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Thu, 05 Dec 2019 21:52 GMT

The Ayodhya Controversy


Dr Amin Saikal

Tue, 12 Nov 2019 20:20 GMT

The Indian Supreme Court has issued a very controversial verdict. It has ruled that Hindus are allowed to build a temple on the site of a Muslim mosque, which they destroyed in December 1992, in Ayodhya city of India’s Uttar Pradesh state. The ruling entails serious implications for relations between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority population of India. It has delighted the ruling nationalist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But many Indian Muslims would view it as yet another move that could enable Hindu nationalists to strengthen their political and religious supremacy. 

The Supreme Court has based its unanimous verdict on an archaeological finding that a Hindu holy site lay beneath the 16th-century Babri mosque, which was stormed by Hindu activists 27 years ago, causing Muslim riots and fatalities. The destruction of the mosque was at the time compared to the Taliban’s blasting of the 3rd or 4th-century old Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and was condemned as cultural vandalism. The figure who played a key role in the process was Kalyan Singh, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, who had the support of two Hindu nationalist parties – the BJP, and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). After taking up office, Singh vowed to construct Ram temple (which had been built between 1658 and 1707) in place of Babri. This opened the way for VHP’s devotees to abolish Babri and unfolded a radical Hindu campaign for the construction of Ram temple. However, since the Indian National Congress Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was in power at the federal level, the Ram project remained more or less dormant.  

Although BJP hardliners’ commitment to the project never waivered, following the landslide victory of Modi’s second term early this year, they seem to have become more assertive in what some have termed as the ‘Hinduisation’ of Indian politics and society. The Supreme Court ruling comes hot on the heels of the BJP’s revocation of the autonomous status of Indian-held Jammu & Kashmir last August, thus placing the territory under New Delhi’s direct rule and lockdown conditions that largely continue to date. Just in the same way that this development has been resented amongst some 200 million Muslim citizens of India’s 1.3 billion population, the judicial go-ahead for the construction of Ram temple is bound to heighten the concerns of many Indian Muslims.  

There is a growing fear among Indian Muslims that the BJP rule has increasingly taken an anti-Muslim character to promote India primarily as a Hindu state. In other words, the traditional secular dimension of Indian democracy, which has so far been critical in providing a degree of security for Indian Muslims, is evaporating. This is likely to have two significant implications. One is to provide a further incentive for radical Islamist groups to engage in extremist actions, on which New Delhi has relied to justify at least partially its Jammu & Kashmir policy in particular, and anti-terrorism stance in general. Another is to raise concerns about the treatment of Indian Muslims outside India.  

The fact is that India has historically benefitted from three inter-related Hindu, Islamic and Western civilisations. The combination of the three has played a key role in forging India’s modern identity. Any serious disruption in this algorithm could affect the country’s internal stability and external relations, with not only its regional foe, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, but also with the Muslim world and beyond. India’s stability, security, democracy and prosperity are best served by participatory and mutually rewarding inter-communal relations. Given the mosaic nature of the country, the politics of inclusiveness against that of religious and sectarian divisions must be a priority. Prime Minister Modi and his BJP bear a special responsibility not to allow the tyranny of the majority to prevail at the cost of ensuring India’s progress as a vibrant democracy. 

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, and co-author (with James Piscatori) of Islam Beyond Borders: The Umma in World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2019).    

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