MYTH, HISTORY AND NATIONALISM:
THE TEMPLE-MOSQUE CONTROVERSY IN INDIA
Centre for Historical Studies Jawaharlal Nehru University. New Delhi
In the Hindu belief system, God manifests himself in many anthropomorphic and other living forms. A prime anthropomorphic manifestation is the triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, creator, maintainer and destroyer of the universe.
Vishnu in turn has ten incarnations, or avatars, some in the form of human figures and others in the shape of animals like the fish or the boar. Among the human avatars, Krishna, the playful and colourful enunciator of the philosophy of resignation and contentment, and Rain, the upholder of social norms, are prominent. Krishna and Ram dominate much of Hindu mythology and religious and cultural life. The major Hindu cultural festivals revolve around either one or the other. Until very recently, very few Hindu males (and often females) could do without having either one or the other, and often both as a part of their names.
The story of Ram was woven into a great Sanskrit epic around the fourth century B.C., with some elements taken from history. A poet Tulsi Das rendered it into the vernacular Awadhi, a dialect of Hindi, towards the last quarter of the sixteenth century A.D., with a number of lesser regional and subregional versions in-between. In popular imagination then the long story of Ram is entirely historical.
In A.D. 1526, a new regime was established in India through the normal medieval route of conquest: this was the Mughal regime, which was to last until about the mid-eighteenth century, though it was formally abolished only in 1857. Some part of the legitimacy of this rule was derived from the assertion of its Islamic profile, which included imposition of discriminatory taxes upon non-Muslims and demolishing their temples. The last great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707) was particularly aggressive in making this assertion. But the founder of the dynasty, Zaheeruddin Muhammad Babur, was renowned for his partiality for the sensual - a sip of liquor, laying of gardens, writing beautiful poetry, music and the company of women. He also visualised himself as devout Muslim. But demolishing temples and building mosques either in lieu of these or independently was no part of his self-image as a devout Muslim.
In A.D.1528, one of Babur's soldiers constructed a mosque at Ayodhya, the mythological birthplace of Ram, and named it after the emperor. By any standards it was a plain, minor structure. Nor did its construction in the heart of the Ram country create any disputes until about three centuries later. For, virtually no one among the medieval Indian historians or litterateurs, including Tulsi Das, a resident of Ayodhya and a lifelong devotee of Ram, refers to the mosque or any dispute attaching to it.
The first clear evidence of dispute occurs in 1822 in a legal document which states that the site of the mosque was the site of the birth of Ram. It yet does not mention the existence of any temple underneath the mosque. Some half a century on, popular memory also began to attach a Ram temple to the site and its demolition by Babur for the erection of the mosque. The dispute began to heat up and generate some incidents of violence during the 19th century.
India's Independence in 1947 and its experimentation with parliamentary democracy gave a new twist to the dispute. The experiment with the very modern political process has been based upon the mobilisation of pre-modern identities of caste, community and linguistic identities. Most political parties have created for themselves 'vote banks' of combinations of different caste and community groupings. Each vote bank needs its demonic other. The militant Hindu nationalist party, the BJP which is presently in Government, conflated its creation of the Hindu vote bank, comprising 82 per cent of the populace, with nationalism. Its demonic other is the Muslim community, comprising 11 per cent. For the creation of this Hindu nationalist identity, resort is taken to history, especially medieval Indian history, perceived entirely in terms of interminable conflicts between the Muslim rulers trying to suppress the Hindus by demolishing their temples and the resistance of the Hindus to this subversion. As a final act of 'remedying the wrongs of history' (BJP's words) the mosque was demolished on 6 December 1992 by a frenzied mob of volunteers mobilised for the job with the chief BJP leaders guiding the action from a short distance and the police watching with arms ensconced on their shoulders.
It was thus that the 19th century disputes over the site of the Baburi mosque were brought alive in a massive mobilisation to convert a mixture of myth and history into an instrument of obtaining political power under a nationalist label.