Nineteen years ago this was a week when India was very unsure of itself. The Ram temple agitation at Ayodhya reached a feverish pitch and an ambivalent Centre decided that drift was the best policy. Thousands had assembled in the temple town – drawn by the clarion call of the Sangh Parivar – ostensibly for ‘Kar Sewa’ aka ‘constructive work’, but it was evident that the real purpose was the demolition of the Babri Masjid. And demolish they did, not just a decrepit structure but the entire edifice of a political system cherished by a majority of Indians.
It is unlikely that an agitation for ‘building’ a Ram temple at the disputed site will ever acquire that feverish pitch. Chances are also bleak that the Ayodhya issue will figure prominently in elections like in 1991. But does it mean that the idea behind the Ayodhya agitation has become insignificant in Indian politics?
Before attempting to answer this question it is pertinent to recall what LK Advani said several times in the flashpoint years: The Ayodhya agitation was not just for a temple in place of a mosque but a campaign to stop political appeasement of religious minorities and ensure dignity for the religious majority. In short, it meant that the Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi conflict was all about popularizing the idea of Hindutva. And, the basis of this idea lay in religion being the main basis of social and political identity in the country.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid meant many things for different people. I have never forgotten what a Muslim journalist friend wrote in India Today, the magazine where he worked. While watching the “rubble of the once-abandoned Babri Masjid on my television, tears began to roll down my cheeks. And I realized how a decrepit mosque in Ayodhya had become a symbol of identity for millions of Muslims.”
The Ram temple issue may not arouse passions anymore but the events in the temple town on that wintry afternoon made every Muslim – believers or non-believers, politically oriented or apolitical and conservatives or progressives – extremely aware of their religious identity. The demolition made it clear to every Muslim in India what it meant to be a believer of ‘that faith’.
There has been no roll-back on this. Instead, the sentiment has been further cemented. Maulana Vastanvi is a pragmatist who wants Muslims to put politics in the backseat, accept their secondary position and concentrate on developing material wealth. He argued that a secondary social position was essential for economic growth and found many takers in his community.
The Hindutva idea of the Ayodhya campaign moved forward from when the concept of Akhand Bharat was dominant in the Sangh Parivar’s goals. Denial of any special privileges for minorities was the basic thrust of the campaign. India remains perpetually on the edge of the Rubicon. At times it crosses over like in 2002. Electoral dividend for the BJP comes and goes because it is no longer the “party with a difference”. But then almost every party and every ‘estate’ looks a bit like the BJP. This is the biggest reminder of that afternoon in Ayodhya.