Remains of the day

Twenty years after the demolition at Ayodhya, what India must not forget

On December 6, it will be exactly 20 years to the day the Babri Masjid was demolished. Much has happened to India and the world in between — it is also about 20 years since the first SMS was sent. New countries have been formed. The caste cauldron in north India has swirled in this time and also cooled. The economy has changed beyond recognition since the 1990s. The Uttar Pradesh electorate, in 2012 at least, did not seem to be that taken by either the Uma Bharti brand of BJP politics or the Congress's lure of Muslim reservations. Ayodhya 1992 should not, perhaps, elicit much of a response.

Twenty years after the Babri Masjid was pulled down, under the watch of the BJP state government and the Congress government at the Centre, should it not be forgotten as a blip in time? Of course, simmering communal tensions in several UP districts, especially in Ayodhya-Faizabad, make the business of forgetting a little harder. For those interested in the sunnier theme of "India Happening", forgetting Ayodhya is a starting point. Yet if India is to genuinely transform into a modern republic, remembering the darker moments is as important as commemorating pleasant anniversaries, partly to preempt such horrors from recurring in future. Here are a few reasons why Ayodhya must not be forgotten.

If Jinnah fought for a homeland for "wronged" Muslims, a similar case has been made for Hindus — and with some success — since the 1980s. Equating faith with nationalism, using a three-domed mosque as a symbol for excluding a large minority, worked wonders for several political fortunes. That L.K. Advani, the leading proponent of such rhetoric, went on to praise Jinnah a decade and a half after Ayodhya should not have come as a surprise. But certain realities cannot be brushed aside — that a politics can be built by creating a sense of injured pride, that personal belief can be turned into political slogans, that the idea of Siyapati Ramachandraji (Ram as the husband of Sita) can be morphed into the narrower idea of "Shri Ram". This new interpretation was centuries removed from Gandhi's Ram of the "Ram rajya" invocation. A religion does not make for a nation, as other countries, especially neighbouring Pakistan, are discovering at high cost. In this context, re-reading Ayodhya could prove to be valuable.

Another reason Ayodhya cannot be forgotten is the way a symbol of confluence was turned into an epicentre of division. The city, with its mandirs, akharas, masjids, and its memories of viharas, has meant so much to different people over the centuries. The city is revered by Buddhists, Jains, Hindus and Muslims. Ayodhya should have been a symbol for the Indianness that each Indian (often unknowingly) embodies — a compound of several identities, speaking many languages. A city that should have stood for the plurality of being Indian was turned into a symbol that divided people. Not only can this not be forgotten, it needs to be recalled, again and again, so that we can pick up the signals of another Ayodhya, and stop it from happening.

Ayodhya was also a moment of rupture that gave the right, Muslim as well as Hindu, a chance to vent its grievances and nurse its wounds in public. Even after the moment had passed into history, it left a gnawing imprint, in the way the demolition of December 6 was used to instigate communal tension and violence subsequently, be it in Mumbai or Hyderabad. And in a restless India, people from all sides use these records to buttress claims and counter-claims, some in the hope of turning the politics of exclusion into an ideology yet again.

Most importantly, to those of us who do not fit into any of the relevant religious categories, Ayodhya 1992 matters because of what happened to the rule of law that day. An important promise of January 26, 1950 was run to the ground. Majoritarianism was wilfully confused with democracy. Governments were dictated by the fear of the mob. Those responsible for Ayodhya are yet to be brought to book. The fear of the mob that became ingrained in democratically elected governments that day was underlined by what happened recently in Mumbai. The state government acquiesced to a state funeral for the deceased Shiv Sena chief, the only political leader to be disenfranchised by the court, and functionaries of the state, instead, arrested those who commented on it on Facebook.

Does recalling inflection points in our evolution mean that our society is still "backward" and not quite "emerging"? Inflection points leave their mark and, therefore, need to be acknowledged. In his magnificent book, The Age of Revolution, Eric Hobsbawm speaks of the way the French Revolution lived on in slogans, and even in the choice of a tricolour, in nations that were fighting for liberation more than a century later. Even today, the memory of General Franco's regime is found not just in the art and politics of Spain, but also in its choice of football styles. Closer home, look at how the 2002 violence in Gujarat had threads of Ayodhya woven into it. A BJP that had either set aside or forgotten Ayodhya during its NDA years, also presided over the tragedy that took place 10 years after the demolition. Evidently, forgetting can be dangerous.

To truly forget and attain closure, we may have to pause and remember what happened that day. Sometimes, the best way to genuinely get over such an event is to remember and recount clearly, just so that we are not condemned to repeat it. Amnesia does not help.

seema.chishti@expressindia.com

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