In 1989, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) adopted a resolution which called for the construction of a temple at Ayodhya at the spot where the sacred idols of Ram Lalla were placed.
This move came in response to the transformation of a potentially local matter into a national issue by Islamist fundamentalist organizations, which called for a Republic Day boycott.
The ruling party, the Congress, rather than coming down on the Islamists, aimed to appease the fundamentalist elements within the Muslim community.
In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi started the Congress' Lok Sabha campaign from Ayodhya as a symbolic gesture of passive appeasement toward Hindus, referencing Ram Rajya in a speech purported to be written by Mani Shankar Aiyer. The Nehruvian approach aimed to make symbolic gestures to Hindus while actively promoting political Islamism through its version of secularism.
In line with this, historians associated with the Congress establishment released a pamphlet titled 'The Political Abuse of History'. Subsequently, the pamphlet was featured multiple times in the January-February 1990 edition of Social Scientist magazine and various prominent English publications.
Endorsed by a notable group of 25 historians, this concise pamphlet, spanning fewer than ten pages, became the go-to reference for the English elite media and for Islamic fundamentalists when it came to the Ayodhya issue.
One of the prime claims of the pamphlet was that there was no archaeological proof that the present-day Ayodhya was Valmiki’s Ayodhya. Instead, it was shown as a Buddhist site. According to the pamphlet, a Gupta king in fifth century CE renamed Saket as Ayodhya. It acknowledged, with reluctance, the existence of local legends mentioning Vikramaditya rediscovering the lost Ayodhya, but dismissed it as an attempt to attribute religious sanctity to a city lacking it.
If present day Ayodhya was known as Saketa before the fifth century, then the Ayodhya of Valmiki's Ramayana was fictional. If so, the identification of Rama janmabhumi in Ayodhya today becomes a matter of faith, not of history.
Adding another jab at Hindus, the historians asserted that unlike that of Rama, the birthplace of Buddha was historical. Even two centuries after Buddha, Ashoka managed to place a stone inscription there. Despite its name being Ayodhya, it was primarily associated with Buddhism and Jainism. Moreover, they claimed that 'the cult of Rama seems to have become popular [only] from the thirteenth century.'
The historians claimed there was no archaeological evidence to suggest the existence of any temple at the site of the Babri structure. In summary, the historians assured Islamists that the Hindus lacked a case at Ayodhya.
Islamist fundamentalists were so convinced that Syed Shahabuddin, a fundamentalist politician and intellectual, openly declared in his magazine Muslim India that if it was proven the Babri structure was built by forcefully destroying a standing temple, he would personally demolish it. It's important to note that this wasn't a case of innocent Islamists being misled by Marxists. While innocent Muslims may have been duped, the Islamists were not.
In a well-coordinated and symbiotic campaign, leftist and Islamist radical organizations translated the pamphlet into almost all regional languages, spreading it across the nation. The bottom line was – the Hindus have no case in Ayodhya.
However, the JNU historians did not anticipate the Sangh Parivar organizations responding to their propaganda with empirical evidence. In fact, they hadn't anticipated the Hindu side being able to respond at all.
But truth has its own ways of coming out.
Maybe in their conceit, but the JNU historians had effectively committed themselves to an empirically verifiable statement—that there was no archaeological evidence for a temple.
In this stance, they had relied on the report of B.B. Lal, who had carried out archaeological excavations at Ayodhya and had claimed, based on his report, that there was no human inhabitation at the place during the time Valmiki claimed the events of Ramayana happened. But the very same report of Prof. Lal had also claimed archaeological proof for the existence of a temple beneath the Babri structure.
Gradually, the Left's claims of academic supremacy and the derogatory portrayal of Ram devotees in the English media began to lose credibility. The sophisticated leftist historian appeared disingenuous, while the seemingly unsophisticated Rama devotees from the Hindi heartland had scholars and archaeologists supporting their claims with empirical and scientifically rigorous archaeology.
Hindu unity: a pipe dream?
Meanwhile, the December of 1989 saw the defeat of Rajiv Gandhi's government and the swearing-in of V.P.Singh. His was a minority government supported by 85 members of Parliament of the BJP and 42 MPs of CPI(M). From merely two MPs in 1984 the BJP had gone to 85. But it had not yet taken up Ayodhya and made it the centre of its politics.
With Kashmir descending into Islamism and the Ayodhya issue gathering steam, VP Singh realised that he would not able to please everybody all the time. He wanted to go down with guns blazing. He came up with the implementation of the Mandal Commission.
Increasing Hindu consolidation was the backbone of the BJP. If one was to show the BJP, Hindu consolidation had to be prevented. What would be a better way to break Hindu consolidation than caste?
When V.P.Singh announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, no party could oppose it in principle. The Mandal issue started agitating the Hindu society. The community seemed to split into caste-based voting blocs.
Against the visuals of upper caste youths setting themselves ablaze in the streets, Hindu unity looked like a dream.
The yatra of unity
The BJP supported the Mandal Commission. At the same time, it demanded that the a temple be built at the Rama janmabhoomi in Ayodhya. On September 12, 1990, Lal Krishna Advani declared his intention to commence a 'Rath Yatra' from Somnath, a historical site where the temple was reconstructed after Indian Independence, culminating the yatra in Ayodhya.
A 63-year-old Advani started the Rath Yatra on 25 September, 1990 from Somnath, on the 74th birth anniversary of Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya.
It was easy to construct a binary of Mandal versus Kamandal but looking back, Advani's Rath Yatra played a role in steering Hindu society beyond the Mandal Commission. Despite the implementation of reservations, it didn't fragment Hindu society as feared. Instead, it broadened the socio-economic foundation for Hindu political unity, marking the assimilation of Mandal into the fabric of Hindutva politics over time.
This is the third piece in the 'Ayodhya 2024' series that Aravindan Neelakandan is writing in the build-up to the inauguration of the Shri Rama Janmabhoomi temple. We will be publishing one article every week. You can read rest of the pieces in the series here.
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