A fortnight ago, as the Allahabad high court handed down its judgement on the disputed title to the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the Sensex was hovering at an all-time high. While the lead-up to the Ayodhya judgement generated much speculative punditry, for many the more mind-focusing predictive issues concerned the market. Visitors to GaneshaSpeaks.comcould take counsel from the “Fortune Mantra” for 30 September: “No matter how good a dealer you are at the stock market, make sure you refer to your birth chart for the yogas in your main horoscope once & move ahead according to the planetary positions...People with birth dates 9, 18 & 27 should wear ‘3 mukhi + Ganesha rudraksh’.”
In the wake of the Ayodhya verdict, some have taken hope from the apparent ease with which India’s reservoirs of faith seem to have been rechannelled from mandir to mandi. A new faith seems to be emerging: Economism, the belief that India’s steady economic growth will lift us away and out of all the political vexations we face.
Conflicting moods: Ayodhya on 22 September. Security was beefed up before the high court verdict.
Reactions to the Ayodhya judgement have been interesting to watch. For a start, political and intellectual reactions have diverged. In political circles, the response was relatively muted—there was little effort to revive the street mobilization the issue evoked in the past, and even the main political parties were somewhat hesitant to declare too clear a position on the verdict, happy to stay foggy on whether to see the judgement as a “victory” or “defeat”. The commentariat, however, has been more divided and declaratory: some seeing the judgement as a fatal blow to constitutional secularism and as a denial of minority justice—a “second demolition”; others finding in it deft legal rope-trickery which could achieve a peaceable compromise. And the media, while patting itself on the back at not having been inflammatory in its coverage, nevertheless did all it could to try to stoke a Punch and Judy show across its talk-shops.
We should all be troubled by the Ayodhya decision—but troubled in a way that does not hasten us into self-righteous claims about what would have been the right or appropriate decision.
We should be troubled not least because no possible verdict would have offered resolution—each would have been troubling in different ways: in terms of strict justice, recognition of religious realities, or the maintenance of social peace. Even the judgement’s one potential virtue—that it may have helped to dampen the chance of violent reactions—is itself troubling: because while this is an entirely desirable outcome, it was reached by dispiriting means.
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The fact is, we’ve once again shunted over to the courts questions and tasks that they are neither designed to fulfil, nor should have to. This increasing reliance on the courts parallels our increasing resort to military and paramilitary forces to deal with domestic dissent. In both cases, the inflated demands we place on the judicial and coercive arms of the state are a symptom of a political failure: the failure to sustain a sense of political community across our citizenry.
Why should we be troubled by the Ayodhya verdict?
First, at least from a preliminary reading of what is a very long and often digressive trio of judgements, it seems in the first instance to be a failure of the judiciary even on its own terms. The high court bench seems to have failed to confront frontally the act of collective vandalism that destroyed the Babri Masjid in December 1992—and has failed to even seek any reparation for that act, let alone find it. There appears to be no acknowledgement in the judgements that the 1992 demolition was an illegal act—in fact it has said surprisingly little about the events of 1992, which is itself astonishing given that all the court’s discussions about reapportioning possession of the disputed plot turned on the fact that there no longer exists a mosque at the site.
Positive fallout: (left) Lawyers representing the Ram Janambhoomi Punaruddhar Samiti minutes after the verdict was announced; the Sensex has remained above the 20,000 mark this month. Photographs: Pradeep Gaur / Mint
Further, and in addition to the court’s silence on the central event that led to the case being moved—the destruction of the Babri Masjid by a mob, watched over and cheered by the top leadership of the BJP, all of whose political if not moral careers directly benefited as a result—the court’s construal and attempt to resolve the questions of ownership and title seems puzzling. It’s hard to see the strictly legal basis for partitioning a plot of land that had been in the possession of the Sunni Waqf Board for a very long time indeed. As such, the judgement offers an unnerving conception of the stability of property rights.
But of course, the site in question was not about just any plot of land. And this is where we ask too much of the court, pushing it into domains beyond its proper concern. The site at Ayodhya is at once—to some Indians—a unifying symbol in a religious cosmology and narrative, to others a polarizing and divisive reference in our political and public life, and to still others a (now destroyed) historical monument, part of a common Indian heritage.
So, while the verdict has chosen silence on the destructive event that actually provoked the case, it has been voluble on the subjects it is less equipped to pronounce upon: religious geography and archaeological history. The result is a sort of curious cut-and-paste history and theology, which has been inducted into the judgements.
Although forced into alien terrain, it does seem a pity that the court chose to set itself up as an arbiter on matters of religion and history. It could perfectly well have acknowledged the existence of deep and widely held beliefs among many (though not all) Hindus about the sacred character of one specific area of the site. Without claiming access to a GPS that can lead us to the exact address where divine delivery occurred—who really knows the exact spot where our favourite god may have decided to be born?—it could have registered the fact that many do hold such convictions about the precise location, and as such these fellow Indians and their views have a claim to recognition. The right of these Hindus to worship at their preferred site could be recognized and incorporated into the always complicated and the now battered-down architecture of the site—in ways that allow access and use, but without partition.
And yet, for all its faults, I am not at all clear that this was a disastrous verdict—as some have claimed. I think it may have been nearer to being the least bad one. Why?
It’s on the bad end of the spectrum because I don’t buy the “move on” argument—1992 and all that is just so much blood under the bridge, and anyway aren’t we all now simply interested in getting on economically? So let’s forget about those troublesome, divisive matters, and just get on with the business of getting rich. As long as it catches mice, my cat can pray to any god. Those who in the early 1990s might have rallied to collect bricks for shilanyas are now more interested in the annual percentage rates (APR) for mortgages. All this is true. But this is a fair-weather hopefulness—and dangerously precarious as such. What happens when the economy chokes and stumbles—are we disarming ourselves of protections and remedies we may need when money-making distractions run aground? In this sense, economism as faith is misplaced.
On the other hand, I also don’t buy the argument that this was somehow a litmus test case over whether Indian Muslims can reliably expect justice, and fair treatment within our republic. On the Ayodhya matter, it was always far-fetched to expect the courts to render justice to anyone—let alone to Indian Muslims. It is through political determination on the part of political leaders that something more than a symbolic justice might be achieved. The real scandal, it seems to me, is the fact that the recommendations of the Sachar Committee remain, four years on, only superficially addressed. Indian Muslims remain extraordinarily disprivileged in all the crucial dimensions necessary for a citizen to improve her or his life chances.
I think it may be the least bad decision because the fact is that politically, large parts of the country have experienced something of a shift towards the right—especially when it comes to religious feeling (this applies to all believers). As some have noted, a verdict more fulsomely in favour of the mosque would have offered fuel to those wishing to reignite old embers. There is truth to this sort of pragmatism—though it is hardly an ennobling truth. Accepting it is to acknowledge that the shift in our centre of political gravity, in our “common sense”, somehow constrains the operation of our justice system. Yet it underlines another truth: that every struggle for justice takes place in a particular context—one that defines the ecology in which courts can operate, and that provides any legal system with its particular constraints and opportunities, in ways that necessarily deform more abstract principles of justice.
I hope that the Allahabad judgement will be challenged in the Supreme Court—and I hope the highest court takes its time over the matter, finding for once virtue in delay. I hope that the Sensex keeps climbing. But any resolution to the Ayodhya-Babri Masjid matter will ultimately be found neither in the courts nor in the markets: neither in legalism nor in economism. Making good the tear in our republic’s fabric that Ayodhya caused will lie not in the wealth of economics or the principles of law, but in the struggles and inventions of our politics. What was done to our sense of political community, in the 1980s by the Congress party, in the past two decades by the BJP, is not something whose legacy we shall easily escape. Poison was thrown into the well. We certainly cannot expect our learned judges to remedy this. It will take a good deal more than even the most immaculate judicial opinions, or the most happily ascendant Sensex, to do that.
Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India and is currently working on a new book, India in Search of Wealth and Power. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org