The demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh is today a faint memory. On the 20th anniversary of the demolition, instead of viewing it as an undoing of the Nehruvian secularism, it is best seen as an episode, however despicable, dependent on a series of events that took place in those years.
It is hardly surprising that this religio-political “revolution”, as its instigators thought of it, has failed. In this, its fate is not dissimilar from those of previous totalizing efforts of this kind. A comparison is in order. In the 1950s, Vinoba Bhave decided to ask landlords to donate land (bhoodan) to the landless. In the 1970s, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) actually called his movement a “total revolution”; it ended by his ideals being betrayed by the inheritors of his legacy. By 1970s, the bhoodan movement was all but forgotten; by the time the Babri Mosque was demolished, JPs revolution had been given a quiet burial.
Today, it is the turn of the events of 1992 to be forgotten. At that time, L.K. Advani’s rath yatra and the riots and carnage that followed in its wake across the country seemed to suggest that it was the end of secularism as generations of Indians had known it. To be sure, even today, the champions of the official variant of secularism will continue to post reminders that it was a cataclysmic event. From a social perspective, however, matters are very different. India is nowhere close to being a Hindu theocracy: its secular roots remain intact even if the official line on secularism is questioned vigorously. The post-1992 generation—India’s “demographic dividend” generation—probably does not even remember what the fuss was all about.
The question to be asked is this: Is Indian politics fundamentally conservative that even so-called movements die out without leaving a trace? At one level, the answer has to be yes. In the case of Bhave’s movement, it was the still a nascent memory of the freedom struggle that imparted some momentum to his ideas; in JPs case, high inflation and authoritarian politics of Indira Gandhi generated fervour for change.
The events of 6 December 1992 must be examined in this light. It was not a modern-day Jacquerie or even a vast gathering of lumpen elements that decided somehow that demolishing a mosque was their idea of sport. It was the culmination of events that began somewhere in the mid-1980s—the legislative undoing of the Shah Bano judgement by the Rajiv Gandhi government; the silence over the Meenakshipuram conversions and, finally, the cynical opening of the doors of the monument in Ayodhya in 1986. These events cannot, of course, be used to justify in any manner whatsoever the events of that terrible day; they, however, form the essential background to what happened. That contextual element does not exist today.
Today, these are just memories, terrible though they are. Their actual impact on India’s politics—as the travails of the Bharatiya Janata Party clearly demonstrate—has been limited.
How should the 20th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Mosque be viewed?