The verdict should end a troubled chapter
By Swapan Dasgupta
At its simplistic best, the most significant feature of the much-awaited Allahabad High Court verdict is that it has overturned the only other judgment of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute: a Faizabad district court verdict of 1886. At that time, confronted by litigation that arose from Hindu-Muslim tension over the issue, district judge FEA Chamier ruled in March 1886: "It is most unfortunate that a Masjid should have been built on land specially held sacred by the Hindus, but as that occurred 356 years ago, it is too late to remedy the grievance."
On Thursday afternoon, a majority decision of a the three-bench court disagreed with the fundamental premise of Chamier. It held that because the Babri structure was built after demolishing a pre-existing Hindu temple in 1528, it couldn't really be regarded as a legitimate mosque, at least theologically. As such, it had absolutely no hesitation in endorsing the belief among large numbers of Hindus in the Awadh region that the disputed site was indeed the rightful inheritance of Ram bhakts. The High Court said that, ideally, the 70 acres of so of disputed property should be split three ways but that the Ram lalla (child Ram) idol should be allowed to remain at the site of what was earlier the central dome of the Babri Masjid.
The unambiguous verdict of the High Court was, to say the least, unexpected. Till Wednesday evening, the so-called secular forces and the Muslim leadership were insisting that the verdict would establish the majesty of the Constitution and the highlight the non-negotiable nature of the rule of law.
After the verdict, their enthusiasm is distinctly less pronounced. It has been suggested that the verdict is a tacit legitimization of both the installation of the idols inside the Babri Masjid in December 1949 and its dramatic demolition 43 years later. If the Babri structure was a non-mosque since its construction in 1528, the crime of the kar sevaks was the desecration of a medieval monument and not a place of worship.
Undoubtedly, this interpretation of the dispute is going to be contested in the Supreme Court. That a section of the Muslim community is unhappy with the judgment is obvious. But far more significant than that is the fury with which the judgment has been greeted by the secular modernists. Apart from contesting everything that the "eminent historians" have been suggesting about Ram being born in Afghanistan or somewhere else and about the Babri structure having been built on vacant rock, the judges have attached greater weight to the Archaeological Survey of India report and to the weight of local tradition.
This approach is certain to send the secular establishment into a complete tizzy. Without exaggerating the importance of this minusculity, it can safely be said that this lobby will be desperate to have their reputations salvaged by the Supreme Court. Therefore, even if a section of the Muslim community decides that there is little point persisting with the dispute and to settle for an honourable way out, there will be a powerful secularist e4stablishment urging the minorities to fight to the last.
The fight would have been worth it if there was a real danger that the Ayodhya verdict will open the floodgates of uninhibited majoritarianism and perhaps, even a Hindu Rashtra. Such fears are grossly exaggerated. One of the features of the organised Hindu camp to the verdict is the conscious show of restraint. The Hindutvavadis may have been pleased as punch that their central arguments were upheld by the court, but they have been very careful to not show it. This is on account of the realisation that India is not in a mood for confrontational politics and that, unlike the 1990s, belligerence will be politically counter-productive. The RSS, for example, is elated that the whole Ayodhya episode has elevated it to the status of being Hindu India's most visible face. It would not like to compromise on that.
There are no doubt maximalists on both sides who seek total victory for themselves and a total defeat for their adversaries. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has many such elements in its leadership. Its demand, made only a few days before the verdict, that Hindus must have unhindered possession of all 70 acres of the disputed site and that no mosque should be located within the municipal limits of Ayodhya, suggest an astonishing degree of narrow mindedness which is dangerous for the country. If these bigoted elements start interpreting the verdict according to their convenience, it will be only a matter of time before the whole atmosphere of India is vitiated and the Hindus lose the moral advantage they have at present.
Persisting with the dispute and taking it to the Supreme Court may well be inevitable but there is considerable merit in treating the High Court judgment as a parallel plea for a compromise. The suggested partition of the 70 acres in three may seem a piece of legal innovation but its implications are more profound: a honourable settlement for both the Hindus and Muslims. If the local Hindus can retain possession of the garva griha—the epicentre of the dispute—there should be no objections to giving a share of the property to the Muslim community to either build a mosque or for any other purpose of its choosing. An open offer by the Hindu religious leadership to the Muslim community to bury the hatchet and come to an out-of-court settlement would be gesture of magnanimity, which is bound to be welcomed by a large section of the minorities.
It is important that quick steps are taken to allay all the misgivings of those who see themselves as the defeated side. There will be enough politicians and general busybodies who will suggest that the High Court verdict has menacing implications for all minorities—quite forgetting that the Places of Worship Act of 1991 make it impossible for an Ayodhya-type dispute to emerge in the future. There will be appeals to Muslim victimhood and the sinister suggestion that the community can never expect justice from a biased Hindu-dominated judiciary.
These are dangerous arguments but it is important to recognise that such whispers will resonate through the ghettos and will be fuelled by irresponsible websites. Minority egos are fragile and can easily be bruised. This makes it incumbent for Hindus to desist from triumphalism and instead show magnanimity and generosity. A unilateral Hindu offer to accommodate a mosque in the vicinity of the Ram temple will have a salutary effect. So far a section of the Hindu leadership has become captive to the proposed architecture of Prabhashankar Sompura, the man who designed the reconstructed Somnath temple in Gujarat, and whose son has designed the VHP version of the grand Ram temple. It would be better if some of the design is modified to factor in a larger sense of nationhood.
For the Hindus, the High Court verdict was a significant victory. Statesmanship demands that it shouldn't also be translated as a landmark Muslim defeat. The High Court verdict on Ayodhya should end a very troubled chapter of India's history and not initiate a new discord.