Ayodhya: The dangers of turning myth into fact

Last Updated: Thu, Nov 14, 2019 12:40 hrs
Supreme Court

The Supreme Court had the unenviable task of bringing a decades-long dispute to a close.

The demand for a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya is age-old. It culminated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid by a mob using handheld tools in 1992, and sparked off riots on a scale not seen since Partition.

The Bench now had to deliver a judgment that would please either everyone or no one.

It can be argued that the judgment met those criteria. The fanatics had sworn that they would not allow a mosque to be built anywhere in the vicinity of Ayodhya, and the apex court granted five acres of land for a mosque to be constructed near the site.

The Sunni Waqf Board had wanted the land restored to them, and instead permission was granted for a temple to be built on it.

There are contradictory sentences in the judgment. On the one hand, the five-judge Bench held that myth cannot be seen as history, but then it also took into account the ‘sentiments’ of ‘worshippers’.

Numerous people involved in breaking down a historical structure have not been criminally charged.

Although the closure came from the judiciary, it fulfils one of the poll promises of the ruling BJP – that they would ensure a temple was built at the purported birthplace of Lord Ram.

The Supreme Court did not have too much choice. The real damage had been done long ago, back in 1992. The act of the karsevaks, so often played on television, had made apparent fissures that were earlier glossed over – not just fissures between Hindus and Muslims, but between the ‘bigots’ and the ‘sickulars’, as they call each other, between the self-proclaimed defenders of faith and the burdened defenders of history, between those who wanted an eye for an eye and those who wanted peace.

When I first went to Ayodhya, in the early years of the millennium, I visited the disputed site. There were lines of worshippers, arguably outnumbered by security personnel.

What is faith, I wondered, if people could not be trusted to arrive unarmed at a site of worship? And how does one worship at a site of violence?

There is no doubt that temples were razed over the centuries, and idols transported to decorate other structures. Temples have been destroyed to be replaced by other temples, to be replaced by other buildings of religious significance such as mosques and churches. But the majority of these incidents occurred at a time when lands were conquered by bloodshed, when leaders took charge by might and not by the choice of the people.

For a mosque to be razed and a temple to be built in its place in a democracy, the first act by the will of a mob and the second under the sanction of the highest court in the land, must be historically unprecedented.

The court’s judgment overruled a previous one by the Allahabad High Court, whose 2010 verdict was reminiscent of the Biblical story of Solomon. The Hebrew Bible quotes an incident where King Solomon, asked to decide which of two women a baby belongs to, orders the baby cut in half as a test. The real mother begs that the child be handed over alive to the other claimant, who was happy to take half a corpse instead. Similarly, the land was to be divided among the three parties fighting for the site: the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara, and ‘Ram Lalla’.

Naturally, that did not please anyone.

The argument of those who reduced to rubble a piece of history in search of a mythical temple is that the Babri Masjid cannot be seen as a mosque since namaz did not take place there, and it should be considered “abandoned”.

This points to something that could unravel the secular fabric India has wrapped around itself: the prioritisation of belief over fact, of ritual over presence, of sentiment over science.

The fact is that a mosque stood there; irrespective of what rituals were going on inside, it was centuries old and a crucial architectural structure.

Idols buried under the ground cannot be seen as scientific evidence that a temple once stood there, just as descriptions of flying objects in the scriptures cannot be seen as blueprints for working models of aeroplanes.

When we begin to accept myth as history, but also believe history is subservient to religious sentiment, we are setting ourselves up for an uncertain future and providing scope for violent conflict.

If a monument to one god stands where another god was born, and the followers of both can reconcile themselves to sharing the space, it would show that the citizens of today have made their peace with history.

For as long as people seek to rewrite and correct history, science will be subservient to might and myth.

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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com