Special Feature

Religion And Politics In India: A Comment

Volume 17, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/07/2020
Religion And Politics In India: A Comment Apocalypse by inSOLense.

Karim Hirji comments on `Babri Masjid: A Case of Criminal Trespass’ (Awaaz Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 3) by Nandita Haksar

By Karim Hirji

The Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India was built five hundred years ago under the first Moghul emperor, Babur. What, if any, structure had stood at the site? Was it a Hindu temple? A year-2003 report by the Archeological Survey of India supports the case that the site was home to an ancient temple. Other archeologists dispute this finding. Yet, these are not just academic questions: they lie at the heart of Hindu-Muslim relations in India today.

After a Hindu extremist mob illegally demolished the mosque in 1992, the issue landed in the courts. The long legal battle culminated in November 2019, when the Indian Supreme Court issued a ruling reserving the entire site for a Hindu temple. In effect, the Court endorsed the claim of an ancient Hindu temple existing at the site. Was it a just ruling, based on evidence and constitutional law? Or was it a politically driven, lop-sided decision?

In an article entitled `Babri Masjid: A Case of Criminal Trespass’ (Awaaz Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 3) Nandita Haksar presents a strong case that the Supreme Court verdict set aside available evidence and repudiated its constitutional mandate - in a secular, democratic nation - to render judgments not influenced by religious or political considerations. The ensuing miscarriage of justice does not, in her view, bode well for interreligious harmony in India and the region.

The Babri Mosque has been a flashpoint for ignition of serious conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India and its neighboring states for two centuries. Haksar is appropriately cognizant of its social import. However, her article focuses unduly on legalistic analysis, does not attend to the fundamental function of law and courts in society, gives a circumscribed overview of the socio-historic context, and projects the dubious view that a single event or ruling can determine the course of regional and national history. While granting that India did make significant progress towards realizing democratic norms and practices, viewing the issue simply in the framework of the `world’s greatest democracy’, obscures the play of relevant structural factors. The Supreme Court ruling together with the recent trends in Hindu-Muslim relations in India cannot be understood without addressing these points.

A Synopsis of Hindu-Muslim Relations in India

A small Muslim presence had existed in India since the 600s. Six centuries later, a large scale Islamic influx ensued. As Muslim armies gained territory, several Islamic sultanates were established. The Delhi Sultanate, which began in 1206, was the most powerful one. Islamic rule stimulated greater conversion to Islam. Non-Muslims in these states paid a special tax and did not have the same rights as Muslims. Some Hindu temples were also damaged or destroyed.

Starting from 1526 and lasting until 1720, the Moghul Empire displaced existing kingdoms and sultanates and came to cover most of India. The initial Moghul rulers, especially Akber, though, displayed a remarkable level of tolerance towards Hindus, Christians and other faiths. Akber supported constructions of Hindu temples and had an advisory council composed of scholars from several faiths besides Islam. The tax on non-Muslims was abolished. But, the last Moghul emperor of note, Aurengzeb, reversed these policies. Under his rule, several temples were turned to dust.

Overall, the Mughal era was an era of relative peace, extensive economic and technological development and a flourishing culture. India evolved into the dominant player in the world economy, an export powerhouse accounting for about a quarter of the global manufacturing output. A significant degree of interplay and integration between Hindu and Muslim cultures also occurred during this period.

Starting in 1600, incursions by the British India Company led to a gradual decline of Moghul rule. By playing off one raja or sultan against another raja or sultan, and employing savage tactics, the Company eventually prevailed over the entire Indian sub-continent. Harsh taxes and fees were imposed on farmers, landowners, traders, and craftsmen. No religious group was spared. Company officials looted the coffers of local princes, sultans and wealthy merchants without compunction. Its thuggish rule culminated in the uprising of 1857 in which Hindus and Muslims joined hands to evict the Company. A couple of hundred colonists and their families were killed. In retaliation, the British instituted a barbarous onslaught of mayhem and murder that tortured and killed thousands.

Company rule was abolished and direct rule was instituted in 1858. The British set up provincial and national legislative bodies that coopted the local elite - Hindu and Muslim - into the colonial system. But these bodies had no real power. The final decision always lay with the British Governor. From the early days, the colonizers displayed a keen awareness of the power of unity between Hindus and Muslims. The policy of divide and rule took shape. A separate voting register was established for the Muslims, who formed their own political party, the Muslim League. Several incidents of violent strife between Hindus and Muslims occurred. Yet, on the whole, extensive solidarity between Hindu and Muslims persisted at the grassroots level. Key Muslim leaders worked with or within the Indian National Congress. But under the influence of Agakhan III, Mohamed Iqbal and later on, Mohamed Jinnah, the calls for the formation of a separate Muslim nation grew louder.

On the contested issue of the Babri Mosque, in 1936, the colonial courts handed over control of the place and adjacent areas to a Sunni Muslim board. Shia Muslims disputed the decision. In 1946, a judge ruled in favour of the Sunni board.

In 1940s, the Congress launched a nationwide Quit India movement and refused to cooperate with the British effort during World War II. Many leaders were rounded up and placed behind bars. But the Muslim League, which extended its support to the colonizers, was spared and its leaders were free to launch political campaigns. For the first time, the League was able to gain a majority among the Muslim voters. The trend towards establishing a separate Muslim nation became irreversible.

The partition of colonial India into two independent nations, India and Pakistan, in 1947 was accompanied by a callous orgy of violence involving Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. About a million and a half were butchered in cold blood, over ten million were displaced, tens of thousands of women were raped, infants were burnt to death and much property was destroyed. The atrocities were committed by all the sides.

In 1949, a few Hindu zealots illegally entered the Babri Mosque and placed idols and images of Ram, a Hindu god, in the interior. But they held that these things had appeared spontaneously, by a miracle. To avoid more strife, the government locked the gates to the building. Both Hindus and Muslims were denied access. And both groups subsequently filed court cases for the right to offer prayers and control the site. A series of small scale street level confrontations also occurred.

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