In this view, the Supreme Court has put a legal gloss on an act, in essence, of majoritarian appropriation of a minority place of worship. This is to misread the judgment.
This diagnosis is not chiefly based on the Supreme Court’s explicit pronouncement of the crowning achievement of Advani’s movement, the demolition of the 16th century mosque at Ayodhya, as a crime, and the denial of Muslims’ right to pray at the Babri mosque since December of 1949 as illegal and unjust.
If Advani’s role in the crime is established, he would go to jail, not exult vindication. These explicit observations do make it difficult to classify the verdict as endorsement of majoritarianism.
But then, how does one square the illegality of denying Muslims the right to worship at the mosque with the allotment of the disputed site to build a temple to Ram? In a scene in the Ramayana, as rendered in its most popular Malayalam translation, Ram asks Valmiki, while on a visit to the sage’s ashram, where he should stay.
You reside in the minds of all good people, the sage tells him, meaning, which physical space he chooses to occupy is a minor detail. Few of Ram’s followers have been content to house their Lord in the mind. Many have traditionally flocked, over generations, to his supposed place of birth, says the evidence presented to the Supreme Court.
What the judgment does is to go back in time to undo the taking away from Hindus of a place they have traditionally worshipped as the place of birth of one of their chief gods.
This raises two questions. Does secularism get derailed if it recognises and seeks to reverse expropriation of a Hindu place of worship? Wrongs of what vintage can be remedied in the present? There can be no answers in the absolute to either question. It would all depend on the context.
No one in their right senses would argue that the destruction of Native American lives and cultures by colonising Europeans should be reversed by repatriating all Caucasians back to Europe. However, there is talk of reparations, even if confined to the extreme Left of American politics, for centuries of slavery and oppression of black people.
Affirmative action in India represents an ongoing effort to right historical wrongs whose roots go a long way back in time.
In the vast expanse of India, there would be plenty of temples that have been taken over or destroyed: Buddhist shrines converted into Hindu ones, Hindu ones destroyed or quietly crumbling to disuse and age. It can be no one’s case that every single one of them should be restored to their pristine glory.
But a few could qualify, without damaging the equality of those who follow different faiths. The place many believe to be the birthplace of Ram would belong to this select category.
The court verdict draws on a law passed by the Narasimha Rao government to emphatically rule out the replication of the Ayodhya experience at other places.
In any case, in Kashi and Mathura, mosques abut, rather than stand atop the ruins of, temples. How does pronouncement of the demolition of the Babri mosque as a crime square with judicial restoration of a temple at the site? The logic of the verdict is that the demolition was a forcible act without the backing of the law.
If the demand to build a temple at Ram’s birthplace had taken a legal route, it implies, a legal resolution would have been possible.
As a place of worship, for Muslims, the one at Ayodhya was just another mosque. For Hindus, Ram’s birthplace was special. But there is the historical importance of a 16th century mosque.
How the two could legally be reconciled is a question the court has been spared by the vandalism of 1992. Perhaps transplanting the structure to another location, as places of worship in danger of submergence following the construction of dams have been, might have been a way out. But that is beside the point.
It would be a mistake to confuse Ram’s temple at Ayodhya with the mobilisation of Hindus against Muslims that took place in its name. Forcible destruction of the mosque, interpreted as a symbol of Hindu subjugation, was the goal of the movement, the temple serving as cosmetic, popular justification.
Democratic politics failed to foil that campaign. What comes up in its place is of great consequence to the faithful, but of little real interest to the sectarian mobilisation in its name. To decry the temple is to further play into the hands of those who want to use ‘defence of the faith’ to further divide the people.
It makes sense to move on from the temple and focus on the next stage in the advancing campaign of divisive politics. The court has done as good a job of providing closure to a battle that was lost while retaining the secular fabric of the state intact, even if a little stretched. To keep harping on the temple is to fight yesterday’s battle in a way that helps you lose tomorrow’s war.