The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 is the one incident in India’s social and political history that marks the climax of the politics of religious identity, and is the source from which caste identity politics originated and became powerful. The seeds of religious identity politics planted during the Indian freedom movement came to full bloom in the Hindutva politics of the 1980s and 1990s when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power and its urban base extended to the rural areas.

The politics of religious identity that was strengthened by the demolition of the Babri Masjid took the BJP to power. The strength of Hindutva politics also granted a similar boost to parties such as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. While the demolition was the successful climax of Hindutva politics, it was also the starting point of its downfall.

Meanwhile, the incident also strengthened the politics of Muslim identity. In many areas, the demolition aroused sympathy for terrorist groups in hidden or visible forms.

As part of the evolution of religious identity politics in the early 1990s, several political groups emerged that led to the future aggressive growth of caste identity politics.

The late V.P. Singh, in a bid to stall the growing political power of the BJP, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Shiv Sena, among others, implemented the Mandal committee report. This strengthened the caste identity politics of Dalits and other backward classes. As a result of this, Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar, Sharad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav emerged in the Hindi-speaking areas and established their strongholds in different parts of the region.

The Babri Masjid incident was the hidden reason for which the trap of politics of reservations had been opened. But now Indian democracy is unable to liberate itself from its shackles. It is true that there have been some positive effects of the politics of reservations, but it has also raised several dilemmas for the democratic character of India’s polity.

This was also the period in which Kanshi Ram, who left Maharashtra in 1984 to build on the politics of Dalit identity, arrived in Uttar Pradesh via Delhi. While launching his politics in Uttar Pradesh, the biggest challenge that he faced was to create a space for himself and his party within the aggressive politics of religious identity. His strategy was to invent the politics of Dalit identity. For this purpose, he developed a sense of identity among Dalits by arousing their pride in their history and culture.

In order to politicize this sense of identity, he invented and developed the oral (narratives of the Dalit castes and their caste histories), the aural (folk songs and folk culture) and the ritual (honouring Dalit heroes) traditions of the different castes.

He also started organizing caste association meetings to arouse the pride of the particular caste and promised them political participation. His slogan of “Jiski jitni sankhya bhari uski utni hissedari" (participation based on numbers) is a reflection of this political strategy.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid became the basis of the politics in which several small parties built themselves around castes, which can still be seen in parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal, among others.

It’s interesting that the 1980s and 1990s also saw a more liberal economic policy that led to greater globalization. Religious and caste identities may have got strengthened during the period as a response to the transition and crisis that India was undergoing. Or, it could have been a by-product of the strengthening of the identities of a large number of ethnic communities all over the world, even as they were becoming more flexible.

Although caste and religious identity politics are gradually losing their shine in India, the idea of the caste-based vote, which is the source of power for smaller political parties, is strong in several parts of India, most specifically in the Hindi-speaking regions. That poses a challenge to national political parties run on traditional lines.

Badri Narayan is a professor at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, University of Allahabad.

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