08 December 2017 14:40:05 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

Babri masjid demolition: 25 years and counting

Secularism, as it was popularly perceived, came to an end on December 6, 1992

It is sometimes hard to believe that 25 years have passed since the demolition of the Babri masjid — that cataclysmic event that shook India. There is little doubt that the demolition ruptured the polity of India, in ways one couldn’t have imagined then.

The idea of India as a secular country, where tolerance was the bedrock and people of all religions and creeds could live in peace, was shattered by a sledgehammer that day.

Secularism, as it was popularly perceived, came to an end on December 6, 1992. To be honest, the idea of secularism was beginning to fray rather perilously in the 1980s, a decade wracked by communal strife. The 1980s began with a full-blown militancy in Punjab which culminated in the tragic assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, followed by the horrific anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and other parts of north India. It was in this communal cauldron that the Ramjanmabhoomi movement was birthed and gained momentum, especially after the Bharatiya Janata Party hitched its wagon to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s movement in 1987.

The demolition of the masjid led to horrific communal riots in various parts of north India, with Mumbai experiencing two rounds of ghastly blood-letting. Surat was another city which saw violent riots.

Different trajectory

Secularism in India always followed a different trajectory than it did in the West. In the West, secularism meant a strict separation between religion and politics, especially in countries such as France. But in India the accent was more on tolerance and acceptance of people with different faiths. The rights of religious minorities are enshrined in the Indian Constitution, which made sure that religious diversity was not merely tolerated but also allowed to flourish. The Supreme Court’s very nuanced ruling on the contentious triple talaq issue bears testimony to this.

Some observers have claimed that secularism was a western concept and its acceptance and practice in a deeply conservative and religiously diverse country like India was going to be tough, if not impossible. But other commentators, notably political scientist and academic Rajeev Bhargava, have argued that secularism has deep Indian roots and is not an alien concept for Indians; nor was it thrust on us by a western elite. Bhargava especially cites the example of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka and his edicts to prove that the concept of secularism and the spirit of tolerance goes way back in Indian history.

But though these academic debates are interesting there is no doubt that in practice secularism was a philosophy that was accepted and internalised by most Indians despite occasional bursts of communal violence.

It was this consensus that was decisively shattered on December 6, 1992 when the Babri masjid was razed to the ground by Hindu zealots. This moment marked a very definite ‘rightward’ shift in Indian politics. The fact that in these 25 years the BJP has been in power only for nine years, and the avowedly secular Congress-combine has been in power for a majority of this period, did nothing to stop the shift towards a greater Hindu majoritarianism in Indian politics.

Hindu majoritarianism

That, under secularism, Hindus have been getting a raw deal despite being the majority community, and the minority communities are being continuously ‘appeased’ for ‘vote bank’ politics, is being accepted as received wisdom by a disturbingly large number of Hindus today.

The ‘Hindu hurt’ and ‘minority appeasement’ theory is being accepted as an article of faith by a large number of Hindus in this country who do not see the need for any closer scrutiny, which is ample proof of the power of the BJP’s ideology.

Ironically, it was in the post-Babri masjid demolition period of the 1990s that the BJP gained greater acceptability among the political spectrum and shed its ‘untouchable’ tag. Parties such as the DMK, which would have earlier been loath to share a platform with the BJP, were now willing to share power with the BJP and be part of the NDA.

The cynicism with which the concept of secularism was treated by the avowedly secular parties such as the Congress, Left parties and an array of regional parties certainly made things easier for the BJP, which was able to berate these parties for their ‘pseudo secularism’ and manage to pass off its Hindu majoritarian views as ‘real secularism’.

Overall incompetence

Unfortunately, the Babri masjid demolition showed everyone — the politicians, the law enforcement authorities, the judiciary and the common people — in poor light. The UP government, then ruled by the BJP, was particularly devious in its methods, first by promising to protect the mosque and then allowing its demolition. Scores of BJP politicians had assured that the mosque would be protected and stood by as spectators just a few metres away when it was being dismantled.

The Narasimha Rao government also came in for equal blame for failing in its Constitutional duty to protect the mosque. The law enforcement (police) authorities were extremely unwilling to decisively intervene and put an end to the mayhem and violence. The fact that the Liberhan Commission is yet to come out with final findings is proof of the judiciary’s failure to bring the culprits to book.

Some common people must also shoulder some of the blame, for allowing themselves to consumed by the poisonous ideology and indulging in the rioting that followed.

The Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri masjid case is at an interesting legal juncture. The Allahabad High Court in 2010 gave a ‘very Indian’ ruling for dividing the land between the two communities — two parts going to the Hindus and one part to the Muslims — which was, not surprisingly, rejected by both communities and was set aside by the Supreme Court.

With the Supreme Court recently refusing to defer the hearing of the case to after the 2019 elections, it will be interesting to see how the case plays out legally — a case which, for all the religious passions it has evoked, remains essentially a land dispute.