On 24 November, Mohammed Umar turned 20.
He was a 12-day-old baby when right-wing Hindu activists owing allegiance to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other organizations demolished the Babri Masjid mosque, built by a general of Mughal emperor Babur in the 1500s on a site regarded as the birthplace of Hindu god Ram and where, according to subsequent studies by the Archaeological Survey of India, some debris of a temple used to build the mosque was found.
Umar, preparing to enrol in law school, has heard the horror stories of the riots that followed, but wants to move on. “I want a hospital or a park to be built at the disputed site,” says the slightly built man who studied in a school run by Christian missionaries. That won’t be easy, he admits in the same breath, because there are others who are passionate about such things and who want the mosque rebuilt. He describes them variously—as illiterate, jobless and affiliated with political groups. They don’t know about Umar’s opinion, though. They won’t agree with it anyway, he says. And they may target him.
Umar is in the minority. Few Muslims are willing to forget the mosque. Just as few Hindus are willing to give up their demand for a temple despite the rise of identity politics based on religion that the Ram Janmabhoomi issue exemplified having run its course. A verdict of the Allahabad high court that divided the disputed site between Hindu groups (that get two-thirds) and Muslims (who get the rest) has only complicated matters, and an appeal (by all parties to the case) is pending before the country’s top court.
Ashwini Dubey was born in 1992, too, and now runs a tea stall near what the Hindus term Ram Janmabhoomi (the birthplace of Ram). “Nothing can be built there except the Ram temple. That place belongs to Lord Ram and we will not accept any mosque to be built even alongside,” he says.
Rise of the right
The demolition of the mosque, on 6 December 1992, marked, in some ways, the climax of the identity politics that characterized the late 1980s and the first half of the 1990s in India.
The dispute about the mosque isn’t new. In 1949, idols of Ram were placed in the mosque, and both Hindu and Muslim groups filed lawsuits. New Delhi said the site was disputed and ordered the mosque sealed. In 1984, the VHP and the BJP began the Ram Janmabhoomi stir. BJP leader L.K. Advani was at the forefront of the movement. In 1986, when New Delhi was ruled by the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government that wasn’t opposed to the move, an Uttar Pradesh court ordered that Hindus be allowed to pray at the site.
Ironically, the Congress, which has always positioned itself as a political party for everyone, was the first to flirt with the issue, but was unable to go the full distance. It was the BJP that was able to exploit it to the fullest. The party defined its emergence around the use of religion as an identity and accused its critics of being “pseudo-secularists” or downright anti-Hindu. The strategy of polarization worked and eventually piloted the party into power at the Centre in a coalition and a powerful alternative to the Congress at the state level in Uttar Pradesh.
Before December 1992, the BJP had never formed a government at the Centre. Since then, it has formed governments, either on its own or as part of a coalition, twice at the Centre (1998 and 1999) and several times across states.
A year after the mosque was demolished, the BJP won the elections to the Delhi assembly in 1993, and followed up with victories in Gujarat and Maharashtra. And its finest hour was to come when Atal Bihari Vajpayee, its most accomplished leader, formed the government at the Centre in 1998 and then, more enduringly (it lasted a full five-year term) in 1999—the first time an alternative to the Congress actually succeeded in surviving its full tenure.
The court-appointed chief priest of the disputed site maintains that in the late 1990s, the BJP gained a major electoral advantage by espousing the cause of the Ram temple. “Then, it abandoned the people and reneged on its promise. People have lost their faith in the party and denounced it,” says Satyendra Das, who sports a long beard and a dash of vermillion on his forehead.
Devotees are upset, he adds, and “will never vote for the BJP in the name of Ram”.
Indeed, the BJP has struggled to find a similar theme that can unify the party, encourage its supporters, and capture the minds of voters.
Meanwhile, India has moved on.
The economy is no longer defined by agriculture.
The changes rung in by the Congress government in 1991, and which started nearly a decade earlier with minor but significant moves towards liberalization, has transformed the country. India was a $293.26 billion economy in 1992-93; it became a $1 trillion economy in 2010; and its current size is estimated at $1.8 trillion. The demographic profile of the country has continued to change in the two decades since the demolition, too, with around 60% of its 1.2 billion population estimated to be below the age of 35.
These changes are evident, albeit to a lesser extent, in Ayodhya and its twin city Faizabad that have both transformed more gradually. With more young people, the cities are more focused on and have begun to respond to their dominant need: education and livelihood.
Faizabad has two universities, the Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Avadh University and the Narendra Deva University of Agriculture and Technology. It is also home to Kamta Prasad Sundar Lal Saket Post-Graduate Degree College, one of the largest postgraduate colleges in eastern Uttar Pradesh. And it has countless schools. According to Census 2011, Faizabad’s literacy rate is 70.63%, close to the national average of 74.04%.
Yet, there are sufficient reminders that Ayodhya is more than just a city located on the banks of river Sarayu. Its narrow roads continue to be barricaded, and policemen are everywhere. Then there are the closed-circuit television cameras that keep an eagle eye on the goings on.
Suryakant Pandey, managing director of Ashfaqullah Khan Memorial Shaheed Sodha Sansthan, a local not-for-profit organization, says much has changed in 20 years. “People want to focus on their livelihoods. No one can mobilize either Hindus or Muslims on the issue of Ram Mandir and Babri Masjid any more. The time for the RSS (the BJP’s spiritual progenitor, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) and the VHP is over now. If someone has to again create a rift, they have to bring new issues and slogans,” he says.
But things could turn ugly. Young people are educated, but jobs are almost non-existent, much like they are in the rest of the country. Unemployed youth are highly susceptible and potential cadres for extremist groups, especially since most of them, like Umar and Dubey, have grown up hearing tales of alleged atrocities against their respective communities.
And the quiet in Ayodhya hides the underlying tensions, says Krishan Pratap Singh, a Faizabad-based political analyst and writer. “The mandir-masjid issue was forced on the local people by outsiders with vested interests. It vitiated the atmosphere forever. Today, Hindus and Muslims are not gunning each other, but the situation is more like a cold war. From outside, it may seem everything is alright, but if the masks are to be removed, there’s the bitter reality of hatred and mistrust,” says Singh, who lives in a borough where there are nearly no Muslims. Across the twin cities, Muslims “have accepted that they have to live under the shadow of Hindus”, he adds.
The new reality
Old passions may have died, although the half-way house solution proffered by the Allahabad high court has revived some of it. Several fringe groups are searching for a political foothold, and there is a gradual polarization under way—unlike what happened in the late 1980s, when the BJP and its cohorts consciously whipped up communal passions.
Middle-class Hindus have always steered clear of the dispute, says a local lecturer, but the court’s verdict, that only a part of the land belongs to Ram, has made even such people demand a temple on that land. “Overall it resulted into further isolation of Muslims and communalized those Hindus that never supported the agenda,” says Anil Kumar Singh.
As for moderate Muslims, “the judgement has left them more disappointed than the demolition of mosque”, he adds. Abdul Hafeez, 78, a local resident who has been running a school in Faizabad since 1952, says both Hindus and Muslims are unhappy with the court’s decision. “A Muslim cannot forget his masjid. His religion teaches him that. He will never say that ‘whatever happened has happened and let’s move on and make a temple or hospital there’. Even if its walls are demolished, the land remains a mosque,” he says.
Given this, it isn’t surprising that some fringe groups succeeded in stirring up passions.
In September, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a section of Hindus in Mirzapur village wanted to build a temple adjacent to an existing mosque. When Muslims protested, tensions ran high. Fearing a backlash, many Hindu families withdrew their wards from a school run by a Muslim. The policeman in charge, Ajay Prakash Mishra, blames “outsiders” from both communities for stoking communal sentiments through hate speeches.
Around the same time, idols from an ancient Devkaali temple in Faizabad, where Ram is believed to have been taken soon after his birth, went missing. Local residents say a BJP leader from nearby Gorkahpur delivered a fiery hate speech soon after. Eventually the idols were recovered.
The idols were recovered by the police a month later from an international gang of idol smugglers.
On 24 October, a few days after the idols were recovered, clashes erupted in several places in Faizabad, and several shops, including those owned by Hindus, a mosque and the office of a local Urdu newspaper were either set on fire or vandalized.
“On the night of 26 October, for the first time I got really scared in my life. Miscreants armed with petrol bottles, sticks and other things seized the Muslim-dominated blocks from outside. All the exit routes were cut off. I thought it was the end and Faizabad would be reduced to ashes. The situation was even worse than during the Babri Masjid demolition,” says Khaliq Ahmed Khan, a local resident.
Krishan Pratap Singh maintains these were planned attacks. Except the Faizabad district magistrate, who has since been transferred, everyone knew that there would be riots, he says. “There is a public perception that riots are a run-up to the 2014 general election. The BJP, the Samajwadi Party (SP, which rules Uttar Pradesh) both need riots. The BJP is creating rift between Yadavs and the Muslim community,” he adds.
A senior police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says cases have been filed against people from the Yadav community who, along with the Muslim community, usually vote for the SP. Other complaints name Muslims.
“It was an attempt to pit Yadavs against Muslims so that the BJP can benefit before the 2014 general election. Lallu Singh, who was legislator for over 20 years in Ayodhya from the BJP, lost the election in 2012 and is trying to polarize the voters. He has even put up billboards in the state with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi on one side and himself on the other,” says local SP member of the legislative assembly Pawan Pandey.
Lallu Singh denies the charges and terms Pandey an amateur politician. “It is their government; why don’t they collect evidence against me if I am involved? The riots were due to the administration’s lethargy and lapses,” he says.
It is apparent that 20 years after the cataclysmic events of 6 December, once again tensions between Hindus and Muslims are on the rise. Unlike last time, though, it does not appear to be inspired by the BJP.
Identity politics based on religion may have run its course, but fresh fault lines are visible.