New Delhi: Ayodhya is about a four-hour drive from Rampur along the rutted, backbreaking roads of Uttar Pradesh. For Kamran Shabbir, though, it could have been an eternity away.
“Of course I’ve never been there,” he says, with a distinctly irritated inflection. Instead, he chose to come to New Delhi, where he now works as an accounts executive for a travel company.
When Ayodhya’s medieval-era Babri mosque was pulled down in 1992, Shabbir was just a five-year-old. “I was too young to understand anything. But as I grew up, I got to know how big the issue was, and how much it had changed India,” he says.
The mosque was felled by Hindu activists who claimed the land was the birth site of Lord Ram and a temple used to stand there previously. The movement to mobilize Hindu support for constructing a Ram temple in place of the mosque catapulted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then a peripheral rightwing voice, to the centre stage and changed Indian politics forever.
But that wasn’t all. The felling of the mosque was perhaps the most communally disruptive event since Partition. Hundreds were killed as riots between Hindus and Muslims broke out in different parts of India.
On 24 September, a special bench of the Allahabad high court is expected to deliver its verdict on the dispute’s title suit. It will decide whether the land belongs to Hindus or Muslims—effectively whether it will have a temple or a mosque built on it.
But 60 years since that suit was filed, and 18 years after the mosque’s demolition, the inflammatory issue seems to have lost some of its fire. Muslims once thought the mosque was a metaphor for Indian secularism and its rebuilding alone could restore their faith in their nation. Today, the debate has little meaning for many among them, or at least the younger generation.
“Me and my Muslim friends may have together discussed this subject once in my entire life,” says Shabbir. “I think it is pointless to shed blood over one mosque when there are so many other mosques around the country. It had anyway been locked for decades before the demolition. What happened was grossly unjust, but we have to move on.”
Sheeba Khan hails from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, and is currently studying human resource management at Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi. Like Shabbir, she too says it doesn’t matter much to her if the mosque is rebuilt.
“It does affect my parents, I know. But I only got to hear about the issue while growing up. Either way the verdict goes, it doesn’t affect me very much,” she says.
Like Shabbir and Khan, more than 60% of India’s Muslims are aged under 24. But do the views of these two reflect those of the larger population? Maulana Mahmood Madani, a senior leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, one of India’s largest Islamic organizations, certainly thinks so.
“The younger generation of Muslims is much more sensible,” he says. “They are not going to be misled by the wrong kind of leaders, like their parents were. And why just Muslims? Hindus are also wiser today. We have all learnt our lesson.”
Indeed, after running the national government from 1998 to 2004, the BJP has lost two consecutive parliamentary elections along with a spate of state assembly elections—indicating that interest among Hindus for building a Ram temple is also ebbing. Many of its leaders now openly advocate a shift in policy.
The bloodiest riots after the 1992 demolition took place in Mumbai. Among their many victims is Farook Mapkar, 43, who has been working as a peon at a private bank in Wadala locality since the age of 20.
Mapkar says a police inspector entered Hari Masjid, a local mosque, in January 1993 during afternoon prayers and started shooting. Six people were killed and seven were injured—Mapkar was one of them.
The police falsely implicated him for illegal possession of arms and threw him in jail—where he remained, with a bullet lodged in his back, for 15 days. Although he was then let off, the case against him dragged on until last year, when he was exonerated. The legal tangle pretty much destroyed his life and that of his wife and four children.
But Mapkar isn’t bitter. “I will be happy if a mosque is built,” he says, “but I have no problems if a temple comes up instead. We will accept the court orders.”
The All-India Babri Masjid Action Committee, formed to contest the “disputed” nature of the mosque on behalf of Muslims, has split and is virtually defunct today, admits Javed Habib, who heads one of its factions. The panel didn’t convene even once for 14 years from 1995, during which many of its senior leaders passed away. It finally met in February 2009, when Habib was elected chairman.
Habib has called the next meeting on 26 September to discuss the court verdict and plan a course of action. “We will appeal in the Supreme Court if the judgment is against us,” he says. “But we would prefer a negotiated settlement. The government should initiate talks among all concerned parties.”
Behind the sweet “let’s move on” talk of Muslims like Shabbir, Khan and Mapkar, there is also a lurking fear—fresh riots, more bloodshed.
The Uttar Pradesh government plans to deploy 40,000 security personnel in Ayodhya ahead of the court verdict. It has asked the central government to send 50,000 more. The Centre has also prepared a nationwide “contingency plan” and asked all states to stay alert.
Faisal Khan, who lives in New Delhi’s Muslim-dominated Jamia Nagar locality and runs a network of civil society groups, organized a peace meet in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh on 16 September. Hundreds of people, among them Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, prayed for communal harmony, he says.
“I fear that riots may break out if the decision is against (building) a temple,” he adds. “That is why all concerned citizens must do their bit to ensure amity, no matter what the court decides.”
Shabbir and Sheeba Khan have another idea: build neither a mosque nor a temple, but something of mutual value instead.
“Why not build a hospital,” says Shabbir, “or an orphanage, or a charitable trust for all victims of communal violence—Hindus and Muslims? Why not let some good come out of all these years of turmoil?”