Manu Bhagavan is the author of "The Peacemakers: India and the Quest for One World" and associate professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
6 December 1992. Ayodhya burned, while NaRao fiddled (at a puja)(i).
Flash forward 20 years. Today, in the heart of Hyderabad, once celebrated by many for the syncretic elements loosely weaving the city's great traditions together, a "temporary Hindu shrine" sits adjacent to the renowned Charminar. Religious activists are arguing that the shrine has been around forever, despite clear, photographic evidence to the contrary.(ii) As the violence begins to escalate, once again the state and its agencies are caught on the back foot, staggering about as if in stupor, while citizens who look to it for protection are left to fend for themselves.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid twenty years ago still matters to us today, because it struck then like a knife at the very heart of the idea of India, and remains an open and sore wound, baring raw and festering questions. What does democracy mean in India, and to whom? Does everyone have equal access and opportunity, or not? What is our understanding of ourselves and our present? What is our vision of the future? Are we cosmopolitan and of the world, or parochial and self-serving?
In his famed treatise on democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that "absolute monarchies had dishonored despotism." "Let us beware," he warned, "lest democratic republics should reinstate it and render it less odious and degrading in the eyes of the many, by making it still more onerous to the few."(iii) His words echo presciently through the decades. For the Babri Masjid and the Charminar are but bookends in a period in which minorities of all stripes have found themselves bearing the brunt of majoritarianism in India, from Assamese and Kashmiris, to Dalits, Christians, Sikhs and Muslims. Do members of these groups, in all their glorious internal diversities, have the same rights (to religious freedom and practice, to equality) as majority Hindus or not? When so many crimes-brutality directed against Dalit women, lack of justice for the victims of the 1984 riots-go on unabated, answers in the affirmative ring hollow.
Yes, India has made some amazing strides. Of this there is little doubt. And certainly efforts to be inclusive while celebrating difference have taken place figuratively (Lagaan; Chak De! India; many works of literature) as well as literally (the broad successes of reservation policy; the boxer Mary Kom; our diverse Presidents). But the shadow of the Babri Masjid's rubble looms large over all these advances, and their light cannot escape the gravitational pull of its massive burden on our collective psyche. For the Babri Masjid was not just a building, or even a place of worship. It was, as the crisis unfolded over the course of the 1980's, increasingly the embodiment of the Indian Muslim body politic. The mosque was a stand-in for a whole community, and Hindu nationalist anger directed at stone created a sense of terror and panic amongst millions of real people. And rather than doing anything to directly address or redress these concerns, we have instead allowed that fear to multiply and spread to other, newly targeted communities.
Just under a decade after the Babri Masjid was destroyed, another group of fanatics brought down a different monument, this time the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. The very same folks who celebrated the mosque's destruction now raised a terrible hue and cry about the Taliban's despicable act (which would be topped by the violent crimes they committed against their own people, and of course on 9/11).(iv) But the Hindutva fury at Bamiyan was nothing more than overwrought histrionics, bereft as it was of any moral authority on such an issue. Charges of false equivalency-that the masjid and the Buddhas were not comparable-only revealed a tenuous grasp of history.
As a matter of realpolitik, this crystalises how India must put its own house in order as it rises on the global stage. To serve on the Security Council, the holy grail of India's international ascendance, India must be ready to prevent the next Rwanda, the next Bosnia. It cannot hope to lead the world if it cannot find its own way out of the darkness.
But the angst felt by many Hindus (and Buddhists, and Muslims, and many others) over the Bamiyan destruction serves a useful purpose. For in that attack is the visceral assault on personal identity felt by so many minorities made vivid.
The famed twentieth-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has written that to be ethical, we must live in service to "the other," those externalized from our sense of self. Similar principles guided Mahatma Gandhi. By these definitions, India, and by implication none of us, can be ethical until we live and act in ways that better the lives of everyone around us, most especially those who are outside of our understandings of home, family, community, village, city, state, and even country. For our very souls, the choice is stark and the stakes are great. This is the legacy of the destruction of the Babri Masjid.
My thanks to Karna Basu and Syed Akbar Hyder for their thoughtful suggestions.
(i) See http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-07-05/india/32551035_1_kar-sevaks-babri-masjid-demolition.
(iii) Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Richard Heffner (New York: Mentor/Penguin, 1984/1956), p. 118.
See also http://www.littlemag.com/mar-apr01/vinay.html.