I was in Kuala Lumpur when Babri Masjid fell in 1992. I was on my way back to India after a study on pepper for the FAO, covering several countries in Europe, North America and South East Asia. My last stop had been the beautiful city of Kuching in Sarawak. Kuching is a historic city, ruled at one time by “ Rajah” James Brooke, who had been given the province by the Sultan of Brunei as reward for his help in crushing a rebellion. The graceful river Sarawak meanders lazily through the city and gives it a distinct character, much like the Seine in Paris.
The fall of the Babri Masjid was perhaps the greatest threat that the concept of Indian secularism ever faced. The fact that thousands of Hindu activists could climb its walls, chisel away at solid stone structures and bring it so definitively down, was something none of us could ever have imagined. We never believed the Government of India would stand idly by, naively trusting a differently motivated State Government,while a centuries old religious structure, a part of India’s history and culture, was brought down so quickly and so dramatically. The secular fabric of India had clearly been torn apart. The subsequent Bombay riots of 1992-93 resulted in 900 people losing their lives. There were riots too in Surat, Ahmedabad, Kanpur, Delhi, Bhopal and other cities and the final death toll is estimated to be in excess of two thousand. The catastrophic event was followed by a long period of terrorist violence and militancy, fostered by State and non-State actors in neighbouring Pakistan that created deep and lingering suspicion between Hindus and Muslims, particularly in the north of India, which had been ravaged for decades by communal conflict. Nor were the repercussions of the event confined to India. Violence broke out in Bangladesh and Pakistan, temples were attacked and strong views were expressed by the Middle Eastern countries and Saudi Arabia.
There are many stories afloat about the culpability, or at least gross negligence of the people who then ruled India. There are stories that the destruction of the mosque was carefully planned well in advance by the perpetrators and their mentors. The Justice Liberhan Commission was set up, which gave its report after 16 years in 2009, concluding that the destruction of the mosque was “neither spontaneous nor unplanned”. The Commission pinned responsibility on 68 people, including top national leaders Vajpayee, Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi and the then UP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh.The CBI case still drags on in court.
I was the Cabinet Secretary when the Allahabad High Court adjudged the dispute in September 2010. It was not a unanimous decision, unlike the recent Supreme Court decision; it was passed by a majority of 2:1 even though all agreed on the final conclusion. The judgment divided the site, measuring 2.77 acres, amongst the three principal contenders, one-third each for the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and “Ram Lalla”, represented by the Hindu Mahasabha, subject to minor adjustment of boundaries as may be needed. Frankly, I thought to myself at the time that the High Court had found an equitable solution to a complex problem, laden with intense emotion, conflict and rivalry. The parties to the dispute were, however, not satisfied and appealed against the judgment to the Supreme Court, which has set it aside on the ground that the High Court was required only to adjudicate legal rights to the land.
All the three High Court judges, Justice Khan, Justice Aggarwal and Justice Sharma held that no party had established legal title over the land through documentary evidence. They agreed that the area under the central dome of the erstwhile mosque was traditionally regarded by Hindus as the birthplace of Rama. Justices Agarwal and Sharma held the view that the mosque was established after demolition of a non- Islamic structure with the latter stating that “the Archaeological Survey of India [ASI] has proved that the structure was a massive Hindu religious structure.” Justice Sharma also held that the mosque had been built after demolition of the structure, while Justice Khan saw no evidence of demolition. “No temple was demolished for constructing the mosque,” he said. “Mosque was constructed over the ruins of temples which were lying in utter ruins since a very long time before the construction of mosque and some material thereof was used in construction of the mosque.”(Livemint, 9/11/2019).
The structure under the Babri Masjid has been a matter of some controversy among historians and archaeologists. BB Lal, former Director General, ASI, conducted a study in 1975-76 on a project called “Archaeology of Ramayana Sites”. The project was not completed but in a subsequent book, “ Rama: His Historicity, Mandir and Setu”, he wrote,“Attached to the piers of the Babri Masjid, there were twelve stone pillars, which carried not only Hindu motifs and moldings, but also figures of Hindu deities.” Another study conducted by Dr. YD Sharma and Dr. KM Srivastava came to the conclusion that there can be “little doubt regarding the existence of a 10th-12th century temple complex at the site of Ayodhya.” In fact, different layers of human occupation on the site were found from 1000 BCE to the construction of the mosque in 1528 CE. A Sanskrit inscription in the Nagari Lipi script, found following the demolition of the mosque in 1992, “clearly tells us that a beautiful temple of Vishnu-Hari, built with heaps of stone and beautified with a golden spire, unparalleled by any other temple built by earlier kings, was constructed.” ( Ajay Mira Shastri, Chairman of the Epigraphical Society of India). Here again, the provisional dating of the inscription is 1140 CE. On the other hand, the Buddha Education Foundation says that the structure was a Buddhist stupa destroyed during the Muslim invasion( Wikipedia: the Archaeology of Ayodhya) The Supreme Court has now decided that the entire site of 2.77 acres is in the possession of “ Ram Lalla Virajman”, but in the interests of fairness and in exercise of its powers under Article 142(1) of the Constitution, it has decreed that a 5 acre plot be identified in Ayodhya and given to the Sunni Waqf Board for construction of a mosque. The Court came to the conclusion that the Hindus had “open, exclusive and unimpeded possession of the outer courtyard” and that there is no evidence produced by the Muslims of namaz having been offered continuously before 1857. It goes on to say, “As regards the inner courtyard, there is evidence on a preponderance of probabilities to establish worship by the Hindus prior to the annexation of Oudh by the British in 1857.”
The judgment will be debated for years and years. Many legal papers and texts will be written, many discussions held. The judgment says that the mosque was “desecrated by the installation of Hindu idols “in December 1949, and that, again in 1992, “ the entire structure of the mosque was brought down in a calculated act of destroying a place of public worship.” The word “desecration”, according to the Cambridge dictionary, means, “the action of damaging or showing no respect towards something holy or very much respected:” Thus, according to the learned Justices, there was something holy, a place of public worship, which was desecrated by an act of violence. If that is so, is it necessary to prove that prayer in the mosque was carried out by the Muslims? If it was only a vacant, unused building, how can there be an act of desecration? Besides, if desecration had indeed been carried out, is it fair to give the disputed property to the perpetrators of such desecration? Would the majority community not always be at an advantage in adjudication of such disputes in the future if the same logic is adopted? These are questions that have been raised and will be the subject of much study and disputation in the future.
It is clear from the reactions to the judgment from a wide cross-section of the people of India that a great deal of “Ayodhya fatigue” has set in. Most opposition parties have accepted it, even welcomed it. Although there are some differences amongst the Muslims and some resentment has been expressed by some leaders, there is far less apparent acrimony than when the Babri Masjid fell. The Government also deserves credit for careful planning, for keeping extreme reactions in check, for educating all sections of the people in advance. The message that this was neither victory nor defeat for anyone was well articulated. The diplomatic point that no other country must interfere in the internal affairs of India was again forcefully made, as at the time Article 370 of the Constitution was rendered non-operational.
The Supreme Court judgment opens up new opportunities for reinforcing our secular traditions. The utilisation of the site will now be left to a Trust which will be constituted by the Government. The inclusion of Muslims in the Trust Board will be an act of good faith. If the Trust decides to have the mosque and the temple adjoining each other on a single piece of land, it will be a singular act of reconciliation. If the Sunni Waqf Board chooses to include Hindus also in some way in the construction of the mosque, it will be another step forward. Ayodhya will gain, emerging as a centre of pilgrimage and tourism with the erection of two magnificent structures, symbolising two major religions and the spirit of our Constitution. Conflict would dissolve into harmony in the minds of our people.
Truly, then, the “Berlin Wall” would have fallen.