Professor Meenakshi Jain's new book, 'The Battle for Rama: Case of the Temple at Ayodhya', is a definitive and scholarly guide to the biggest controversy of the early nineties, which totally changed the dynamics of Indian politics.
Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.
Ayodhya, the city supposedly founded by the patriarch Manu, and at one time the seat of the kings belonging to the Solar Dynasty, including Rama, still decides who can rule India. It no longer arouses the passions it did ca. 1990, but we all have to live with the political consequences of the controversies of those days.
In the 1980s the Congress Party aimed for a non-conflictual way to leave the contested site of Rama’s birth to Hindu society, where it belongs, all while compensating the Muslim leadership with some concessions. This would have been typical Congress culture: horse-trading may not be noble, but it has the merit of not needlessly exacerbating tensions, it is bloodless and keeps all parties satisfied. By 1990, the temple could have been built, just one more of the thousands that adorn India, and the whole matter would have been forgotten by now.
But the secularist historians publicly intervened and put everyone on notice that the misplaced Babri Masjid which Muslims had imposed on the site centuries ago was the last bulwark of secularism. Just like Jawaharlal Nehru said about democracy in peril: “Defend it with all your might!” Though it was a Congress PM, PV Narasimha Rao, who presided over its demolition by Hindu militants on 6 December 1992 and refused to save the Masjid, the party did not stay the course. It had been intimidated into conformity with the secularist line and also underwent the natural effect of polarization: it adopted the line opposite to the one that had by then been chosen by its adversary, the BJP.
Under the fateful leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP had been reduced to total marginality in the 1980s. After it committed itself to the Ayodhya cause championed by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, however, it made a spectacular leap in the 1989 elections and became the largest opposition party in the snap elections of 1991. After those profits had been politically encashed, it effectively abandoned the cause. This betrayal (together with the Supreme Court’s dithering in speaking out on the controversy) provoked the activists into wresting the initiative from BJP leader Lal Krishan Advani and physically removing the mosque. This only encouraged the BJP to disown the movement entirely.
No matter, for by then, a decisive turn had been taken. For Rama and his devotees, the main hurdle in the way of building a proper temple at his birth site was now out of the way. Hindus could look forward to Ayodhya becoming an unfettered pilgrimage site. Most Muslims now gave up all hopes of having the site as their own. However, the Muslim hardliners could console themselves that, on present demographic trends, India will turn Islamic-majority anyway, at which time all open accounts can still be settled. The case which the secularist historians had tried to build, deploying rhetoric with which they managed to over-awe the politicians, still had to judicially confront the case built in favour of the temple by other scholars. Those in the know expected that the secularists would not be able to convince the judges.
For the BJP, what counted was that it had by now become a non-ignorable political player. It was on the way to accession to the government. As Prime Ministers, both Vajpayee and Narendra Modi owe a debt to Rama and his dynamic devotees. Conversely, by leaving the issue to the BJP, Congress no longer had a monopoly on being the natural party of government.
To sum up: the Ayodhya controversy was one of the main events in post-Independence India. It is inappropriate, though significant, that all the vocal Ayodhya-meddlers of yore have fallen silent. Conversely, it is everyone’s good fortune that a comprehensive account of the decisive factors in at least the scholarly debate has been presented, and further researched for angles hitherto unknown, by as competent a historian and as serene a writer as Meenakshi Jain.
In her new book, 'The Battle for Rama: Case of the Temple at Ayodhya' (Aryan Books International, Delhi 2017), Prof. Jain gives a contents-wise overview of the controversy. It hardly touches upon the street riots and political campaigns but focuses on the documentary and archaeological evidence and the scholarly debate about these. The book carries plenty of photographs of the artefacts found at the site. With only 160 pages and a pleasant layout, it ought to reach the larger public and henceforth serve as the definitive guide to what the stake of the whole affair was.
She, first of all, lays bare what the controversy was about. First of all, not about Rama’s existence or the exact place where he was born. Religions never submit their basic convictions to a secular court (though these convictions are a fair object of free intellectual debate). Hindus need not lower themselves to that level, though some leaders actually felt pressured into the silly exercise of “proving” Rama’s existence. Conversely, nor should the secularists have demanded this of them: they already showed their malicious intent by even raising the question. And, of course, they never asked of the Muslim party by what right a mosque had been imposed on the temple site, even though it directly implicates their scriptures and the example set by their Prophet, who had personally destroyed the murtis in the main pilgrimage site of the Pagan Arabs, the Kaaba in Mecca.
Rather, the focus rightfully was, and has effectively been, on the medieval history of the site, when a replay of the usual scenario of iconoclasm already enacted in numerous places to India’s west had been inflicted on the Rama Janmabhumi site. Until the early 1980s, no interested party had denied that a Rama birthplace temple had been demolished to make way for a mosque. In the atmosphere of ca. 1990, whipped up by the secularists, arguing for this scenario had seemed an uphill task, and the scholars who did the job were widely acclaimed in Hindu circles. Not just the medieval battles resulting in iconoclasm and the street riots then taking place, but even the historians’ debate turned out to be a battle requiring some courage.
But in fact, they could capitalize on a number of documents written in tempore non suspecto, mostly by Muslims, that attested it. Their argument claimed nothing out of the ordinary, it was the secularist case that, with hindsight, stood out as far-fetched. The closer verification of the evidence undertaken by Prof. Jain shows that the secularist case proves to have been even poorer than we thought at the time.
In her book 'Rama and Ayodhya' (2013), she had already shown that the Leftist academics who had fought for the Babri Masjid, had crumbled under judicial court-examination. This time, we are given to deal not just with their lack of genuine expertise, but with actual deceit and deliberate lies by some of them. Back in 1990, in his article “Hideaway communalism”, Arun Shourie had already brought to light four cases where Muslim authorities had tampered with old documents that showed how the Muslim community itself had always taken for granted the mosque’s location on land venerated as Rama’s birthplace. Now, Irfan Habib’s seemingly strongest piece of evidence (not for the temple’s non-existence, of course, but at least for the untrustworthiness of some pro-temple spokesmen) turned out to be false.
During the demolition on 6 December 1992, many Hindu artefacts had turned up, albeit in less than desirable circumstances from an archaeological viewpoint. Proper excavations at the site in mid-1993 found some more, before the thorough Court-ordered excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India in 2003 uncovered the famous pillar-bases, long ridiculed as a “Hindutva concoction” by the secularists but henceforth undeniable. Among the first findings during the demolition was the Vishnu Hari inscription, dating from the mid-11th century Rajput temple, which the Babri Masjid masons had placed between the outer and inner wall. Several Babri historians dismissed the inscription as fake, as of much later date, or as actually brought by the Kar Sevaks during the demolition itself.
Prof. Irfan Habib, in a combine with Dr. Jahnawi Roy and Dr. Pushpa Prasad, dismissed this inscription as stolen from the Lucknow Museum and to be nothing other than the Treta ka Thakur inscription. The curator kept this inscription under lock, but after some trying, Kishore Kunal, author of another Ayodhya book (Ayodhya Revisited, 2016), could finally gain access to it and publish a photograph. What had been suspected all along, turns out to be true: Prof. Habib, who must have known both inscriptions, has told a blatant lie. Both inscriptions exist and are different. Here they have been neatly juxtaposed on p.104-5. Yet, none of the three scholars has “responded to the publication of the photograph of the Treta ka Thakur inscription, which falsifies the arguments they have been persistently advocating for over two decades.” (p.112)
It is no news if a secularist tells a lie: they have been doing it all along. Only, in the past they could get away with it, as the media and the publishers toed their line and withheld the publication of facts that pin-pricked their authority. Today, internet media have broken open the public sphere and some publishers have been emboldened to defy the secularists by exposing their misdeeds and defeats. The establishment media will not give any publicity to this book but defend the status-quo instead, yet the truth is irrevocably out. Since the suppression of the truth concerning Ayodhya was part of a power equation to the secularists’ advantage, the waning of that power equation means that future scholars will now become free to take the mendaciousness of the then secularists into account.
On the other hand, the pro-temple case turns out to have been even stronger than Hindus at the time realized. Thus, in much of the Moghul period, Muslims continuously acknowledged the site’s association with Rama. In the circumstances, Hindus could not replace mosque architecture with temple architecture, but they continued to assert their presence around the site and celebrate Rama’s birthday (Rama Navami). Since the crumbling of Moghul power, they even seem to have had access to the disputed building itself:
“No evidence whatsoever has been proffered of continued Muslim occupation Babri Masjid, while the uninterrupted presence of Hindu devotees has been attested by several sources. Babri Masjid finds no mention in the revenue records of the Nawabi and British periods, nor was any Waqf ever created for its upkeep. No Muslim filed an FIR when the image of Sri Rama was placed under the central dome on 23rd December 1949.” (p.144)
It is only in the nick of time that the Sunni Central Waqf Board entered litigation, on 18 December 1961 (five days later, it would have become time-barred), thus juridically causing the controversy. From then on, it was up to the politicians to ensure a peaceful settlement to prevent the Court proceedings from provoking street riots. After the Court gave Hindu worshippers unlimited access in 1986, a definitive formal settlement became urgent. Congress PM Rajiv Gandhi thought he could handle this challenge, but the initiative was wrested from his hands by the secularist historians. With their shrill statements about “secularism in danger”, they raised the stakes enormously. The rest is history.
Even after the Allahabad High Court ruled in favour of the Hindu claim on 30 September 2010, a statement signed by a handful of secularist veterans of the anti-temple campaign considered it a scandal that the verdict had acknowledged the “faith and belief of the Hindus” (quoted p.140). Mind you, the judges had not interiorized that claim, they had kept a clear distance, but assumed that “secularism” presupposes a recognition of this fact. This is the attitude that any Indian law or verdict adopts concerning Islam as well. The very existence of a category “Muslim community” (entitled e.g. to the Hajj pilgrimage and even to taxpayer-funded subsidies for this Hajj) implies the acknowledgment of a specific set of beliefs that make up Islam, and nobody finds this a scandal.
So, this statement bespeaks a discrimination between Hindus, who are first expected to give scientific proofs of their beliefs, and the minorities, whose irrational and unprovable beliefs should be accepted without any ado. It is but one of the many illustrations of how in India, “secularist” unambiguously means “anti-Hindu”. That is not paranoia but a hard fact, frequently illustrated by real-life events including unasked-for statements by the secularists themselves. India-watchers who assure their audiences that the Indian state is “religiously neutral”, or indeed “secular”, only prove their own incompetence.
As Prof. Jain concludes:
“So why has the matter dragged on for so long? Can a handful of historians be held accountable for stalling resolution of what is essentially a settled matter? Their voluble assertions on Babri Masjid have all been found to be erroneous, yet there has been no public retraction. Are they liable for vitiating social harmony over the issue? If the nation has to move on, honest answers must be found to these questions.” (p.145)
This book documents one rare Hindu victory. Having personally lived through some scenes of this long drama, and having seen many of the concerned actors evolve over the years, and seen one generation succeeded by another, I wonder if this victory doesn’t highlight a deeper evolution that can only be characterized as a defeat.
Around 1990, enormous passions were unleashed by the masses’ attachment to the Rama Janmabhumi or the Babri Masjid. It led some activists to acts of resourcefulness and of heroism including giving their lives. It led some scholars to the abandonment of their professional objectivity, to acts of deceit and plain mendaciousness. But at any rate, it proved numerous people’s deep convictions. One can hardly imagine such passions today, and perhaps it is for the better, with cooler heads and calmer minds. Unfortunately, the real reason seems to lie elsewhere.
In comparison, today’s Hindus, and especially the young generation, are more lukewarm about issues of Hindu history. Indeed, they are far more ignorant about them, and “unknown makes unloved”. Today they know all about computer games and silly American-inspired TV shows, but little about Hanuman. When I enquired about this among youngsters looking up from their smartphones, they claimed that they actually knew more about Hinduism than their parents’ generation. That might be true to an extent for the inquisitive ones who look things up on Google (not always a reliable source, moreover), but the vast majority does not compensate for its increasing ignorance this way. On the contrary, the illiterate and semi-literate ones are the demographic where this decline of Hinduism is most palpable (to the extent that an outsider can tell; but then, many insiders confirm this impression). They used to interiorize Hinduism not by reading or scanning, but by breathing in the culture that existed all around them. It is this that now disappears, making way for the hollowest contents of the modern media.
In this respect, the secularists have won. It is their version of history that is percolating to the masses. Many of them know nothing about history except what they have learned at school in their history textbooks. And these are under secularist control. A BJP attempt to correct these ca. 2002 failed. The only new schoolbook that was fully up to standard, was precisely the contribution by Meenakshi Jain. In any case, all BJP textbooks were at once discarded as soon as the Congress-Communist alliance came to power in 2004. The present BJP government is hardly equipped to do a new overhaul, and even shows no interest in doing so.
So, either Hindu society is continuing on the present path, and then Prof. Jain’s beautiful book will merely gather dust as a memory from a bygone age when Hindus had not given up yet. A museum piece. Only if it inspires more such thorough history, and only if the latter gets promoted by a powerful establishment among the masses, will it prove to be the light-bringer of a new dawn.
The Battle for Rama: Case of the Temple at Ayodhya (Aryan Books International, Delhi 2017)