It is a dispute that has festered over a century, shaped the course of Indian politics and society in more recent decades, and has, en route, caused its share of violence and mayhem. At the end, it came down to five men and a legal text of over 1,000 pages. And it was all about 2.77 acres.
As the Supreme Court delivered one of the most consequential judgements in India’s judicial history on Saturday, enabling the construction of a temple on the disputed site in Ayodhya, history would have weighed heavily on the five judges. Along with history, contemporary concerns would have weighed y heavily, too.
The verdict is significant not just for its value in providing a sense of resolution and closure on such a long-smoldering issue. It is significant because it is related directly to three fundamental shifts underway in India — the nature of state institutions and its changing relationship with faith; the nature of identity-based political mobilisation; and the nature of inter-community dynamics on the ground.
First, the Ayodhya judgement is a step in the redefinition of India’s constitutional secularism, from the idea that institutions would be scrupulously neutral, not favour any religion, and follow the text of the law to a doctrine where the sentiments of the religious majority are accorded priority, even when it clashes with the existing legal architecture.
To be sure, Indian secularism has never been rigid, and it has rested on the idea that all religions be treated equally rather than the premise that the state would be against religion. But equal treatment of all religions is increasingly giving way to somewhat partial treatment of the majority religion.
This is most clearly reflected in what is a paradox in the judgement. The court held that the installation of the idols of Lord Ram in 1949 violated law; it also held that the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 was illegal (this matter is being dealt with separately). It is true that the question for the court at hand was of determining ownership. But without the act of installing the statues, and of the demolition — both of which were outside the framework of the law — it is unlikely that the verdict would have swung in favour of Hindu parties.
What this shows is the uneasy balance India’s state institutions are seeking to achieve. The judiciary was, in a way, acknowledging that injustice had indeed been done to Muslims. It was acknowledging that constitutional principles had been undermined. Yet, it also acknowledged the faith that lies at the heart of the Hindu case, making it the basis for its eventual decision. But because a wrong had been done, it invoked special powers to allocate 5 acres of land for the construction of a mosque at an alternative site.
This institutional balancing act brings us to the second core shift underway in India. The verdict is both a result of politics — do not underestimate the role of political mobilisation in giving the dispute the flavour and momentum it got in the last three decades – and will shape politics.
To understand how far politics has shifted, recall that after 1992, many spoke of how only reconstruction of the demolished mosque would represent justice. Today, that claim is barely heard. Instead, what India has witnessed is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s successive electoral victories at the Centre in 2014 and 2019; the coming together of a pan-Hindu electoral constituency across castes; the perception of increased public support for the construction of the temple; the older “secular” opposition’s silence on Ayodhya and even support for the temple as indicated in their responses after the verdict; the domination of the public sphere, especially electronic and social media, by supporters of Hindu causes; and a sense of fatigue and resigned acceptance among Muslims of the fate of mosque. All of this indicates that the BJP had already won the political and intellectual battle on Ayodhya; what was left was the mere formalisation of it through the sanction of law, which happened on Saturday. The verdict was not written in a vacuum.
But it will also shape politics. The salience of the Ayodhya issue may have dipped from the crescendo it had reached in the 1990s. But the psychological impact of the judgement cannot be underestimated. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and, within its fold, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) would feel more energised and confident. This does not necessarily mean Kashi or Mathura are next, but they don’t need to be because the pantheon of Hindutva’s core issues has expanded substantially — from the Citizenship Amendment Bill to stronger action against conversions, from the Uniform Civil Code to action against inter-faith marriages and cow slaughter. The BJP’s claims of representing the Hindu majority would get a boost. Its electoral tactic of cementing the Hindu vote would get a further fillip. The politics of secularism — or at least old-style secularism as practised by the Congress and socialist parties — would recede even further. All of this will play out to the BJP’s advantage in the Hindi heartland, in particular.
This underlying shift in both the nature of Indian institutions and Indian politics, which the Ayodhya judgement reflects, will have a final impact on the nature of Hindu-Muslim ties.
Over the past five years, there has been a discernible shift on the ground. There is little doubt that Muslims today feel politically more disempowered than they have ever felt in Independent India’s history. This is rooted in dismal political representation. The party which dominates the polity — the BJP — gives minimal space to Muslims in its political structure, even as the community harbours suspicions about the party. This has meant that the number of MPs, MLAs, even local representatives from the Muslim community in major states has dipped. Along with this are consistent reports of localised violence, cases of lynching and vigilantism, in which Muslims have been the predominant targets. This has created a sense of insecurity within the community.
In the run-up to the verdict, there had been fears of violence. These have fortunately been belied. Both the central and state governments deserve credit for it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi — in his last Mann ki Baat address, in his instruction to cabinet colleagues and party workers, and in his address to the nation on Saturday evening — emphasised the idea that there were no winners and losers, underlined the values of peace, harmony, and unity in diversity, and the need to follow the rule of law. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat too sent out a stern message that the verdict should not be greeted with a sense of triumphalism.
All of this is positive. But these calls are coming from a position of supreme strength and supreme confidence. Power has decisively shifted in favour of one spectrum of India’s polity. This has happened democratically (through elections) and now through the court. But what is important is that this does not become the basis for continued insecurity for the “other”. Peace is essential. But so is justice, and the sense that justice has been done. If India’s substantial minorities feel that this is not the case, especially after the verdict, it could carry the seeds of longer-term discord, rather than unity.
And that is why the Ayodhya judgement must end the politics of religious polarisation, rather than inaugurate a new phase of it. The onus rests on the Indian government, Modi and the BJP, and in some ways, India’s Hindu majority, to use this moment to build bridges and set in motion a process of reconciliation.