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A long-awaited judgment

Hindu gods
Hindu gods | © piqsels.com

At the focal point of two religions: The destroyed mosque of Ayodhya to be removed.

By Martin Kämpchen

6 December 1992 was a dark day for independent India. At the Hindu pilgrimage site of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, fanatical Hindus attacked the Babri Mosque and razed it to the ground in mere hours. An outcry went through the nation. For days afterwards life stood still. Out of protest and helplessness, the political parties proclaimed one general strike day after another. This prevented major unrest between Hindus and Muslims. Nevertheless, hundreds died and the polarisation of the Hindu and Muslim populations was even greater than before.

Due to the animosity between the two religions, the subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan in 1948. The result is two hostile countries abutting one another still. Ayodhya is one of the focal points of this conflict. Time and again, however, it should be emphasised that the Muslim minority as a whole is peacefully integrated in India. Culturally, Islam exerts enormous influence there, especially in music and architecture, while Indian Islam has absorbed numerous Hindu elements, for example in Sufism.

So what’s unique about the small town of Ayodhya in the middle of the North Indian plain that crystallises the conflicts and wounds of the two religious communities? One of the most revered gods in the Hindu pantheon is Ramachandra – abbreviated Rama or Ram – an incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu. His life is described in the best-known epics, the Mahabharata and especially in the Ramayana. Although these two scriptures do not name his birthplace, for centuries the belief has solidified that Rama was born in Ayodhya.

Do gods have an earthly birthplace? In India they do. For there, deities are both living human heroes and immortal gods and goddesses – the transitions are fluid. Indians understand time and timelessness, humans and gods as inseparably flowing units. Accordingly, the believers aren’t committed to Ayodhya as the birthplace because Ayodhya is everywhere. But when it comes to power, ownership, rites, ranks and jurisdiction, things get complicated. Then people have to commit themselves.

Both faiths claim the same place

Consequently, Ayodhya has been a case for the legal courts since the British colonial era. Two religious communities want to dominate a particular place. The complex stances between Hindus and Muslims can be read in the history of this conflict, but also the efforts made by the two religions to mutually come to terms and find practicable solutions to living alongside one another. Likewise, the interference by the British colonial government and later successive Indian governments has always been efforts at pacification, although they were not always impartial.

In recent decades, Indian archaeologists have apparently been able to show beyond a doubt that a temple first stood on the spot in question. Then the Mughal ruler Babar built a mosque there in the early sixteenth century. No proof could be found, however, that the temple was destroyed in order to erect the Babri Mosque. In the mid-nineteenth century there were bloody conflicts with many dead.

The dispute has simmered since 1949, uninterrupted, until today. At that time a statue of Rama – in the form of a child – was secretly installed in the mosque, thus desecrating the place of worship. It was closed on the protests of Muslims. As Hindu nationalists became stronger and more culturally and politically organised, initiatives arose in the 1980s to “liberate” the site – called “Ram Janmabhumi” (birthplace of Rama) – and to build a new temple there. They also received political support, which led to the tragic event in 1992: the destruction of Babri Mosque. The entire terrain was then sealed off. Still the Hindus succeeded in enthroning a statue of Ram in an improvised shrine.

Since then, Indian politics have been overshadowed by this incident. It was condemned worldwide, but the right-wing forces in the country became very popular. Now, Hindu organisations called for the establishment of a representative Rama temple on the site where the mosque stood. Regional and national Indian governments routinely renewed their promise to build the temple: The success of elections depended on this promise.

Entire trains of pilgrims carrying bricks branded with the name “Ram” journeyed to Ayodhya, where the stones were stored for future temple construction. One of these trains was attacked and a compartment was set on fire; many pilgrims were killed. The next day, a huge mob took revenge on the Muslims in Ahmedabad and other cities in Gujarat. That was in 2002. Around two thousand people died in these massacres.

How wise is the Supreme Court?

After lengthy litigations, the High Court in Allahabad finally decided in 2010 that the Ram Janmabhumi would be divided among the three litigating parties: two parts to the Hindu parties, one part to the Muslim. However, this compromise was challenged, and the case went to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the country. Another nine years passed before the long-awaited and hopefully final verdict was pronounced a few days ago (F.A.Z. of 11 November). In brief, Hindu parties in the trial have been given the entire terrain while Muslims were granted a “prominently located” plot outside Ram Janmabhumi to rebuild their mosque. The grounds for reversing the previous allocation are that it does not contribute to the peace. In other words, the plot the size of two football pitches is too small for a temple and a mosque.

Many Hindu faithful were jubilant. The government stationed thousands of police officers in and around Ayodhya to prevent a riot. Official Muslim organisations had already announced in advance that they would accept the verdict, whatever it might announce. Obviously, they were exhausted and didn’t expect more justice than that verdict would offer in a country governed by a radical conservative Hindu party.

Yet disappointment among the Muslims was evident. The cardinal question: Why were those responsible for the violent demolition of the Babri Mosque not punished? Human rights activist and journalist Harsh Mander bluntly criticised the verdict in The Wire magazine: The Hindu community was granted the birthplace of Rama for their belief in the deity and his birth in Ayodhya. But could a property be lawfully signed over for this reason?
In addition, the two criminal acts of the years 1949 and 1992 as well as the unauthorised erection of a Rama statue immediately after the destruction of the Babri Mosque will now be “rewarded” by the removal of the Muslim house of worship.

However, Muslim legal scholars also recognise the positive aspects of the recent verdict. It is meant to prevent it from triggering other similar court cases. A Hindu organisation counted three thousand mosques that centuries ago replaced temples, either with or without force. Well-known examples are Varanasi and Mathura. The judgment aims to put a stop to claims for restitution. In this regard, the Supreme Court also confirmed that the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya was not built as a result of the destruction of the Ram Temple – as the radical Hindus claim.

Although the verdict thus seems to be accommodating the Hindu majority in India, the court has managed to bring the decades-long struggle for “mandir or masjid” (temple or mosque) to a tolerable conclusion. The verdict emphasises the equivalence of religions and the “secular” nature of the Indian state. Now the effectiveness of the decision depends on whether the two religious communities agree to put an end to the matter or whether they will allow themselves to give in to violent emotional outbursts.