Secularists still find it hard to spell out the obvious solution to the Ayodhya conflict.
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.
Rajmohan Gandhi’s guest column in the Indian Express, “A new temple, a new mosque” (6 Feb. 2019), is high on moralism, low on facts. And yet, not so long ago, India counted on the facts to decide the Ayodhya dispute.
Forget about the Hindutva crowd, it was the Congress governments of Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao that had agreed a settlement would have to be based on the facts of the matter, viz. whether the contentious site had indeed been a Hindu pilgrimage site marked by a temple. In Rajmohan’s column, you won’t learn about those facts, but they have been well established. What are they?
There had all along been a consensus about a Rama temple having been there, then forcibly replaced with a mosque. This had also been accepted by the local Muslim community and the British judge without any ado when the matter went to Court in the 1880s. For the purely colonial reason that the British overlords couldn’t be bothered with such an old dispute upsetting their profitable paramountcy, the judge imposed a status-quo. But he never dismissed the pre-existence of the temple as a mere “Hindu belief”, as Rajmohan Gandhi does here.
The temple was only put in doubt by the “eminent historians” in the 1980s. Not that they had discovered any new fact that jeopardized the old consensus, but their loud bluff, amplified by the media, scuttled the compromise solution that PM Rajiv Gandhi had worked out. He had wanted to do some vintage Congressite horse-trading: buy the Muslim leadership off with some goodies (Shah Bano amendment, banning The Satanic Verses), leave the Ayodhya site to the Hindus, and everyone would be happy. Such a policy is not the most principled, but it has the advantage of being bloodless.
Unfortunately, the secularist chatterati preferred bloodshed. They grimly declared the Babri Masjid to be their Mecca, their non-negotiable fortress on which the future of civilisation depended. This way they intimidated the politicians into abandoning their pragmatic solutions. The result was that hundreds of lives were lost, a wild demolition ensued, a new template of terrorist attacks was set (the coordinated bombings in Mumbai, 12 March 1993, in revenge for the Demolition), a number of central and provincial governments fell, misery all around; but at least the secularist thirst for an orgy of holy indignation was quelled.
And yet, their sound and fury was nothing but smoking mirrors, a grand tamasha of fake moralism and non-existent facts. They claimed that the science of history could not allow the restoration of a temple that had never existed. In reality, they could not muster even a single discovery that would have questioned the old pro-temple consensus.
The debate that ensued was totally asymmetrical: they demanded evidence from the pro-temple site, which was duly produced, both existing proofs and extra new discoveries; while they themselves never came up with anything. Later they were summoned to Court to divulge their expert opinions, but (as documented by Prof. Meenakshi Jain in her comprehensive book on the Ayodhya evidence, Rama’s Ayodhya, 2013) one after another, they confessed to their lack of competence in the matter. So, even though the media have kept the lid on this information, the pro-temple side has won the history debate fair and square. Of course there had been a temple, and for those who still feigned to doubt it, the temple foundations were fully excavated in 2003.
But why even bring in history? True, Rajmohan Gandhi pleads for a perennialization of the past by pressuring a community to “admit its error in demolishing” the other community’s place of worship. However, as a historian, I claim the right to relativize the importance of my own field. I don’t think the Muslim community needs to feel guilty because some long-dead ancestor demolished the Rama Janmabhumi temple years ago. If we settle such controversies correctly today, then the past is only water under the bridge: it’s only history.
So let’s do it right this time. The colonial Court imposed an uneasy coexistence of temple (in the form of open-air makeshift arrangements for Hindu worship) and mosque, which only led to more riots and controversies. Much against his own desire for “justice and reconciliation”, Rajmohan proposes a repeat of this proven formula for conflict: “A new temple and a new mosque rising as a result of a Supreme Court direction”. (Then again, if he can get Mecca to have a Pagan temple co-existing with the Kaaba, it might also work in Ayodhya. Or does he not believe in equality between Muslims and non-Muslims?)
No, seriously, independent India’s Supreme Court need not feel bound by such artificial arrangements. It had better follow our friend Rajmohan, who in a more inspired moment wisely writes: “The bare bones of a settlement are not hard to identify.” Indeed, they don’t require any historical scholarship but are obvious if you just look at today’s equation. Ayodhya was not just a pilgrimage centre back then, it continues to be one today. At least, to Hindus, for no Muslim ever goes there. Though the secularists try hard to get communal agitations against the temple going once more, the Muslims are in the main just not interested. They have Mecca and Ajmer, none of them ever thinks of hajj-ing to Ayodhya. So, the secular solution, the one that devotes as little energy to religion as possible, is obvious.
Go with the flow. Entrust the site to the community that actually uses it. For historians among us: the community that kept on using it even when it was occupied by another community, that kept on pilgrimaging there (as described by foreign travellers) even when the site was deprived of its temple. For all the others: I mean the community that still goes there today, just as others go to Mecca.
Yes, Rajmohan: “At this testing time, the Supreme Court may be in a position to add significantly to India’s peace and India’s honour.” It can do so, not by imposing an unstable and labour-intensive compromise, but by walking in the footsteps of nature and sanctioning something that works effortlessly. Let those believers stay away from there who don’t want to go there anyway, while letting those pilgrims go there who go there in any case, to worship at their own temple.