Maulana Jalaluddin Umri was fasting when he met a clutch of journalists last week. India’s mainstream media had shown no interest in him so he decided to invite a few of those he believed could be trusted with his time-sensitive message.
As it turned out what the 75-year old head of the Jamaat-i-Islami-i-Hind had to say could redefine the fate of democracy, secularism and justice in India.
Indian Muslims, the maulana said softly, had decided to abide by the coming court verdict on the Babri Masjid dispute. Taking a pause to allow his message to sink in, he added: “We don’t know if the other side would be willing to heed the imminent ruling of the Allahabad High Court.”
After a long wait a three-member bench of Uttar Pradesh state’s high court is expected to deliver its globally-watched verdict any time in September. The Babri Masjid dispute has kept the nation of a billion plus divided along fault lines that otherwise have done little to ease the people’s daily struggle for dignity and livelihood.
A mob of zealots razed the 16th century mosque on Dec 6, 1992, claiming it stood at the site of Lord Ram’s birth. The main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has campaigned for the site to be given to Hindus, saying that the Mughal emperor Babar had ordered the destruction of a temple to Ram to build the Babri Masjid on the site. There are different myths and legends surrounding this claim.
A few months before its destruction, I visited the mosque in Ayodhya. Hindu activists who carefully stick to legalese call it vivaadit dhaancha or disputed structure and refuse to accept it as a mosque. Under its central dome a Hindu priest was marshalling devotees to small idols of Ram and his consort Sita. This practice was on since 1987 when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s administration removed the locks on the mosque, allowing Hindu worshippers to perform puja. The locks were placed by a legal order in 1949 after the idols mysteriously appeared at the site leading to a communal upsurge. A paan-chewing police constable with an archaic 303 rifle slung clumsily over his shoulder was keeping vigil on the proceedings.
He volunteered to explain the history of the disputed structure to me. I asked him when he believed Lord Ram was born in Ayodhya. He turned his mouth up to hold back the spit from the paan and offered his insights in gurgling Avadhi. “Ye jaano, koi nav lakh saal bataawat hain.” (‘They say it happened about 900,000 years ago.’) Where exactly within the mosque was the place where Lord Ram had first appeared? The knowledgeable constable pointed to the busy priest. “Wo jo pujaariji khade hain, wahi ke jaano chaar paanch phoot yahar wahar.” (‘He was born where the priest is standing — give or take four or five feet.’)
Matters of faith cannot be decided in a secular court. There is nothing to indicate other than oral tradition, legends and myths that the Hindu god of war was born at the exact place the police constable was pointing to. The high court verdict is more likely to be about the ownership of the land where the mosque stood. The Sunni Waqf Board and groups of Hindu claimants have locked horns. While Maulana Umri says his community would go along with the verdict, Hindus have yet to take a call.
A BJP pamphlet brought out soon after the mosque’s destruction offers some clues. “Can any court order the removal of Ram Lala (idols)?” it asks. “Apart from the fact that this suit (by Muslims) is frivolous, even if legally tenable, can any court in India order the idols to be removed? And even if a court did, can any government implement that order?”
The stance masks a warning and a vicarious opportunity for the Manmohan Singh government. With its economic reforms going horribly wrong for the poor, indeed for a majority of Indians, there is already an anticipation of a restive period in politics. It is for no other reason that the prime minister recently asked police chiefs to think of non-lethal ways of crowd control.
The government is expecting people to go out of control over sheer want and deprivation, not on any communal slogan. Turning the discourse into a communal one would suit both — the government and the right-wing opposition. The losers will be the poor and of course the flock of supposedly law-abiding Muslims that Maulana Umri represents.
Should the high court decide the suit in favour of the Sunni Waqf Board, as is widely expected, there is apprehension of street violence by the groups that tore down the mosque in the first place. If on the other hand, Hindu groups get the award, there could be an appeal by the Muslims in the Supreme Court.
However, while Rajiv Gandhi had pandered to Hindu sentiments by reopening the locks of the Babri Masjid for Ram’s worshippers, he had also set a questionable precedent in seeking to balance his obscurantist politics by similarly pampering Muslim groups, including those that Maulana Umri represents.
The infamous Shahbano case saw the Muslim orthodoxy prevailing on the Congress government to overturn a secular judgment of the Supreme Court. The court had ordered that a Muslim divorcee should be paid maintenance by her former husband as was the case with divorced women of other Indian communities.
The maulana had at that time rejected the Supreme Court’s decision because it interfered with his community’s personal laws. He and his fellow leaders got Rajiv Gandhi to overturn the apex court’s fair verdict.
What if Hindus take a similar approach over the Babri dispute? We can expect endless confabulations between the government and religious groups. We can expect yet another eclipse of the liberal middle ground that is not enamoured of religious disputes. However, the government is preparing to meet the contingency the only way it knows — by asking the police to try rubber pellets to ward off street protesters.
These ‘harmless’ contraptions are not working in Kashmir. Will they work in the rest of the country? The Babri genie is raring to come out of the loosely corked bottle of Indian politics. It is set to communalise Indian politics once again. It’s a win-win situation for the Congress and the BJP. Communal politics over Ayodhya and Manmohan Singh’s reforms are inseparable twins. One will not survive without the other.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.