The elections in Gujarat, won for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by Narendra Modi, the architect of the anti-Muslim pogroms in the state last year, overshadowed the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. Soon Modi’s triumph may be seen as a major turning-point in India’s history, one that may well carry Modi to power in New Delhi in place of the ‘moderate’ Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Nonetheless, the Babri mosque continues to have a central role in Indian political affairs.
The destruction of the Babri mosque on December 6, 1992, was the culmination of a political movement that was central to the rise of Hindu fascism to political power in India. Although the claims that Ayodhya was the birthplace of Ram, and that the Babri mosque had replaced a temple marking his birthplace, date back to the nineteenth century, and the mosque had been closed in 1949, the issue assumed political significance only in the 1980s. It was then that a Hindu fundamentalist movement known as the Sangh Parivar — incorporating, among others, the Rashtriya Swamasevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindi Parishad (VHP) and their political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — demanded the establishment of a Hindu state organized around the ‘sacred’ site at Ayodhya. Within years a Hindutva movement had emerged demanding the destruction of the Babri mosque and the construction of a temple in its place. The mosque’s eventual destruction, despite its supposedly being under the protection of the courts and the Congress government of the time, was accompanied by several rounds of anti-Muslim bloodshed, in which more than a thousand Muslims were killed in a few weeks.
Many of those involved in the destruction of the mosque were associated with the BJP, which rose to prominence on the back of the Babri issue, becoming India’s ruling party in 1998. Several senior BJP members, most notably deputy prime minister L. K. Advani, are technically charged with involvement in the criminal destruction of the mosque, although there is little prospect of their ever being tried. Modi’s hopes of rising to power by attacking Indian Muslims are hardly original.
A decade after the destruction of the Babri mosque, it remains a central plank in the rise of Hindutva. Since 1992 India’s courts have refused to permit a temple to be built there, despite pressure from the Sangh Parivar. The failure of the Vajpayee government to force this issue has been a major complaint against it. Nonetheless, the Sangh Parivar’s preparations for a temple are well advanced, with pillars and other elements already built in various places, ready for transportation to Ayodhya. After the success of their anti-Muslim campaign in Gujarat, and the consolidation of Modi’s position, the construction of the temple is expected to be one of the Sangh Parivar’s most emphatic demands. Their call for the destruction of the Babri mosque was widely regarded as empty rhetoric until it was realised a decade ago; it would be a serious mistake now to underestimate their determination to erect a Ram temple.
The significance of the issue is not restricted only to the site of the mosque. The fortunes of India’s Muslims are closely tied to it, as events have shown. Whenever the Hindutva movement has chosen to assert itself Muslim blood has been spilt, and the rewards the BJP has received in Gujarat for its strategy there bode ill for Muslims elsewhere in India. The great problems for India’s Muslims are, firstly, that the main opposition party in India, the Congress, itself has a record of appealing to Hindu national sentiment, despite its secular and liberal pretensions, and has no record whatsoever of standing up for the rights of minorities; and, secondly, that the Muslim community has little leadership or institutional infrastructure through which to assert or protect its own interests. Most Muslim leaders have been more interested in their own careers, and the rewards of office, than in serving the community.
Ordinary Muslims have learnt that they must look out for themselves because they can expect nothing from any official institution or political party. To date this has been mostly restricted to reactions such as helping those affected by the Gujarat pogroms. What is now required is for such efforts to be expanded into positive political and social activism. India’s Muslims are learning the hard way that no one else in India, in the rest of the Muslim world, or in the so-called international community, will look after them.