By making a big point of dubious archaeological evidence, especially the claim that Lord Ram was born exactly at that spot where the Babri mosque had stood since 1528, Justice Sharma has made concessions to Hindu fundamentalism. A superior court of a secular democracy is not expected to base its ruling on controversial historical evidence and mythology
The non-conformist Punjabi Sufi, Bulleh Shah, wrote a couplet that captures the irony and tragedy inherent in the masjid-mandir controversy at Ayodhya. He wrote:
“Dha day masjid, dha day mandir Dha day jo kujh dhainda ee Par kissay da dil na dhawee(n) Rab dilaa(n) wich rainda ee” (Tear down the mosque, tear down the temple Tear down everything in sight, But do not (tear down) break anyone’s heart Because God lives there).
It seems Bulleh Shah’s distinction between dogma and spirituality was rather idealistic: destroying sacred places and breaking the hearts of followers has been part of politics and, unfortunately, remains so in contemporary South Asia. Long before Muslim invaders began to attack Hindu temples, the common practice in India was that when a Hindu prince challenged a raja and defeated him, he plundered his royal temple where the wealth of the vanquished raja was kept. That temple was destroyed and a new one built instead to mark the personal glory of the victorious prince who became the new raja. He then kept his gold, silver and precious stones in it along with his favourite deity. That temple became the exclusive preserve of the royal family until the raja was defeated by another challenger. And so, the story of the victor and the vanquished continued.
I would not be surprised if Mahmud Ghaznavi had heard about this. He might have used the Islamic call for jihad to embellish his 17 raids on India with higher inspiration, but in practice he did what was the prevalent custom in India. Now, the problem is that destroying the places of worship of rival groups has been part of the story of conquest all over the world, and that includes the story of the Aryan tribes as well who entered the subcontinent some 3,500-5,000 years ago. They defeated the adivasis (indigenous people) and must have destroyed the sacred places and temples of those defeated groups. Then, of course, there was the transformation of India into a Buddhist society under Ashoka, only to be followed by a Hindu revival that wiped out all traces of Buddhism from India. The Buddhist temples must have disappeared as a result.
Elsewhere in the world, it was not very different. Christians destroyed the holy places of pagans all over Europe and then again in Latin and North America. The conquering Arabs converted Catholic churches in Spain into mosques but after they were expelled in the late 15th century, the mosques were reconverted into churches. When the Protestants defeated the Catholics in Ireland, they desecrated Catholic churches by keeping their horses inside the churches. Ranjit Singh defeated the Afghan and Mughal rulers of the Punjab and the Sikh armies used the Lahore Badshahi mosque as a stable for their horses. Earlier, the Mughals had executed several gurus of the Sikhs and so Ranjit Singh was taking revenge. It seems that it was an accepted practice or norm of the earlier period that victors desecrated the holy places of the defeated groups.
There is, of course, contrary evidence as well, especially in South Asia. The Hindus adopted some of the pre-Aryan deities and included them in their religion. The Arab conquerors of Sindh bent the rules about dhimmis (protected minorities) to include Hindus among the worshippers of the true God. When their Hindu subjects wanted to repair their temples and practise their faith freely, the Arab general Muhammad bin Qasim sought advice from Hajjaj bin Yusuf, the powerful viceroy of the eastern provinces of the Umayyad caliphate. Hajjaj consulted the ulema and jurists at Damascus, the capital of the Umayyads. Hajjaj wrote back:
“It appears that the chief inhabitants of Brahmanabad had petitioned to be allowed to repair the temple of Budh and pursue their religion. As they have made submission, and have agreed to pay taxes to the khalifa, nothing more can properly be required of them. They have been taken under our protection, and we cannot in any way stretch our hands upon their lives and property. Permission is given to them to worship their gods. Nobody must be forbidden and prevented from following his own religion” (SM Ikram, Muslim Civilisation in India).
Even Mahmud Ghaznavi had Hindus in his army and administration. The Mughal state employed Rajputs in the army and brahmins, khatris and baniyas in the administration. Even Aurangzeb conformed to such practices notwithstanding his religious zeal. Guru Arjan was granted land by Akbar and a Muslim Sufi, Mian Meer, took part in the founding ceremony of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. After Ranjit Singh became the ruler of Punjab, he patronised all the religious communities and Muslims served as ministers and were given command positions in the Sikh army. In contemporary India, Hindus continue to throng to Muslim shrines notwithstanding all the bad things Hindu fundamentalists say about Islam and Muslims.
In the light of this mixed evidence, it is counterproductive to confer legitimacy on the politics of revenge in the 21st century. By making a big point of dubious archaeological evidence, especially the claim that Lord Ram was born exactly at that spot where the Babri mosque had stood since 1528, Justice Sharma has made concessions to Hindu fundamentalism. A superior court of a secular democracy is not expected to base its ruling on controversial historical evidence and mythology. It is possible that from now onwards, the Hindu fundamentalists will be emboldened to attack more mosques.
On the other hand, the majority verdict written by Justice Khan and Justice Aggarwal is pragmatic and one that can obviate communal rioting since all the three contesting parties – two Hindu and one Muslim – have been given equal shares in the division of that site. The judgment will most probably be appealed and it is possible that the Indian Supreme Court will come out with a more enlightened solution. There is one example that comes to mind: when the Ottomans captured Constantinople and renamed it as Istanbul, they also came into possession of Ayah Sofia, the main church of Orthodox Christianity. For hundreds of years it served as a mosque. When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the secular Turkish republic, he converted Ayah Sofia into a museum. Perhaps something similar can be done at the disputed site in Ayodhya.
The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org