Ayodhya and the loss of pasts and imaginations

The Babri Masjid was built in 1527 in Ayodhya, in present-day Uttar Pradesh. Some claim that a Central Asian invader and the first Turkic/Mongol emperor of Northern India had this mosque built by demolishing a pre-existing temple – one that stood on the birth-site of Lord Ram (Ram Janmabhoomi). Between 1949 and 1992, various attempts had been made, by action and inaction sponsored by the state, to change the nature of access to the site from the conditions existing before 1949. On 6 December 1992, a large group of communal Hindu activists, egged on by leaders of India's second largest political formation of the time, demolished this mosque. Eventually, on 30 September 2010, a three-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court passed the now famous judgement – the disputed area is to be divided between the three litigants. The Muslim litigant group will receive one-third of the land but not the area under the central dome of the erstwhile Babri mosque structure.

The nature of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid debate shows how much certain parts of Indic society are now prisoners of a historical mode of thinking. This is evident not only in the kinds of arguments and evidence that the court case dealt with but also the talking points that populated the media. People spoke about the past with clinical precision; of scientific evidence, without a shred of doubt, that the divine location of the avatar's birthplace would not transcend evidence-based historical research methods. It would rather be the opposite: evidence-based methods would legitimise the ancient; indeed the timeless. There has been a change in the way crucial sectors of India conceptualise the past; and it is an ongoing process. A clandestine transformation of the nature of consciousness about the past has important implications on our imaginations of the future. It involves, in this case, the possibility that the very soul of our peoples – a plural soul – will undergo degeneration.

Communities living in close proximity trigger anxieties of self-demarcation, such as the 'Islamic' in India against the 'Hindu' backdrop. They also figure out ways of mutual tolerance, which is not necessarily borne out of brotherly love, but in order to coexist without being at each other's throats all the time. A crucial enabler is time – time that heals, muddles, blurs and creates memories. This is the stuff of past consciousness that permeates the present in all its imaginative creativity – creating cross-faith interactions and encounters that put scripture-peddlers of 'pure' religion to shame. Unchangeable scriptural words in India change, take myriad forms and meanings and still remain as ancient, as believable, as certain, eternal and final.

The disputed piece of land in Ayodhya, has two major contenders, ostensibly representing Hindu and Muslim interests and sentiments (though there are minor contenders too such as the Buddhists and Jains). There are, however, other, uncomfortable contenders of a different sort. At least six other sites with structures, in and around Ayodhya, are unencumbered by mosques on top of them, and are believed by numerous Hindus to be Ram's birth-site. Hence, the claim that the real Ram Janmabhoomi is exactly where the Babri Masjid stood necessarily involves dismissing the claims – and inherent sacredness – of these other contenders to Ram Janmabhoomi-hood. This faithless claim of exclusivity runs antithetical to the vital force of hitherto dominant Indic style – where the quality of being sacred has a very distributed geography. In Thailand, for instance, exists the old imperial capital city of Ayudhya or Ayuthhaya, which might be as potently the city of Ram as any other. There's no order of precedence here; indeed, it is a matter of faith, not chronology. The presence of so many sites of Ram hence points to a largely non-exclusive belief.

It is with this background in mind that one has to view the large currency this exclusive claim has gained with time. The pantheon of values that is the legacy of the European Enlightenment has long dominated the minds of certain sections of our society. Scientific rationality is the holiest of these values. This domination inevitably has victims. One such victim is the communitarian consciousness of the past, that is passed on and amended from generation to generation. Recollections of the past, fables and grandmothers' tales, jati-puranas, gathas and legends carry within them the imprint of long time-range mechanisms of survival, of healing from trauma, of long-held aspirations and fears, of close encounters. This is being replaced by an immutable archival view of the past. We have come to know this as history – objective, sharp and if one may add, unethical, pitiless and enslaving. It is frozen and out there – it simply needs to be unearthed, excavated, deciphered, dusted off and archived. Irrespective of whether it is a story of progress, it nonetheless closes the possibilities of the past. The needs of the present people cannot open it up except only as history allows.

The raucous debates that are to be heard before and after the judgment and the echo-box streams that take their cue from them have a few predictable characteristics. They seek to either protect god(s), or the constitution of the republic. The cynical use of the avatar of Lord Vishnu by the Hindutva brigade is matched well by 'secular' brigades, whose parodying of the idea of locational divinity belies their ultimately belittling attitude towards the faith of small people – the unscientific, under-educated, in the penumbra of the Baconian world of the 'seculars'.This utter disconnect is evident when Marxists of various hues bring in the 'sociological' Ram to counter the 'Ironman' Ram of the Hindutva Sangh Parivar. The charlatan usage of Ram's powerful symbolism by the 'seculars' who could care less for Ram's divinity appears to the faithful like a village nautanki, and a sordid one at that. The characters forgot to change their dress and makeup from the last scene; they have only changed dialogues. Not many are impressed.

Such is the grip of historicity and scientific rationality among certain sections so that matters of faith – the ballast of certitude in uncertain times – are now being cynically evaluated. The Ayodhya legal case centres around the question what was 'really' there – the 'real' of course being pillars, columns, dirt, dust, radiocarbon dating and excavations. From the 'real' will flow the 'objective' truth establishing the 'authentic' claim. This insistence on authentic exclusivity has affected religion as well. History, the new god with all its heartlessness, stands, scalpel in hand, in front of faith. In this battle that is thrust upon faith, the latter is stabbed often by the scalpel. Not that faith is weak in front of history – just that its rules of engagement are different. But the new god has the support of the contemporary nation-state behind it. The decentering of the mind that this produces in man has no insurance. One is left alone to fend for its consequences – of unmet uncertainties and poisoned, sacred groves. Human beings have fantastic creative potential to tide over alienation. My fear is that such potential is not endless.

The present debate can be seen as another step in a long process of desacrilisation where scientific rationality as an ideology has cast its long shadow on religion. The ideology has been transforming it, attempting to cure it of all its promise and mystery. To survive this modernist siege, religions themselves lay transformed – more 'masculinity', cynicism and frenzy; less faith, less creativity. The politico-religious bloc that often claims to speak for Hindus in general has all the markers of this thrust. This bloc does not merely consist of those who are officially with the BJP or its comradely associates. It also includes parts of the migrating, 'aspirational', middle class. Significant sections of this group, without access to the intimate rootedness of local faith and continuities of ancestral rituals, are spirited cheerleaders of a 19th century dream – that of a homogenised Hinduism. They form the core of the peculiar species that now exists in certain Indian metros – people who are not Telugu Reddys or Bengali Mahishyas – they are simply Indians and nothing but Indians. And such 'Indians' have the means to exert influence beyond their numbers. Such pan-Indic formulations of Hinduism are a grave challenge to the Indic faith systems. It is a mortal danger to the religious osmosis that has enriched our softly bounded identities. With its plural possibilities, the million gods and goddesses protect the billion small people. These people refuse to stand united; to dump powerful local deities like Dharma Thakur and Ola Bibi; to let their own divine forces die a slow, impoverished death.

For some, this refusal is the rub; for some it is the only possibility. But the possibility of what? In an atmosphere where the historical mindset reduces the past to a partly illuminated, linear archive of objective detail, imagination of the future is also severely impoverished. A linear, closed past restricts possibilities of the future. By refusing to buy history as the only way of looking at the past, by countering the homogenising tendencies that history unleashes, by refusing to be sapped of the uniqueness of its encounters, communities amongst themselves hold out the possibility of keeping the past open, alive and responsive. In the Indic context, people often conceive their aspired future ideal as an image of the past – for example, Ramrajya, or when 2 annas could get a maund of rice. This also holds within itself the promise that the myriad open and plural pasts that populate the mindscapes of India are producing open and plural futures right now. In a world of increasing dominance through homogenisation, unfettered by historicity, imaginations of (im)possible futures can take wings right here. The Ayodhya debate and its lingering non-resolution shows how unimaginative we have become. It shows how fast we are losing the creativity to deal with anatagonism; how we can no longer let god(s) seek identity among the rustic and the fantastic.

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Himal Southasian