Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | Will the Ayodhya verdict widen chasms or bring India together?

This would depend on the actions of leaders on both sides who must seek reconciliation to put this conflict firmly in the past

The demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992 led to one of the worst religious riots in post-independence India. The event also accentuated the religious divide in India. Now, as the country waits for the Supreme Court verdict on the Ayodhya land title suit, the big question on everyone’s mind is whether it will widen that divide further.

History provides various examples of how treaties and court verdicts have tried to create a new post-conflict world. The Treaty of Versailles, signed between the Allied powers and Germany after World War I, was used by the victor—the Allied powers—as an instrument to embarrass the vanquished further. This embarrassment fuelled an even more destructive war, World War II. In recent times, we have the example of the implementation of a Supreme Court ruling on a century-old dispute between Jacobite and Orthodox Christian factions in Kerala. In the name of implementing the verdict, some winners in the case appear to have trampled upon deep emotions of the vanquished. Due to this, the two factions are now even more divided after the court verdict than before. These are cases where the treaties and court verdicts that were meant to mitigate the conflict ended up fuelling them further.

We have different kinds of post-conflict behaviour too. When political power changed hands in South Africa from Caucasians to native Africans, the latter—who had suffered a lot under the apartheid regime of Whites—did not walk the path of retribution. The same happened in Rwanda, which witnessed one of the worst genocides in recent history. Members of the majority Hutu tribe reportedly butchered close to 800,000 members of the minority Tutsi. But once the Tutsi gained power in Rwanda, they did not go on the path of revenge. Both countries chose a path of forgiveness, and focused on achieving reconciliation between opposing groups.

What determines the path taken by a country after a tumultuous and conflict-creating event? It depends a lot on the quality of the victorious side’s leadership. In South Africa, that leader was Nelson Mandela. In Rwanda, it was Paul Kagame. Although they both belonged to the erstwhile victims’ side, these leaders had the magnanimity and vision not to pander to calls for revenge. They knew that perpetuating the conflict would not help anyone in the future. These leaders understood the mindset of the losing side. The vanquished in a conflict will always be seething with anger, and feeling a sense of injustice. At this time, any acts or words by the victor that further embarrass the vanquished will worsen the situation. On the other hand, any gesture of reconciliation from the victor to the loser at such a time goes a long way in putting a permanent end to any conflict.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and Gacaca community courts in Rwanda helped the perpetrators and victims meet face-to-face to seek reconciliation. In all specific cases, it was clear who the perpetrator was and who the victim was. In all these cases, either the parties, or at least their close relatives, were still alive. For the victim to forgive the perpetrator, it is important that the victim sees genuinely deep regret and remorse in the perpetrator. Face-to-face interactions between actual perpetrators and their victims made this easy to observe. But in the Ayodhya case, the alleged acts that led to the conflict happened hundreds of years ago. The opponents in the case that was recently argued at the Supreme Court did not even exist when the original events are said to have taken place. So, in the case of the Ayodhya conflict, it will not be easy to create a perfect reconciliation process.

In a country like India, which has thousands of years of history, it is quite possible to have varying narratives about the past. But any attempt to arrive at some sort of common narrative that is widely accepted should be welcomed. The Ayodhya verdict is one such occasion, where the best legal minds in the country, with the help of historians and anthropologists, are attempting to provide a common narrative on the past. This is a significant step in the direction of reconciliation.

Integral to every violent conflict is a process of dehumanization, in which opponents are portrayed as somehow less than human. Successful reconciliation efforts initiate a process by which people reimagine a previously devalued individual as uniquely human again. The process of identity-widening, and the act of redrawing “us versus them" borders to establish a more common identity that includes more groups, people and ideas, is a positive outcome of an effective reconciliation programme. The identity-widening initiatives in Rwanda reframed both Tutsis and Hutus as Rwandans, and both as victims of genocide. Two groups with a record of deep- and historically-rooted violence towards each other came together to not only coexist, but also work toward sustainable harmony. Can this happen in India?

Over the years, the Ayodhya issue has transformed into a conflict along religious identity. Like all conflicts in the past, there will be a winner and a loser in this one too. But the big question is whether the Ayodhya verdict will further widen the chasm that exists between various religions in this country, or if it will be used to build a common national identity that is beyond religious affiliations. It will depend a lot on the actions and words of leaders on either side, and more so of those on the winning side. Will they rise to the occasion and act like true statesmen? We wait with bated breath to find out.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm

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