Ayodhya: Political impact

Majoritarian march

Print edition : December 06, 2019

Pillars meant for the temple at a workshop in Ayodhya. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Even as exasperation builds up within the minority community against the ostrich-like approach of the secular opposition, there are signals that the forces of Hindutva have plans ready to pursue the remaining elements of their agenda.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first reaction to the Ayodhya verdict, immediately after it was pronounced on November 9, had all the trappings of statesmanship. Tweeting about the verdict from Dera Baba Nanak in Punjab, where he had gone to flag off the first batch of pilgrims to Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan, Modi said that “this verdict must not be seen as either victory or loss” and added that “it does not matter if you are a Ram bhakt [Ram worshipper] or Rahim bhakt [Rahim worshipper], it’s time to strengthen Bharat bhakti [worship of India])”. He went on to state that “the verdict is crucial because it shows why it is important to follow legal procedures while resolving any dispute”. “All parties got a proper chance to present their arguments as the temple of justice resolved the decades-old dispute in a harmonious way. This decision has further strengthened people’s faith in India’s judicial process. I request 130 crore Indians to give an example of peace and harmony as per our ancient tradition.”

Indeed, peace and harmony were the order of the day as almost all parts of the country, especially the communally sensitive States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana in north India, were brought under massive security machinery. It was not the physical movement of people alone that was under restriction. Communication services were also subjected to varying degrees of control, with social media platforms such as WhatsApp groups being given strict instructions not to engage with or comment on the verdict and its finer points. The situation at Ground Zero, the temple town of Ayodhya, where the source of the legal dispute is located, was, of course, the most severe. The town and its people are no strangers to security restrictions since periodic social and political eruptions relating to the Ayodhya imbroglio had impacted the law and order situation here intermittently over the past three decades. Still, even with this earlier track record, the situation in Ayodhya on November 9 was unprecedented, with a formidable security cover over every single street and mohalla of the temple town.

Throughout the day, Ayodhya looked like a haunted city: roads were deserted, the banks of the river Sarayu and the ghats therein, which normally attract thousands of pilgrims seeking to take a holy dip, were abandoned, and heavy barricades and a huge police posse menacingly deterred anyone even trying to reach close. The town was completely sanitised; no vehicular movement was allowed, nobody was allowed to move around without showing proof of their being residents of Ayodhya. A sense of foreboding hung in the air. Hushed conversations in small groups huddled in some streets, as the historic judgment was being rolled out, sought to compare the situation in the town to the one that has prevailed in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5, the day the special provisions enjoyed by the border State were withdrawn through the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

Sombre mood in Ayodhya

Even as the details of the judgment started trickling in, Frontline trudged over the city’s lanes and bylanes with the help of a local mahant, bypassing security barricades and personnel to a considerable extent, trying to talk to as many local residents as possible. What could be deduced from these interactions was that even amidst this sombre and restrictive mood, Hindus were covertly celebrating and Muslims were privately sulking. Some sections of local Hindus had the take that they were fatigued by the incessant politicking over the temple issue which had deprived them of a normal life over the years and hence were happy that the long-standing feud would finally become a thing of the past and they would get their temple at last. A section of Muslims, too, grudgingly admitted that although they felt short-changed and saw the apex court order as blatantly one-sided, they had no option but to accept it since the community had already committed to accepting it, whichever way the verdict was tilted.

However, as the day progressed, there was a subtle yet marked change in the atmosphere. Across several parts of the town, celebratory lamps were lit across hundreds of houses, on doorsteps and also on roofs. Crackers were burst in many areas. “Aaj Ramji ghar aaye hain, Diwali to banti hai (Lord Ram has come home today, so it is a fit day for celebrating Diwali),” said a beaming Sanjay Gupta, while placing a few diyas (lamps) in front of his shop. The Sarayu bank at Nayaghat suddenly came alive with an evening aarti (the ritualistic mass lighting of lamps and wicks to propitiate deities) the blowing of conch shells, the jingling of bells and the recital of shlokas.

On the other side, Muslim mohallas continued to wear a grim and desolate look. Leaders of the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC), who had actively participated in the case, including Iqbal Ansari, the son of Mohammed Hashim Ansari, the original litigant in the case from the Muslim side, were virtually under house arrest. Frontline’s efforts to reach Iqbal Ansari’s house, meet and talk to him were actively resisted by a posse of security personnel and government officials. Finally, after much insistence, Frontline was allowed to interact with Ansari, surrounded by a clutch of security personnel and officials. Ansari mumbled that he was also in favour of the judgment and building of the temple. Given the physical circumstances of the interaction, there seems to be an element of duress in this indistinct utterance. Ansari clarified later that he was completely committed to the BMAC position on the verdict, which is to seek a review of the judgment.

In the days following November 9, there were more instances that Modi’s “statesmanlike” call to refrain from “Ram bhakti” and Raheem bhakti” and pitch for “Bharat bhakti” was breached by different sections of society and polity, and overwhelmingly so by the Prime Minister’s own associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar. These breaches and the discussions that came up over them also helped highlight the larger political context and the short-medium-long term implications of the November 9 verdict. One of the most striking instances in this regard was the speech made by Mansukh Vasava, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Lok Sabha member from Bharuch in Gujarat. Addressing a meeting of BJP-Sangh Parivar workers on November 14, he elaborated on how the verdict was a “historic victory for the Hindus” and how the “Hindu claims have been upheld through the legal process”. He went on to add that the Supreme Court had given a verdict “in our favour” only because a BJP government was at the Centre. Of course, Vasava later said that he was only praising the government for the efficient handling of the law and order situation after the pronouncement of the verdict.

However, doubts persist over this denial as more and more Sangh Parivar outfits and activists are seen and heard talking, albeit in non-public platforms, about the role of the government and the two most powerful leaders at the helm of affairs—Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister-cum-BJP president Amit Shah—in creating a political and social situation conducive to the line taken by the Supreme Court. A group of BJP MLAs from Uttar Pradesh that Frontline interacted with following the verdict recalled how some of them had pointed out, in the first week of October itself, that the return of the Modi-led BJP government with a resounding majority in May 2019 had set in motion all-encompassing Hindutva reverberations across the entire spectrum of society, including all instruments of governance and facets of social life.

Satya Prakash Agarwal, BJP MLA from Meerut Cantonment, told Frontline then that “these reverberations are buttressed by the sense of authority that Modiji and Shahji exude at the political and individual levels”. Agarwal, along with other members of the group, had cited the forceful abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution in Jammu and Kashmir as also the initiation of a first information report (FIR) against a clutch of artists and intellectuals who wrote a critical letter to the Prime Minister as concrete cases in point of this all-pervading authority. He had also gone on to add that “one can see as to how the leaders of every institution are impacted by this authority and bow to it in reverence”. Frontline referred to this in the November interaction and asked the group of MLAs whether they would include sections of the judiciary too among leaders of institutions impacted by the authority of the “Big Two” and bowed to it in reverence. The question evoked no direct response from the MLAs, but was followed by boisterous laughter.

Beyond the interaction with this group of BJP MLAs and their points on the rising power and influence of the executive over all other pillars of Indian democracy, the run-up to the Ayodhya verdict witnessed active interplay between the Supreme Court and sections of the executive. In fact, reports from the Uttar Pradesh government suggest that Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi himself had consultations with those in charge of law and order in the State so as to satisfy himself about the State’s preparedness to manage the possible disruption of law and order as and when the judgment was delivered. This interplay with the executive too added, along with many other facets, a unique feature to the final proceedings in relation to the case.

In a pointed discussion of the merits of the judgment and its larger import, Anupam Gupta, Senior Advocate, Punjab and Haryana High Court, and formerly counsel for the Liberhan Commission, stated that the “court’s carefully crafted unanimous verdict of November 9 severely compromises its secular credibility”. He also added that “wilting before the storm, and like the polity outside, the court has taken sides”. Gupta is also of the view that “constitutional secularism in India has through the Ayodhya verdict (the analysis no less than the conclusion) transformed itself into a gentle but sure Hindu majoritarian self-esteem”.

Political leaders such as Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) also reacted on similar lines and categorised the verdict as one dictated by questions of faith and not the rule of law. However, other mainstream parties ranging from the principal opposition Congress to influential regional players like the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have chosen not to get into the merits of the judgment and have broadly welcomed it. By all indications, these parties are also constrained by the need to retain the “Hindu votes” that come to them on several grounds, including caste affiliations.

This ostrich-like approach on the judgment adopted by these parties is clearly leading to an aggravation of polarisation amidst the minority Muslim community, notwithstanding the studied silence that has been the main characteristic of the community after the verdict. A sign of this is in the overt statement on political matters made after many years by Zafaryab Jilani, advocate for the Sunni Central Waqf Board and senior leader of the BMAC. Talking to Frontline, Jilani said that strident comments from the likes of Asaduddin Owaisi are also needed at this moment because Muslim youths, who are hurt, want an effective voice which other secular parties have failed to provide. “The politics of Owaisi is essentially secular and is the need of the hour,” Jilani told Frontline in categorical terms.

Follow-up phases

Even as this muted exasperation builds within the minority community against the ostrich-like approach of the mainstream secular opposition, there are clear signals that the forces of aggressive Hindutva majoritarianism, who have made a big gain through the verdict, have launched their follow-up phases aimed at further marginalisation of the minority communities. One of these signals has come from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Hindutva outfit that spearheaded the Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi agitation over the 1980s and 1990s, calling itself the “sword arm of the Sangh Parivar”. Addressing a media conference approximately a week after the judgment, Dinesh Chandra, senior leader of the VHP, asserted that after getting the Ram Janmabhoomi land in its possession for temple construction, the Centre should avoid giving land for the mosque within the cultural boundaries of Ayodhya. “The proposed land for the mosque should be outside Ayodhya’s cultural periphery designated as of 42 kos by Hindu traditions. We are not against the construction of a mosque but it should lie outside the cultural periphery of Ayodhya.” Calculated in real terms, 42 kos translates into a distance of approximately 130 kilometres.

On their part, the Sunni Central Waqf Board and the BMAC are planning to file a review petition although they realise that it may not make any substantive legal impact. However, they are of the view that this needs to be done in the interests of society and the polity and will perhaps give an outlet to the feeling of resentment that has taken over the Muslim community, especially the youths. The Nirmohi Akhara, the non-VHP Hindu participant in the case, is planning to go in for a review, but separately from the Muslim side.

Beyond these immediate developments, the Ayodhya verdict has given a new fillip to the BJP and the Sangh Parivar to pursue the remaining key elements in their larger Hindutva plan. For decades, the various political instruments of the Sangh Parivar, whether the BJP or its erstwhile form, the Jana Sangh, have pushed for three key slogans. The abrogation of Article 370, removing the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir; the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya at the very spot where the Babri Masjid stood; and the imposition of a Uniform Civil Code. The constituents of the Sangh Parivar observe that in less than six months of the Modi 2.0 government they have achieved big success in two of the three key slogans. They are also of the view that after the construction plans of the Ayodhya temple are finalised, the imposition of a Uniform Civil Code will just be a question of time. Cumulatively, the Sangh Parivar leadership is convinced that all this will lead to the comprehensive marginalisation of minority communities, especially Muslims, and the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra.

A senior RSS activist based in Lucknow delineated the larger plan on this to Frontline as follows: “Parallel to the mandir building and the moves in Kashmir, the NRC [National Register of Citizens] and the CAB [Citizenship (Amendment) Bill] will be pursued aggressively across India. The campaign based on the theme that a ‘small family is an expression of patriotism’ would also be unleashed across the country, once again targeting Muslims. The election results for the Assembly in Maharashtra and Haryana had put us off the trail a bit, but the Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya has infused a new energy to all these plans. Now, we are back on track.”

Indications are that the Union government is set to push the citizenship Bill during the winter session of Parliament, slated for November 18 to December 13. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill seeks to amend the definition of illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan with a definitive anti-Muslim slant. The presentation of the Bill and the consequent developments on it would help the Modi government and the BJP divert attention from the increasingly worsening and crippling economic situation marked by growing unemployment and widespread economic depletion.

Yes, the majoritarian Hindutva march continues apace making use of diverse instruments of society, polity as well as national institutions even as the response and resistance to this gets frayed in narrow political concerns, interests and organisational maladies.

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