the other extreme. A product of Western cosmopolitanism, he reinforced the elite discomfiture with popular Hinduism. In the Nehruvian ideal, being a good Hindu meant being a 'secularised' Hindu. It meant upholding abstruse, metaphysical traditions and spurning Bhagwati Jagrans as the Hinduism of clerks and Class IV employees.
This social snobbery was a factor behind the elite incomprehension of the Ayodhya movement. And it is a similar revulsion which makes them posit the apparent absurdity of a Ram Janmabhoomi to the cool, tech-savvy cosmopolitanism of the New India.
The irony is that this New India is more religiously and assertively Hindu than ever before. Judging by the sharp increase in middle class pilgrimages, the exaggerated sindoor of the new bride, the frequency of car pujas in temples and the holy wallpaper in the laptops of the young and successful, the sharp rise in national self-confidence has come in the wake of a spectacular revival of the Sanatan Dharma.
India has 'moved on'. In the 1990s, Ayodhya was a political issue; today its importance is religious. The implications are ominous.
Sunday Times of India, September 26, 2010