History obsesses Indians. It’s easy to see why. Mark Twain called this country the “cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of traditions". But there comes a moment in the life of a nation when we must escape the past and turn our collective gaze to dreams of a mutual future. For the sake of our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, we must take the opportunity afforded by Saturday’s Supreme Court verdict on appeals filed against a high court order asking for a three-way division of the religious site in Ayodhya whose ownership has long been in dispute. Weighing likelihoods of whether Hindus or Muslims had offered continual prayers for longer over centuries past on the premises in contention, the apex court settled the title case in favour of Ramlalla, the deity. By a unanimous ruling of a five-judge bench of the apex court, the land shall be turned over to the government for a trust to be set up that will oversee the construction of a Ram temple there. The Sunni Central Waqf Board would be given another plot for a mosque. The court upheld the argument that the Babri Masjid, which once stood on the contested site, had an underlying structure that was not of Islamic provenance. This may have played a pivotal role in the “balance of probabilities", though relatively recent records of worship were also adjudged, a tad controversially, to weigh the Hindu way.
Independent India’s early leaders had hoped that religion could be kept out of the public domain. This proved too idealistic, as the mosque’s demolition of 6 December 1992, among other events, has shown down the decades. That act of an unruly mob was held by our top court as illegal, as also the overnight placement of idols under its central dome in 1949. Today’s leader of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking on Saturday, invoked Guru Nanak’s vision of amity and brotherhood. Welcoming the judgement, he also issued a clear call for unity, one that’s incumbent on every citizen to heed.
Arguably, the Ayodhya dispute distracted us for much too long. Our focus should have been on the emergence of our economy and upliftment of the poor, but we have found ourselves having to grapple with tough questions of faith and modernity. In a country as wonderfully diverse as ours, we Indians have considered ourselves wise and brave enough to not just envision, but also pursue a common destiny that transcends other markers of identity. We have been confident that India would serve one day as a beacon of peace and prosperity. But perceptions have diverged, and special efforts need to be made for Hindu-Muslim ruptures of the past to heal. Given the will, divergences could yet turn into convergences. For this moment to prove cathartic in a good way, the judiciary’s order needs to be taken calmly, and all remnants of rancour let go of. As the Prime Minister’s invocation of Guru Nanak suggests, an emphasis on unifying principles of faith may help. It’s how Mahatma Gandhi strove for peace: His eclectic example, his hope for India, and, above all, his quest for truth ought to guide us now. If we are to move on together as a country, we need to open our hearts, put the past aside, and look ahead.