An emotional battle over a drive to build a mosque on disputed ground–tense with fear of violence– has transfixed a global audience. The story may be front page on the Washington Post and the New York Times, but far from lower Manhattan, all eyes are focused on a town not far from India’s eastern border with Nepal, Ayodhya. That hamlet is no shining example of India’s vaunted growth or home to any pulsating software industry, but the abundant dust that thousands of paramilitary forces kicked up on their way there covers layers of a complex past and explosive present.
Somewhat akin to a U.S. Court of Appeals, an Indian High Court ruled today on a judicial case that in various forms has dragged on for no less than twenty years. Delayed as that seems, the first suit in the matter was filed in 1885, and the process seemed labyrinthine this time for the emotive issues it addressed.
First the basics: In 1528, Zahir-ud-din Babar, the first Islamic ruler of large parts of India, built a mosque on grounds held sacred by Hindus as the birthplace of one of their most widely worshipped avatars, Lord Rama–known beyond India and throughout South Asia as the venerated hero of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. A massive Hindu temple complex at that site was allegedly destroyed by Babar to make way for the mosque. The first recorded bloody riots broke out at near there between Hindus and Muslims over access to the site in 1853, and the first suit was filed in 1885, during the time India was ruled by the British. In 1949, the Indian government locked the gates of Babar’s structure calling it disputed. Multiple lawsuits over ownership of the land were transferred to the High Court in 1989, and attempts to reach an amicable settlement between Hindu and Muslim plaintiffs failed. In 1992, rampaging mobs, reportedly spurred on by Hindu nationalist leaders, destroyed the structure, sparking some of the worst riots in Post-Independence India in its wake.
It is a sordid tale of conquest, destruction, inter-religious conflict and bloodshed. And India was on edge as the verdict was delivered this afternoon. The remarkable decision was as bold in its breadth and scope, as muted as it was in its final order. The three judge panel–two Hindus and one Muslim–declared that yes, a temple existed at the site before Babar destroyed it and built his edifice incorporating portions of the temple in his own structure. Yes, the site is the exact locus that Hindus have revered as the birth site of Lord Rama since “time immemorial,” who was a “juristic person” and was born thousands of years prior. And yes, Hindus have a right to build a temple on the site. A muted judgement–that many will embrace as the road map to peace–the final order was a simple compromise: That the land should be divided equally between Hindu and Muslim plaintiffs so that Hindus could rebuild their temple and Muslims their mosque.
So those are the facts, but as the 8,000 page verdict was sent on to New Delhi, Hindus may sigh with satisfaction even as the press will move on to details of appeals that will be filed and the political ramifications. Churchill claimed history is written by the victors, and India’s, ironically, is shaped by a millenium of Islamic and then British conquests. But the facts laid out in this decision add a dimension of veracity to the faith of Hindus usually disputed by India’s famously far-left historians. Many have argued that it is the very disenfranchising of Hindus from the historical contentions of their scriptures that fuels disaffection and the fodder for demagoguery.
Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva, along with Lord Rama, are prominent players in the Hindu pantheon. Seek out their most revered temples and sacred spaces, in Mathura where Krishna was born, and Kashi, the holy city of Shiva, and massive mosques built by conquerors still mark the spots. Several thousand temples were destroyed throughout India by the marauding Mongol, Babar, and those that followed him in the 15th and 16th century following the example of Babar’s immediate Turk predecessor, Sultan Mehmed II, who was busy laying siege to the Hagia Sophia, the focal point of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Constantinople just a few decades earlier. This is not to say that history must be reversed in every corner of India–far from it. But acknowledgement of an injustice is a necessary first step, and an accommodation long denied to Hindus. The modern Turkish government, after all, had the courage to turn the destroyed Hagia Sophia site into a museum acknowledging a disputed past.
The prevailing response for Hindus, then, is vindication. Babar is a reviled figure in Hindu lore, and now the world knows why. Hindu Americans had long chafed reading modern historical renderings of an “alleged temple” to the “warrior god Ram”; of fawning accounts from the notoriously “pseudo secular” Indian academy of Babar’s mosque and their highly “authoritative” claims, parroted in the Western media. It was astounding that despite copious evidence unearthed by the Archaeological Survey of India, these same historians and politicians refused to concede that Babar had actually destroyed a massive Hindu temple, one of the holiest for Hindus, and built a conquest monument he called a mosque.
Lord Rama is almost always rendered as an ahistorical mythological character set in an interesting epic–the judgment terming him a “juristic person,” is given in syntax as clumsy as it is empowering. He existed, Hindus can claim with a legal imprimatur, and his birthplace is as real and important as Bethlehem, the Temple Mount or Mecca. It is a jejune claim that a legal judgement affects the faith of a billion Hindus, but Hindus rarely find their faith corroborated in the cold renderings of history or law.
The legal validation of Hindu claims satisfies a struggle over history, but the big story will be the peace that prevails in India. Hindu nationalists have learned that the issue can no longer be milked for votes in a country where development counts, and the current government will find the focus back on its horrid demonstration of corrupt incompetence in planning the Commonwealth Games as athletes from seventy nations descend on New Delhi this week. Hindus and Muslims will move on tomorrow as there is an 8% growth rate to continue and work to do to ensure that prosperity reaches the hundreds of millions not seeing their share of a modern India. There is no time to wallow in the past, it is time to move on.
Views expressed here are the personal views of Dr. Aseem Shukla, and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Minnesota or Hindu American Foundation.