March issue 2002
The Politics of Communalism
A few months before the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya in December 1992, I visited the sanctum sanctorum, donning the garb of a Hindu devotee and not before surrendering my leather belt and camera to the paan-chewing policemen outside. There were not too many people in the mosque-turned temple, but a steady trickle of devotees kept coming for the darshan of Ram Lala, the child Ram. On the southern wall of the 16th century mosque were charcoal portraits of three secular heroes of India’s freedom struggle who were hanged by the British for “waging a war” against foreign rule: Rajguru, Sukhdev and Bhagat Singh, the latter, a diehard communist atheist. I asked the lone policeman, loafing under the left dome of the mosque, a 303 archaic rifle flung lazily on his right shoulder : Where was Ram Chandraji born? “You see that pujariji under the middle dome, somewhere there, give or take four or five feet,” he replied. Amazed by the accurate-sounding description of the place of birth of Lord Ram, I asked when the divine prince was believed to have been born. “I am told some nine hundred thousand years ago,” came the reply without the slightest hesitation.
This is the same place that I used to read about as a school-going boy in the early 1960s. It was plastered all over the walls, as far as I can remember in Hindi, on the way to La Martinere College: “Free Ram Janmabhoomi!” No one knew what it all meant and it didn’t really seem to matter if the call to free the birthplace of Ram was relevant enough to be taken note of. It was pure gibberish for most people, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Ango-Indians, et al. That was the period when Lucknow was better known for its Shia-Sunni riots than for any Hindu-Muslim standoff. There were Hindu-Muslim riots in other parts of the country but they had no relevance to Ayodhya and no proximity to Lucknow whatsoever. But it is an inescapable fact that Ayodhya was in the neighbourhood, if not at the vortex, of the former liberal Muslim city of Faizabad, once the capital of a province known to the British as Oudh and to the Urdu-speaking people of the region as Avadh. Begum Akhtar the great thumri singer belonged to Faizabad. Mercifully she died before Ayodhya became an important issue for anyone at all. But Rasoolan Bai, Begum Akhtar’s contemporary and senior Muslim singer, was not that lucky. She had to be rescued from her home in Ahmedabad when Hindu mobs ran amok there in 1969. But tarry a little. A broken and shattered Rasoolan Bai was given shelter and nursed back to health by her Hindu disciple — great connoisseur and herself an excellent singer, Naina Devi.
That was the time when liberal Hindus and Muslims scoffed at their rabid counterparts. The two lived in two different worlds. Riots were an unaesthetic distraction. As was to be expected the bulk of the liberal opinion partook generously of the quasi-Marxist cultural ethos of a Nehruvian era.
Cut to the debate on the same issue in more recent times, including the post-Godhra pogroms of Muslims in Gujarat. The first thing that strikes you is that while the dead are as always the innocent helpless citizens, mostly Muslim, the vocal leaders out with their fire-tenders pretending to douse the flames have changed. The political class is heavily polarised along religious lines, with Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Congress courting rightwing Muslim leaders and the Bharatiya Janata Party and the rest of the coalition partners by and large seeking a Hindu vote bank. Had the Babri Masjid not existed, one would have been invented.
As the noted analyst Iqbal Ansari has succinctly observed, the demolition of the Babri Masjid does not symbolise the extinction or abridgment of the right of Muslims to freedom of worship, which they have continued to enjoy before, during and after the event, even in Ayodhya. Rather, the event exposed the fragile state of rule of law in the country, where in the majoritarian composition and attitudes of the police and security forces, whose subservience to the political executive made it function as a partisan force in the service of kar sevaks.
Earlier in 1990, under direction from the then chief minister, the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) used excessive force against kar sevaks in the process of protecting the mosque. This illustrates the observation made by the Dharam Vir National Police Commission (1978-81) that the police in India is not organised for impartial law enforcement; it is, rather, a subordinate body for enforcing policies of the government of the day, which is generally based on cynical calculations by players of the great power game.
The district administration perceives its role in terms of providing maximum satisfaction to the political executive even during inter-group conflict situations, making it function on occasions in a partisan manner disregarding law, as happened in Ayodhya. Because of this lack of independence of the police and the district administration, the pious resolution of the National Integration Council of the 1960s (reiterated in the Prime Minister’s Fifteen-Point Programme For Minorities 1983), that the district magistrate and the superintendent of police should be held responsible for prevention and timely control of riots, can never be implemented.
The judiciary, which is the only source of hope for the vulnerable groups, has failed miserably to come to the rescue of the Muslims, ever since December 1949-January 1950, when a one-sided attachment order was passed without removing the “idols of Shri Ramchandraj… surreptitiously and wrongly put inside the (Babri Masjid).” This was reported by constable Mata Prasad and testified by the deputy commissioner of Faizabad, JN Ugra, in the written statement filed in the court on April 24, 1950 on behalf of the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Muslim worship, however, came to a stop, and their dispossession was legally sanctified under the plea of apprehension of breaching the peace under Section 145 of the Cr PC and Hindu parties were allowed limited right of worship under a subjectively defined status quo.
On this judicial activism, the BJP’s White Paper on Ayodhya makes the following observation: “The law could not help the Hindus for more than 60 years, from 1885 to 1949. But when they physically occupied the structure after the idols of Sri Rama appeared on 22-23 December, 1949, the same law okayed it, and the same law enforcing court — the District Court in 1950 and later in 1955 the High Court — granted to the Hindus, the right to worship and injuncted against removing the idols.”
The following critique of the Supreme Court judgement in the Ayodhya case in 1994 by Soli J Sorabjee also needs attention. Referring to the legal sanction given in the majority judgement to the post-demolition makeshift temple with limited rights, on the ground that (for whatever reason) the worship in the mosque had come to a stop since December 1949, Sorabjee notes with distress that “The majority judgment overlooks that the reason why the worship in the mosque had come to a standstill was the surreptitious entry into the mosque and placing of idols there in a clandestine manner. Indeed that was the unequivocal admission of the state of UP in its written statement solemnly affirmed in the suit.” Sorabjee, the present attorney general, concludes thus: “The distressing part is that the majority judgment countenances a situation which was the outcome of an act of national shame. The minority community is understandably disappointed with the majority judgment.”
Regarding the court order for opening the locks of the gate in 1986, the BJP’s White Paper on Ayodhya notes with satisfaction that “within three days of the Munsif Court order, the District Court passed an order directing the government of Uttar Pradesh to unlock the gate….” and that “within hours of passing of the above order, the temple was unlocked and even the Doordarshan cameramen were present to cover the occasion which was widely telecast all over India.”
The White Paper raises the question: “How did this case move at this speed? How did the government acquiesce in this case? How did the Faizabad District Court allow the appeal ordering the opening of locks in a matter of two days when the Hindus had been pleading for nearly 37 years? How did the Doordarshan cameras click the opening of the locks within an hour of the court orders? All these questions have only one answer — when the government is not against it, such things can, and do, happen. Even the courts respond.”
The impression that the course of law in Ayodhya in 1986 was not an independent act of the judiciary based on merits of the case, gets further strengthened by Swaroop-ananda Saraswati, Shankaracharya of Dwarka and Jyotishpeeth, claiming during the Kumbh Mela, that it was at his behest that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi got the locks opened for political considerations.
The statements, which are based on the perceived complicity of the judiciary with the executive and its acting under pressure, have not so far attracted the penal provisions under the law of contempt of court. This perception of the role of the judiciary has contributed to the climate of impunity so much so that Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders have proclaimed their intention of enforcing their majoritarian will by force, disregarding the law and constructing the temple according to a schedule prepared by the Dharam Sansad (Religious Parliament) held during the Mahakumbh Mela in Allahabad in January 2001.
The forcible entry of VHP leaders into the prohibited area in Ayodhya on October 17, 2001 marks the beginning of the schedule which is planned to reach a climax on March 12, 2002. The parivar feels confident that since nothing happened when the structure was demolished with the active connivance of the executive, nothing will happen again, if the Ram Temple is built. They have been reassured in this regard by no less a person than Justice (Retd.) Devki Nandan Agarwal, a VHP stalwart. VHP’s forced entry in Ayodhya also violated the law, inspite of the firm resolve of his government expressed by the Prime Minister Vajpayee in his Musings From Kumarakum on January 1, 2001, when he urged the people “not to remain silent spectators or adopt delaying tactics but to uphold the rule of law, should any organisation attempt to disturb the status quo.”
This incident cannot be taken as an isolated case of a mere lapse by the security personnel on duty; it falls rather neatly into the pattern of political blessing, official connivance and police partisanship and impunity.
The Prime Minister, who might well be feeling let down, as well as all other players of the political game who are making an issue of the incident on October 17, should realise that irrespective of pious intentions, the institutional machinery for prevention and speedy control of any inter-community violent conflicts simply does not exist in the country.
The fragility and malfunctioning of institutions of law and order in India, has led to a denial of equal protection by law to all poor citizens and weak and vulnerable groups. It has been, however, most blatantly denied to Muslims, especially in Ayodhya and related cases from 1949 till date, including during major riots in the 1980s and 1990s that have occurred which provided an impetus to the VHP and other wings of the Sangh Parivar to mobilise Hindu solidarity, to all of which Indira Gandhi lent a helping hand.
In his deposition before the Liberhan Commission, LK Advani has admitted that the BJP’s late entry into the Ram Temple campaign was thanks to their realisation of its potential for the mobilisation of Hindu nationalism, which until then the Congress had capitalised on. This phase of competitive Hindu nationalism within the Hindu ruling spectrum of varying shades, has brought untold misery to minorities, and has been further aggravated by the absence of an impartial law-enforcement institutional mechanism.
During the last two decades, while human rights groups and individuals committed to secular humanist values take pains to document and expose the failure of the police, the political executive, the bureaucracy and the media during communal conflicts and violence, no sustained effort has been made by them to reform the system.
Legal-administrative measures and policies that need to be adopted for prevention and control of communal conflicts have been suggested by various councils and commissions since 1961.
Two common recommendations of all these studies and reports relate to adequate numerical representation of minorities in the police and paramilitary forces, as well as all wings of law-enforcement machinery; while the training of officers and police personnel should include a component on the eradication of communal prejudices. The third area of reform relates to humane methods of prevention and control, not using lethal weapons for controlling any unarmed mob at the initial stage for deterrence and for teaching people a lesson, as is being done under the Riot Control Scheme in most states.
At present Muslims continue to be underrepresented at all levels and ranks in the police. In spite of periodic official directions for special recruitment of minorities, no appreciable progress has been made in this regard. VN Rai (IG, BSF) and Justice Tarkunde hold the opinion that the objective of adequate representation of minorities in the present circumstances cannot be achieved without fixing a quota.
In certain states like Uttar Pradesh, the numerical ratio of Muslims in the police was reduced under unstated official policy. According to an eminent journalist, Nikhil Chakravarty, the PAC, notorious for its anti-Muslim bias, was designed by chief minister GB Pant to deal with the Muslims from whom he apprehended trouble after Partition.
The issue of the adequate presence of minorities, especially Muslims, in the law-enforcement machinery has not been addressed by the human rights movement, nor by the secular political class, because of a “secular-communal” fixation. Whatever opinion one may hold about how to ensure a fair share for minorities in other sectors of public life, their presence in the police is required to enable it to enforce the law more impartially by neutralising its own biases, and by inspiring greater confidence in the communities that it wants to serve.
The other human rights issue that needs attention is that of ending the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of massacres, which is universally acknowledged as a reason for the recurrence of violence, making victims seek desperate remedies, taking, on occasion, recourse to terrorism. This chain of violence and counter-violence has been affirmed by Justice Sri Krishna in his definitive opinion about the serial bomb blasts in Mumbai in March 1993 as a reaction to the totality of events in December 1992 and January 1993 in Ayodhya and Mumbai “by angry, frustrated and desperate young Muslims keen to seek revenge for the perceived injustice done to, and atrocities perpetrated on them, or to others of their community.”
Justice Sri Krishna noted that “the Muslims perhaps felt that the government and the police, instead of protecting their interests, had actually acted against their interests by joining hands with communal elements which took a lead in the riots. A large number of Muslim youths came to entertain this firm belief.”
The issue of impunity being enjoyed by perpetrators of communal violence cannot be delinked from the general issue of the reform of the criminal justice system and the rule of law. However, the course of law in Ayodhya from December 1949 till date deserves to be reviewed as a case apart. It is not only a case of delay but of perception of distortion, lack of fairness and will to deliver speedy justice, which has caused what the apex court itself called an act of national shame.
Human rights groups which have thoroughly documented the failure of the political, administrative and police departments of the law-enforcement system, need to scrutinise the role of the judiciary collectively in the Ayodhya related cases, to ascertain what has made the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the Shiv Sena bold enough to claim that they can defy the law with impunity.
If the issue is not urgently addressed, the threat of the Sangh Parivar to arm millions of kar sevaks and gradually build pressure through periodic celebratory Hindu mass mobilisations is likely to be countered by terrorist acts from desperate, frustrated and misguided youths from among the victim minority groups.
What is the nature of the issues in Ayodhya and who are the parties? The conflict in Ayodhya is avowedly over competitive political Hindu nationalism as testified by LK Advani, the greatest beneficiary of the Ram Mandir movement, before the Liberhan Commission. But the symbol of Ram is also widely shared by non-political Hindus.
Ram could easily have acquired the status of an Indian national hero, if he was treated only as an ideal king or a hero of the Indian classical epic, and not as an incarnation of God whose idol is to be ritually worshipped. If a temple is to be built with his idol for devotees, it cannot be treated as the fulfilment of even Hindu nationalist aspirations, less so of the Indian nationalist urge, because there are large sections of Hindus who do not worship idols or are not his devotees.
Among the worshippers of Ram, there are Gandhi and Gandhians, and large sections of non-political Sanatan Dharmis whose reading of history does not make them hate Muslims and seek revenge for the supposed sins of their supposed fathers. Then there is the Sangh Parivar which has politically appropriated Ram — envisioned as a warrior king — to avenge its sense of historical hurt and humiliation from the supposed descendants of Babar. Muslims cannot be expected to enter into any dialogue with a group of political Hindus, who are not ready to treat them, their history, religion and culture, with respect.
The very reason for their insistence on building the Ram temple at the very site where the Babri Masjid stood, lies in their basic motivation for revenge. There is, therefore, no chance of any dialogue over Ayodhya with any credible Muslim section if the Hindu religio-cultural space continues to be wrongly monopolised by the Sangh Parivar. The problem with non-Sangh Hindus has been that they do not seem to know their mind, or at least are not ready to clearly spell out what they would like Muslims to do.
The only time one such Hindu, Rajmohan Gandhi, advised Muslims to relocate the masjid, the Muslims did not respond — the reason being that “secular” politicians had developed a stake in Muslims taking a hard line. The only time three senior Muslim intellectuals offered to talk to Advani over Ayodhya, the latter backed out of his call for dialogue.
Any Ayodhya cell in the cabinet secretariat, or secret talks with stray Muslim individuals or even groups is not going to yield any result. The solution lies in the non-Sangh Hindu community leaders and intellectuals and enlightened Muslims — from among the ulema as well as intellectuals — taking the initiative for dialogue in a spirit of mutual respect and goodwill.
I am sure this lies within the realm of the possible. Those taking the initiative for such a dialogue should be men and women with the courage of conviction to be able to take apparently unpopular decisions over all contentious issues including the issues of cow slaughter and Vande Mataram in the larger interest of the communities and the country.
The government, especially the present one led by the BJP, can and should take measures to reform the system, with a view to assuring the minorities that their security would not be under threat. It should also make minorities, especially Muslims, develop a greater sense of belonging by expanding avenues and opportunities for their participation in national life.
Such ‘appeasement’ of minorities is a necessary condition for creating an atmosphere conducive to a fruitful dialogue over Ayodhya and other issues. Enlightened sections of the Sangh Parivar should have the vision and insight to understand that such confidence-building measures (CBMs), like the Urdu script getting due recognition and the community’s right to separate family laws, cannot undermine the ‘Hindu interest’ that they are seeking to protect and promote.
A necessary component of CBMs is the de-stigmatisation of Muslims for imagined sins of the past, including Partition, and their consequent negative stereotyping and treatment as a suspect community to be replaced by their treatment as normal Indians. This would require a commitment to educate and sensitise the average Hindu for inculcation of positive humanist attitudes.
Muslims will have to reciprocate by de-stereotyping the kafir, treating Hindus as normal humans and fellow countrymen, with whom the best of relations are recommended by Islam, ruling out any perpetual confrontation including armed struggle, howsoever desperate they might feel on occasions.
The role of facilitators and promoters of dialogue has to be played by the statutorily empowered Community Relations Commission (CRC) as proposed in the NCM Report on Communal Riots: Prevention and Control (1999), which has found acceptance of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution. The CRC is envisaged as a body comprising eminent social scientists, jurists, and experts in community relations and conflict resolution along with distinguished publicists entrusted with the responsibility of prevention and resolution of all inter-community conflicts through dialogue.
In the event of failure of dialogue, the CRC will be empowered to initiate legal action against all hate speech and actions. The CRC will function in liaison with civil society’s organisations at the district, state and national level.
One such organisation, the Inter-Community Peace Initiative (ICPI), has already been constituted, whose mission statement includes commitment to cultural pluralism, upholding the rule of law and promoting dialogue between communities on divisive ethno-religious issues.
Let the CRC be established with members whose integrity and sagacity is unquestionable, and who enjoy the confidence of minorities. The CRC, along with bodies like the ICPI, may be in a position to bring about conciliation of the communities without any sense of humiliation or unfairness to either party.
Those involved in law and law-enforcement will not be abdicating their role. There may be a complementarity of roles on an issue like Ayodhya. A tribunal or arbitration council could be appointed with the consent of the parties concerned.
It all depends on whether the political parties in the government and the opposition and the non-Sangh Hindus and non-political Muslims, especially the enlightened ulema and intellectuals, feel the urge to take bold initiatives for a peaceful and just order in India wherein the correctly prioritised interests of all communities may be protected.
It is rather depressing to see non-Sangh Hindus, especially Gandhians, not playing an organised active role. It is no less depressing to see the Muslim community obsessed with ‘legalism’ of a variety that will not yield any positive results in terms of their cultural and religious rights or their economic, social and political rights even if they win the legal battle in the very, very long run.
Will those who stand for genuine Hindu religious values and civilisation aspirations, as creatively interpreted by Vivekananda and others, become active? Will Muslims develop a better sense of history and correctly prioritise their own collective goals and interests? Can they be inspired by a more inclusive vision of their own future in India than mere legalists are capable of?