India's legal system faces test as Ayodhya verdict nears
For Muslims in the country, increasingly under siege in recent years, it would be the closure of a painful and sordid chapter.
More than 25,500 days after miscreants professing the Hindu faith forcibly implanted a Ram Lalla idol inside the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (a city in northern Uttar Pradesh, India), more than 30 years after a Congress party government caved into the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's communal campaign and manipulated the re-opening of the same mosque allowing Hindus to worship there, and nearly 27 years after bloody Hindu-Muslim riots following the demolition of the medieval-era mosque nearly destroyed the social fabric of the country, we are told that we are just days away from a resolution of the legal case by the Supreme Court of India.
In Ayodhya, a pilgrim town whose ordinariness lies hidden beyond reams of dispute-centric headlines, people are holding their breath in anticipation of the end of this age-old squabble. For a large number of Hindus, it is the culmination of decades if not centuries of struggle to regain the rights to what they believe is the exact spot where Lord Ram was born.
For Muslims in the country, increasingly under siege in recent years, it would be the closure of a painful and sordid chapter. In fact, the threat from Hindu majoritarianism is so palpable that a few days ago, a group of retired Muslim 'intellectuals' held a public meeting and urged the legal parties from the Muslim side to 'gift' the land to Hindus. Their contention is that even if they win the legal battle, it will be impossible to rebuild the mosque at the same spot; such is the state of the collective faith in India's justice system.
In fact, the Ayodhya-Babri Mosque matter exemplifies how the entire justice system and the government can be bent to the will of mobs. First in 1949, then in 1989 and finally in 1992, with the demolition of the Babri Mosque as security forces watched, this is perhaps the worst instance of mob rule prevailing over the rule of law.
But it is not just the streets where the majority has prevailed, even in the ongoing so called 'final hearing' in the Supreme Court, the Muslim side has alleged partisanship. On the 38th day of the hearing, senior counsel Rajeev Dhawan representing the Muslim parties said to the five-judge bench, "Your Lordship didn't ask questions to the other side. All the questions have been asked to us only. Of course, we are answering them." His comment was opposed by the counsel of the deity Ram Lalla, who said it was "totally unwarranted".
Dhavan's remarks are important in that they convey the sense of fear and discrimination felt by Muslims, who are confronted with an unprecedented antagonism across India, often aided by the government of the day. Whether it is the National Register of Citizens, the triple talaq legislation, or the incidents of mob lynching over suspected cow slaughter and smuggling, and that classic trope of terrorism, to be a Muslim in India today is to live with your eyes lowered, voice muffled and head down lest someone from the mob calls you an anti-national and start assaulting you.
To make Ayodhya a Hindu Vatican was the dream of rabid preachers at the peak of the temple movement in the 1990s. On December 6, 1992, as the Babri Mosque was being destroyed by karsevaks, their leaders were heard urging the crowds to ensure the town is cleansed of Muslims and its Islamic history. The result: more than a dozen Muslims were killed and almost all their bodies were burnt, mazaars and mosques were damaged; all to ensure that not a single family remains in the town which is holy to not just Muslims and Hindus but also to Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists.
The demolition was followed by nearly three decades of non-BJP rule in Uttar Pradesh by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) who both championed secularism and therefore the dream of Ayodhya becoming a Hindu Vatican could never be realised. A majority of Muslims left Ayodhya in the 1990s, but there still remain a substantial number of them, as well mosques and mazaars, in the city.
Though ghettoised to some extent, it is hardly uncommon to see Muslims and Hindus living and working cheek by jowl, whether in the supply chain of the pilgrim market that Ayodhya essentially is, or in the glitzy stores selling mobiles and other gadgets. If it was not for the topi (cap) and the tilak (vermilion), and other outwardly symbols of faith, it would be hard to tell one from another. In fact, what the common folk of Ayodhya are united in is the abject stasis and neglect that marks India's hinterland: open drains, crumbling roads, poor education infrastructure, and lack of jobs and opportunities to advance in life. Its youth, like in any other small town, are just looking for a way to escape and make it big in a city like Delhi, Mumbai, or Bangalore.
Whether a Hindu or Muslim, an ordinary person in Ayodhya shares a deep and virulent cynicism towards the 'system', towards politicians and the fake sadhus (who dominate the town through muscle power). The menace of the criminals in the garb of sadhus is undeniable and not a month goes past without incidents of sexual assault and other violent crimes involving these 'men of god' or their toadies.
Ayodhya's sacrality has been eroded by conmen and fugitives from the law masquerading as spiritual gurus and monks for many decades, but nothing eviscerated its inherent piousness and peace like the Ram temple movement and the politics around it. Ayodhya turned from a place of refuge for seekers and the spiritually inclined to the launchpad of a political movement to create a Hindu vote bank.
Nearly three decades after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the bloodletting that followed, the discourse remains dominated by a singular concern for the temple. As we stand on the verge of a legal resolution of the dispute, it is absolutely imperative that the cases involving the demolition of the mosque be heard on a fast-track basis too, and it is the duty of the Supreme Court to ensure that this happens. That will go a long way in restoring some of Ayodhya's lost piety.
Valay Singh, a Delhi-based journalist, is the author of 'Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord'