How Babri Masjid demolition redefined politics of social identity

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In February 2004, nearly three months before the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance was defeated in the general election, the writer V. S. Naipaul told a gathering at the saffron party’s office in Delhi what he thought of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992. The Nobel laureate famously remarked, “Ayodhya is a sort of passion. Any passion is to be encouraged. Passion leads to creativity.”

Some moments in a nation’s life have the power to alter the trajectory of history. It is widely held that the demolition of Babri Masjid was one such moment that set in motion a string of transformative events.

In a single moment it transformed the issue from challenging the existence of Babri Masjid to building a temple on what was being argued as the birthplace of Lord Ram. The verdict of the high court is currently being heard by the Supreme Court, which interestingly took it up for hearing on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the demolition.

Take the example of Ajay Singh, then a 20-year-old mathematics student at the Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in 1992 and yet to become Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in the 25th year of that watershed year in Indian politics.

It is the outcome of the combined energy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar. Both drew their inspiration from 6 December, which redefined the politics of social identity—with religion displacing caste as the primary metric.

Suhas Palshikar, political commentator and former head of the department of political science at Pune’s Savitribai Phule University, said Indian society has moved more in the direction of majoritarianism due to the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation and the destruction of the Babri mosque.

“There of course, always were majoritarian tendencies but Gandhi-Nehru leadership could keep them under check and the constitution provided a certain legitimacy to these efforts to keep away majoritarianism. Through the eighties, that began to change and the way India has so far responded to Babri demolition indicates that the changes are here to stay,” said Palshikar in an emailed response to Mint’s questions.

What if the mosque had not been demolished? “The forces that mobilized people and then politically benefitted from it—Hindutva forces—would surely have explored other causes to do the same thing in case the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation did not succeed. As we have been witnessing more contemporarily, from cow protection and conversion (both were raised earlier too) there were many issues Hindutva would have explored and exploited. Ramjanmabhoomi agitation has had an advantage in that it could mix religious sentiment, a sense of historical wound, and ideas of national identity,” Palshikar added. He said the moment of destruction and the movement leading to it took communalism to a different level altogether. “The Congress too indulged in competitive communalism by both pandering to Muslim orthodoxy and adopting some version of Hindutva. But by its nature, Congress is incapable of becoming the main force mobilizing Hindu nationalism,” he said.

M.G. Vaidya, 94-year-old Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue and former spokesperson, doesn’t think the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the demolition of the “structure” helped the RSS and BJP expand. “The RSS has grown and expanded by the grit and hard work of its cadres,” he said.

However, BJP leaders do believe that Ayodhya was a decisive moment that enabled it to etch out “cultural nationalism” and “good governance” (the promise of Ram Rajya) as two key elements of a national agenda.

Senior leaders of the Congress party, which was in power in the centre under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1992, believe the issue continues to influence Indian politics and was key to the rise of BJP.

“That incident changed India’s political scenario and its impact can be understood from the fact that it continues to be political issue even after two-and-a-half decades. The violence that followed and the conflicts that happened changed India, particularly Uttar Pradesh’s, social fabric,” a senior Congress leader and former Union minister said on condition of anonymity.

“There are two aspects of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The first is the rise of cultural nationalism. When the movement was started, the country was going through a phase where caste politics was on the rise with the implementation of Mandal Commission, so cultural nationalism helped people rise above caste politics leaving aside caste identities,” said a cabinet minister from Uttar Pradesh.

It is a fact that the Mandir agenda enabled BJP to blunt the politics of caste defined around the politics of those—like Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Mulayam Singh of the Samajwadi Party—tapping into the rise of the OBC and Dalit vote banks.

“The second part of the movement was the promise of Ram Rajya or good governance as the BJP sees it. The promise of clean and transparent governance was the basic political promise made by the BJP. We should not forget that when the movement was going on, Congress was facing Bofors scandal and there was corruption allegation against the Congress party at the highest level. So there was a need for good governance which was responsive to the aspirations of the people,” the BJP leader added.

Senior BJP leaders also argue that because of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the isolation of BJP ended. “The mass movement helped people understand and accept the ideology of RSS and BJP. The ideology was accepted and it got support of the people,” the same BJP leader said.

Political analysts maintain that political parties continue to keep the issue alive.

“Ram Mandir is no longer a religious issue and it is instead a political issue. All political parties want to reap political benefit out of it. Whether it is the chief minister Yogi Adityanath-led government organizing Diwali celebrations in Ayodhya or former chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav now justifying police action on kar sevaks in 1990 in Ayodhya—all political parties want to keep the issue burning,” said S.K. Dwivedi, a political analyst and former head of political science, Lucknow University.

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