Reflections on Verdict on Babri Masjid Dispute in India

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On Thursday September 30, 2010 India exhaled a collective sigh of relief. With approximately 200,000, security forces deployed on high alert in north India, a three judge panel of High Court in the Northern Province of Utter Pradesh rendered its verdict on the intractable issue of Babri Masjid (Mosque). This issue has been festering since before the birth of the Indian Republic in,1947 and has claimed thousands of innocent lives in reoccurring riots.

The angst-ridden judgment is unsatisfactory to all parties, but it is a relief nevertheless. The court divided the land of the demolished Babri Masjid in the town of Ayodhya in three equal parts. A third to be given to the extremist Hindus who demolished the Masjid, claiming that very spot to be the birth place of the deity Lord Ram; a third to the Hindu sect that had set up a temple in the vicinity and a third to the Muslims who owned the demolished Masjid.

The court is clear in its verdict, but nebulous in its dubious reasoning. That is its weakness, but it may be its strength as well. It can be seen as a reverse Solomon-like judgment, or a cowardly cop out –” part of a loaf for all sides or defeat for all. Perhaps both are correct.

If one believes in the pristine ideal of justice being blind to all except the evidence, the judgment is terrible. But if one calculates the cost of the thousands of innocent lives already lost over the years that never got justice and is also aware of the possibility of many more lives being lost in the ensuing mayhem, one has to think, justice for whom?

Babri Masjid was built about the year 1528, after the first Mughal Emperor Babar conquered the north Indian plains. After three hundred years, in 1853 it was claimed to be the birth place of Lord Ram. About a hundred years later, in 1949 idols of Lord Ram were stealthily placed in the sanctuary of the Babri Masjid. Claims and counter claims were filed in the court. The courts have been loath to decide this intractable case, loaded with emotions and ever lurking danger of wide-spread sectarian strife. It has plagued the body politic of India for the last sixty years, resulting in many riots.

On December 6, 1992, orchestrated by the extremist Hindu political party BJP, a mob tore down the Babri Masjid brick by brick in about six long hours, while the government fidgeted impotently. In spite of being threatened, the press televised parts of the event all over the world. In the immediate aftermath, riots broke out at many places, the worst being in Mumbai. It claimed the lives of over 2,000 innocent people mostly from the minority Muslim community. The BJP succeeded in poisoning the minds of enough people to form a minority government in the next general election. After more than a decade of many more engineered riots, the Indian electorate had had enough and the secular parties came back to power.

The judges were under pressure to dispose off this intractable cancer. They took a bold step to reach a verdict, albeit flawed.

On purely legal grounds the judgment should have been easy. It is beyond the jurisdiction of a secular court to decide the divinity of Lord Ram or the impossible task of determining the exact spot of his birth more than three thousand years ago. After fifty years of evasion the court took it upon itself to determine if there existed an older temple devoted to Lord Ram before the Babri Masjid was built. The Archaeological Survey of India found no positive evidence. The evidence was unclear to put it mildly.

But the image of the deity Lord Ram is very real in the hearts, minds and lives of millions of devout Hindus, an overwhelming majority in India. Religion is a very potent force, easily exploited. Ordinary decent Hindus do not realize, they have been manipulated, just as other religious communities fall victim to exploitation of their religions. Therefore, it was the political conundrum, an impossible task before the court to adjudicate.

India is a young secular democracy, with more rights for its minorities than many other countries. It is far from perfect. Even older more established democracies fall prey to emotional propaganda in difficult times of economic or political uncertainty. India has a long way to go and most thoughtful Indians from all communities know it.

They know that narrow views of history cast long shadows in many countries and societies, inciting violence and impeding development of civil societies. No place on Earth is occupied by its original inhabitants. Invasion and occupation by successive invaders has been the norm. It has given rise to contested histories by ethnic and religious groups that adhere to a subjective narrative of the beginning of the history to their advantage. India has a long very rich history of rise and fall of great civilizations and empires, going back to about 3,000 BCE. The early narratives of history rest on a plinth that is part myths and legends with sparse records.

In the last two hundred years, the world has come to realize that the domination of the weak by the strong is the root of all wars. The development of multi-ethnic, multi religious democracies is an antidote to an endemic cycle of wars. They have not quite succeeded yet, but they are poised to break that endemic cycle in favor of equality and guaranteed rights to all the inhabitants of a country under a secular constitution.

One hopes that this perceived flawed judgment of the court would lay the deadly conundrum of Babri Masjid to rest. It will give a breathing space and a chance to thoughtful Indians to build a better and more harmonious future and not fall prey to sectarian forces lurking in the shadows of our baser nature.

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