In early 1991, Rajiv Gandhi withdrew outside support to the minority Chandra Shekhar government ostensibly because the latter had snooped on Gandhi.
But the buzz in the capital was that Gandhi actually withdrew his party’s support to thwart a settlement of the Ayodhya dispute; the reason being that if the Muslims handed over the site to the Hindus, Chandra Shekhar’s stock among the Muslim electorate would have soared at the Congress’ cost.
This story, now an urban legend, has never been formally corroborated; historian Roderick Matthews has, however, covered it in his biography of late prime minister Chandra Shekhar, as has Sharad Pawar, in his memoirs.
But others say that even if there was a plan, it wouldn’t have succeeded because the Muslim leadership of the day were quite firmly sold on the word of Marxist historians, who confected an elaborate, academically impressive case which ‘proved’ that any talk of the mosque having been built over a temple was pure humbug.
Today, the point is moot, because there now exists copious archaeological evidence which shows that there was indeed a temple predating the mosque at the Ayodhya site (more than one, in fact, and parts of which, including a key inscription, formed part of the mosque’s building material).
Further, the credibility of those Marxist ‘historians’, who submitted testimony in the Allahabad High Court earlier this century, was ground to dust in court itself.
But very few know how the original lie was constructed, how convincing it appeared to that generation, or what form it took. We need to know, since it was this faux thesis which blinded one side to reason, forced it to harden its stance because it now thought it had a chance, and pushed our land into the hell of communal violence.
The lie is a book: ‘Anatomy of a confrontation’, published in 1991, edited by Sarvepalli Gopal, containing essays on the subject by leading academic luminaries of the day. And at the time, it was the only work of its kind, which compiled and studied historical information in a seemingly scholarly manner. Or so we thought; we, the gullible and the guileless who, sans a similarly compendious work stating the opposite, had no real reason to contest the book’s claims.
That was how ignorant we were back then, and how rigidly-controlled the flow of information. So much so, that the average informed Indian adult did not know of archaeological excavations conducted in the 1970s at the site, which had clearly revealed parts of an ancient temple underneath.
The thrust of this work was manifold:
First, to advance a view that the mosque was not built by demolishing a temple.
Second, that the Ayodhya of the Ramayana could not be conclusively geolocated as the Ayodhya of today.
Third, that there were other sites which lay claim to having been the birth place of Shri Rama.
Fourth, that the issue was an invention of the British Raj in the latter half of the 19th century, devised to divide and rule.
Fifth, importantly, that the arguments on the Hindu side were obscurantist efforts without historical basis, which aimed only to justify aggressive fundamentalism.
And finally, sixth, that whether a temple had existed there or not was irrelevant, since India could neither revert to a medieval approach of destroying places of worship, nor ask the courts to pass judgment on the matter.
To this end, K N Panikkar, then Professor of Cultural and Intellectual History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, declaimed that since the Ramayana was a poem, “much of it could have been fictional, including places, characters and events”.
His audacity is stunning and galling in equal measure; to think that he could unilaterally (and arbitrarily, since he offered no proof for this thesis) declare a god as a work of fiction. Would he have dared state thus about the gods of other faiths?
Panikkar probably didn’t care too much for Hindu sentiments, since he concludes that whether the birth of Rama at Ayodhya is a matter of faith or a question of fact, “The known history of Ayodhya does not indicate that what is claimed as the Janmasthan was in fact the birthplace of Rama or that a temple existed at the site of the Babri Mosque.”
A G Noorani, a leading lawyer of the day, composed a lengthy legalistic piece on why status quo needed to be maintained, but he gave it away in the end with a compromise solution whereby, “instead of relinquishing the mosque to the Hindus, the Muslims as a community should give it to the nation at large under the law of the land as a historic monument worthy of national protection.”
So, in effect, if the Muslims couldn’t have it, then the Hindus shouldn’t have it either. If that is a compelling legal argument, then Sunil Gavaskar is Lithuanian.
Mushirul Hasan, then Professor of History at the Jamia MiIlia Islamia, New Delhi, took a lofty, postmodernist, metaphysical approach to conclude that the actual location of Rama’s birthplace, or the question of whether a temple had existed there earlier, were both of only “academic interest”.
Rather, he felt that competing symbols which caused friction ought to be blended into a harmonious whole through “shared memories and common historical experiences” to create social bonds of unity, consensus, and accommodation.
How would people react if Hasan extended his thesis and said that the spiritual value of Bethlehem, Mecca, or Karbala was only of ‘academic interest’, or that competing symbols could be bonded in peace and harmony? The entire history of the Crusades, and indeed the entire history of the world, would have to be rewritten.
Believe it or not, this is the sort of drivel which passed for intellectual moralising with no solution to offer.
Romila Thapar, then Professor of Ancient History at JNU, was supposed to provide the volume’s intellectual heft and stamp of high authority.
Oddly, though, she instead chose to set her argument in dialectical terms, using the historical evolution of the story of Rama to characterise the Ram Janmabhoomi movement as ‘Syndicated Hinduism’ (oh the labels they come up with!), designed to generate a class struggle using a new metaphor which promises social upliftment.
The reasoning, if we can call it that, is laboriously contorted, but in the process, Thapar has a go at Swami Tulsidas in the backdrop of our medieval Bhakti movement, to bring in the ‘Brahminical supremacy’ angle.
Tulsi, she says, and this is a direct quote, “as a Brahmin was doubtless disturbed by many of the current religious movements within the fold of what is today called Hinduism, which denied the authority of the Brahmins and the texts which they respected, which propagated alternative religious ideologies and attracted large audiences of non-Brahmins.”
No historical evidence is provided by Thapar for her ‘doubtlessness’ of Tulsidas’s purported casteist intent in composing the Ramcharitamanas, but then, those were the days; those heady days, when JNU’s word was law. Perhaps, for a Marxist, anyone being Brahmin was sinister intent enough, thereby meriting no further proof or rigorous argumentation.
From then, to now, is the difference between darkness and light, as a subcontinent prepares for the return of their king, to the place of his birth, into a grand temple worthy of him.
But that sad part is that it was ostensibly-academic publications like these, ironically authored by atheist Marxists, which led to the loss of both Hindu and Muslim life through needless communal violence. That, is an unforgiveable sin.
And yet, since this is the land of dharma, we may even forgive, but we must never forget, that this entirely-avoidable Hindu-Muslim confrontation was manufactured by specious Marxist untruths, which ‘secular’ political parties used for their electoral gain.
And it is this knowledge which will, in time, inevitably reduce secularism to a matter of ‘academic interest’.
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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