Debating India

AYODHYA

Reinvoking Ayodhya

Sukumar MURALIDHARAN

Wednesday 20 August 2003, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

Article paru dans Frontline, Vol. 14 : No. 20 : Oct. 4 - 17, 1997.

BETWEEN 1989, when it awoke to the political mileage to be derived from the Ayodhya issue, and 1992, when it authored the brutal denouement of demolishing the Babri Masjid, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) orchestrated the furies of communalism to challenge the authority of the secular state repeatedly.

With almost its entire top leadership now facing prosecution, stricture and possible conviction for this sequence of communal provocations, the party seems to believe that salvation lies in enacting a reprise.

The basis for the BJP’s new phase of activism is only now taking shape - at both the practical and the doctrinal levels. Shortly after assuming office, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh paid a well-publicised visit to Ayodhya, unmindful of the feathers that he was ruffling in the ranks of his coalition partner, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The riposte was not long in coming, one among many signals of acute discord within the alliance of convenience that today rules Uttar Pradesh. Describing Kalyan Singh’s supplication before the idols installed at the site of a demolished mosque as a grave provocation, a Muslim Minister in his Cabinet vowed to retort with a conspicuous act of faith at the same venue.

BJP president L.K. Advani was, meanwhile, laying out the doctrinal basis for the new activism over Ayodhya. Making no great effort to conceal the triumphal tone, Advani wrote in the party’s fortnightly magazine, BJP Today, that after having briefly receded from public attention, the Ayodhya issue had again been "catapulted into the foreground" on account of the judicial summons issued to senior leaders of the Hindutva alliance. "This cannot but help our cause," he said, in a mood of self-satisfaction.

There is an element of novelty in Advani’s invocation of the historian Arnold Toynbee in justifying the destruction of the Babri Masjid. After V.S. Naipaul and Nirad C. Chaudhari, Toynbee is the latest intellectual celebrity to be recruited to the Hindutva ranks. The British scholar’s vision of history as a process of evolution and consummation of certain civilisational ideals - now of little more than curiosity value in the history of ideas - has naturally proved most congenial to those who view Hindutva as a synonym for the fulfilment of India’s cultural destiny. But for the vast majority of its adherents, for whom Hindutva was a matter of fomenting violent emotions against a vulnerable religious minority, Advani’s rarefied discourse might appear somewhat baffling.

Advani refers with approval to Toynbee’s description of the demolition of an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral by nationalist Poles after the liberation of the country from Russian overlordship in 1918. In the predominantly Catholic country, the Orthodox Christian shrine had been in Toynbee’s words "a continuous ocular demonstration" of national subservience. Its destruction was by this criterion an affirmation of the Polish national will, symbolic of a people’s political resurgence.

The parallels then follow with a certain beguiling clarity. The Babri Masjid was built with a political rather than a religious motive. It was meant to serve as a "continuous ocular demonstration" of the cultural subjugation of the Hindu population. Its effacement from the face of the earth is hence "not a matter for regret," though the methods by which this historic mission was accomplished could have caused some justified qualms. But the responsibility for the sequence of events that culminated in the demolition should, insists Advani, be borne by the Congress Government which then held office in New Delhi.

Advani’s locutions warrant some attention, if only because of the insights they offer on the current status of the Hindutva project. The BJP’s tendency to reach for the rhetoric of a seamless "cultural nationalism" as the most convenient gloss to apply over the many irreconcilable interests it seeks to bring aboard its monolithic political platform is well known. Nowhere are its current political difficulties more evident than in Uuttar Pradesh, where the party’s traditional kernel of upper-caste support and the recent accretions of backward caste loyalty are undergoing a violent shake-up on account of the alliance with the BSP.

Mayawati’s six-month-long innings at the helm of state was for the BJP a traumatic experience, with the pressures to maintain the alliance at all costs inducing a serious rift within. Antagonisms that had been smouldering on the ground during Mayawati’s tenure ignited around the time that Kalyan Singh took his turn at the helm as part of the alternating arrangement between the two allies. Hapur in Ghaziabad district was the focus of the worst such outbreaks, replete with inflammatory rhetoric, symbolic acts of vandalisation of Ambedkar statues and bloody reprisals. Unable to maintain any kind of a balance between the contending social forces, the BJP has largely been confined to the role of a helpless spectator. The reinvocation of Ayodhya could well be a way of regaining the political initiative, though the circumstances five years after the infamous demolition may not prove quite so hospitable to the planned reprise.

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