I have long suspected that cabbies and chauffeurs in conflict zones actually enjoy this role, priming correspondents with an overview of “the situation", two minutes into the airport pick-up.
Did you know that? Did you suspect that what you read from ‘on the ground’ in Syria or Iraq in dispatches by your reporter may have been entirely based on what kind of a mood the cabbie’s breakfast put him in?
Not every reporter, of course, but some.
I’m breaking the rule here, if only to make a point—that the wisdom of cabbies is unparalleled. This column is a tribute to them.
“Hospital," said the cabbie the other day. “Why not build a hospital."
He was offering answers—unsolicited—to the broken Babri mosque in Ayodhya, where some Hindus want to build a Ram temple.
The cabbie, a Hindu from Ayodhya, was interesting to me—because he defied the stereotype. World over, cabbies tend to veer toward the right—politically that is. Here was an exception.
Black cab drivers in London, for instance, are frightfully clever and notoriously conservative. I was once driven by one who told me speed breakers and traffic lights were left-wing intrusions into his private domain—an individual ought to have a right to an unfettered road.
“You know what I mean, guv?" he asked.
Uh-huh, I thought, quickly checking for the unlock button on the door. Stands to reason. The late maverick libertarian thinker Sauvik Chakraverty, who wrote for Mint and other papers, believed the government has only two functions: build roads (in common with Friedrich Hayek) and enforce the rule of law.
I’ve never been to Ayodhya. I try to stay away from holy towns. Bruges in Belgium, for instance—it’s so pretty but you can’t take two steps without bumping into a church. On the bright side, many churches in Bruges brew their own beer (the blonde, the dark, the brunette and maybe even the redhead). Obviously, cause and effect are at play here: the more the religious structures, the greater the need to dive into a monastic bar.
Why a hospital, I asked.
It’s the only solution, he replied in Hindi, having clearly thought it through since the December 1992 destruction of the mosque and the trail of religious mayhem it left in its wake. “The Hindus should build the hospital and, if they like, they can put up a portrait of Ram in every room. They can paint one on every tile in the hospital if they like. The Muslims won’t object; doctors look after all patients, regardless of religion. You can ask both communities to pay for it."
The reason the cabbie was ruminating on Ayodhya was that recently it has been back in the news, with some important political implications.
The demand to build a temple in place of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya—the so-called Ram Janmabhoomi issue—has clearly abated in recent years. Although it remains a huge emotional cause celebre with the Hindu right, and was a pledge in the 2013 general election manifesto of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), no one really seems to have the appetite to revisit the demand today. In this backdrop, two moves by the Supreme Court have come as a surprise for all, not least the cabbie from Ayodhya.
The Ayodhya issue—whom to punish for the destruction of the mosque and whether to build the temple there—is locked up in court cases in two lower courts in Uttar Pradesh as well as in the Supreme Court.
In March, a senior politician belonging to the ruling BJP pleaded with the Supreme Court for an early hearing of his plea for a Ram temple to be built on the Babri site.
The Supreme Court, describing it as a “sensitive matter", said all the sides in the dispute should hold informal discussions and come to an out-of-court settlement.
The chief justice then went on to offer his personal mediation in such negotiations—an unusual offer from the country’s senior-most judge.
The next month, the Supreme Court allowed a plea by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to restore criminal conspiracy charges over the Babri demolition case against 21 people, including some leading figures in the BJP, such as former home minister L.K. Advani, former human resource development minister Murli Manohar Joshi, and current water resources minister Uma Bharti.
A fourth accused is Kalyan Singh, who was chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1992 when the mosque was brought down following a campaign led by Advani, Joshi, Bharti and others. But Singh is now governor of Rajasthan, a high constitutional position that grants him immunity from prosecution.
The Supreme Court ordered the case, which is being heard in the lower courts in Lucknow and Rae Bareli, to be wound up within two years. This means the process could drag on till 2019, when the next general election is due, with the potential to embarrass the central government that has shown absolutely no inclination to revisit the Ayodhya temple demand despite sporadic calls.
It presents Modi with another difficulty. The apex court has ordered “day-to-day hearings", which means the likelihood of live television news coverage about the role played by three senior leaders of the ruling party in Ayodhya in the run-up to 2019. There is some respite with regard to Kalyan Singh, however, with the apex court saying he can be tried after he ceases to be in office.
Additional solicitor general Neeraj Kishan Kaul, representing the CBI, told the court: “During the course of the investigation, the CBI came across evidence of an overarching conspiracy, which was in the nature of a concerted action in tandem."
The nation is set to be gripped by the Ayodhya drama again, once the conspiracy trials resume. What must the government do? Listen to the wisdom of cabbies maybe?
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1