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Ayodhya verdict: A happy compromise?

Soutik Biswas | 12:50 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

Muslim man in Ayodhya

On the face of it the Indian court's decision to award the disputed holy site of Ayodhya to both Hindus and Muslims sounds like a pragmatic compromise. It seeks to assuage the sentiments of both communities. But has it made them happy? Early reports say that both Hindu and Muslim lawyers will appeal against the ruling in the 60-year-old case to the Supreme Court, which is likely to delay a final decision still further.

As one commentator said, the judgement can end up "making everybody happy or making everybody miserable". Questions can be asked about whether courts should get involved in matters of faith: the verdict states unequivocally that the disputed site is the birthplace of Ram. (There is no evidence that the hero of the popular Indian epic Ramayana was a historical character.) The court's observation that the "disputed structure cannot be treated as a mosque as it came into existence against the tenets of Muslims" - that it was built over what it says was a destroyed temple - may also be contentious for Muslim groups.

Most people I speak to remain confident that the verdict - whether it is accepted by all the parties or is contested in the Supreme Court - will not spark off any unrest. At the most, they say, some radical Hindu groups may make triumphal noises that Hindus will keep the area where a small tent-shrine to Ram has been erected.

2010 is not 1992. 1992 was a dismal continuum of one of India's most miserable years. Remember, in 1991, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Tamil Tiger rebels. India was on the verge of economic collapse, left with just enough foreign exchange to pay for roughly three weeks of imports. Helped by a humiliating IMF bailout after pledging its gold as collateral, the country was struggling to stay afloat. By 1992, the economy was wheezing with a growth rate of 4%, inflation in double digits and the unshackling of the economy had just begun.

A tsunami of Hindu nationalism triggered off by the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and more radical Hindu organisations associated with it had tapped into this all-pervading gloom. With self-esteem sinking and all seeming to be lost, many clung onto religious identity to assert themselves. Muslims were blamed for all the ills afflicting the nation. An overwhelming sense of victimhood led many Hindus to believe that Muslims were being appeased. Only the future would tell how distorted and misplaced this notion was.

A peace march in Mumbai on the eve of Ayodhya judgement

2010 is different. For all its failings - and there are many - India is a more confident nation, thanks to a buoyant trillion-dollar economy. In a nation of a billion aspirations, mobilising the young around religion will not be easy. Radicals on both sides have turned down their incendiary rhetoric.

Urban India - one of the BJP's biggest support bases in the high noon of Hindu nationalism - is happier waging Facebook revolutions than taking to the street. Many of the firebrand Hindu leaders of 1992 are ageing, ill or dead. No political leader can risk stoking or being a callous spectator to religious rioting in his backyard in the glare of a vigilant and energetic media. Times have changed.

But the eventual fate of the wrecked site at Ayodhya holds the answer to the contest for the possession of India's state - and soul. Will India continue to plod along towards what Sunil Khilnani, author of the seminal The Idea of India, once described as an "untidy, improvising, pluralist" society or opt for a "neatly rationalist and purifying exclusivism"? Will it stay firmly faithful to its secular underpinnings or will it pursue the chimera of a homogenous Hindu India?

In other words, will the idea of India, as thought of by its founding fathers, be threatened at all? Or will India cosy up further to its perplexing and colourful diversity?

Also, what should be done with the site? Should a temple and a mosque be built on the site now that both sides hold ownership of the land? Or should it contain a monument to India's secular identity? Or, as some say, should a well-equipped hospital or college for the locals be constructed?

There are cheekier suggestions floating in the trivial chatter of social networking sites. Should a cricket ground be built on the site considering that the game is a glue which holds India together? I liked one tongue-in-cheek tweet though. "The only way to appease Hindus and Muslims in Ayodhya is clear. Build a shopping mall. All will come to pray there together," it said. Just goes to show how much some of India has changed - it has learnt to laugh about what historian Ramachandra Guha calls a "pseudo-religious" controversy.


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