Saturday, December 01, 2012

An almost revolution

By Swapan Dasgupta

Those of us who watched the last remaining dome of the Babri shrine collapse in a haze of red smoke at 4.45 pm on December 6, 1992, amid the exhilaration of a frenzied crowd were fully conscious aware that we were witnessing something momentous.

To those who had fuelled a movement that had both galvanised and polarised India as never before, the demolition was akin to the storming of the Bastille—possibly heralding the collapse of the ancien regime and the dawn of a new age. That night, sweets were distributed by people celebrating the liberation of Ram lalla from 364 years of bondage and indignity.   

To the liberal intelligentsia that had resolutely opposed mass mobilisation in the name of faith, the sound of euphoric kar sevaks was akin to the stomping jackboots from a relatively more recent, but equally troubled, chapter of European history. When they assembled in Delhi the following morning with placards proclaiming “sharam se kahon mein Hindu hoon”, they angrily lamented a perfidious assault on the very foundations of the Indian Republic.

Both sides of this great Indian rift were united on one point: life after that fateful December 6 would never be the same again. For months thereafter as riots and explosions scarred many cities, this seemed a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Twenty years later, the hastily written obituaries of the Republic seem rash and premature. Ayodhya was certainly an important landmark of independent India, perhaps as momentous as the Emergency, the Mandal report or the liberalisation Budget of 199. But was it more than that? Did the Ayodhya years lead to a rupture with the past?

The definitive answer must wait a few more decades. For the moment, Ayodhya remains an almost revolution, a turning point in history when (to borrow AJP Taylor’s imagery) history refused to turn. History is not an abstraction that follows pre-determined scientific laws: it is about human behaviour. In December 1992, the emotional temperature was high enough for the country to become delirious with both rage and anticipation. Why did this apparently pre-revolutionary mood recede and why did India limp back to normalcy?

The answers are at best convoluted. The agitation to build a grand temple honouring Ram’s exact birthplace at the site of a mosque built by a Mughal general in 1528, was only partially religious. Had the movement been driven by blind faith alone, it would have not only have endured but become even more passionate which it clearly did not. Nor was it shaped by a frenzied desire to right the wrongs of history. Had that been the case, many more Ayodhyas  would have mushroomed across India.

In hindsight, the Ayodhya agitation appears strongly reactive: as an antidote to movements that sought to either dismember India (Khalistani and Kashmiri separatism) or fracture it into sectional compartments (Muslim assertiveness over the Shah Bano judgment and V.P. Singh’s Mandal move). In rallying round a proposed temple, it sought to create a pan-Hindu identity that would serve as both a vote bank and basis of nationhood. Both these endeavours have registered patchy success.

There were subsidiary currents as well. The most notable (and possibly most enduring) of these was the movement’s robust questioning of the dominant Nehruvian view of secularism. The Ayodhya stir didn’t receive any significant support from the traditional centres of intellectual activity. Yet, a galaxy of establishment figures ranging from retired bureaucrats and generals to writers such as V.S. Naipaul, Nirad Chaudhuri and Girilal Jain saw the movement as a great ‘awakening’. Ironically, for a movement that projected a distinctly pre-modern exterior, the intellectual impulses that guided its politics were more contemporary. Inherent to the movement was a desire to discard the ‘differentiated nationality’ that governed India’s official secularism and replace it with an idea of common citizenship that would do away with ‘minorityism’.

Ayodhya no longer agitates India as passionately as it did 20 years ago. There is all-round agreement that the property dispute can fester indefinitely in the Supreme Court. But there is something deeply symbolic about the heavily-fortified makeshift temple that sprang up 20 years ago that serves as a reminder that the last word on the subject is yet to be said.

Sunday Times of India, December 2, 2012 

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