Babri Masjid to Gyanvyapi Mosque: Liberals fail to learn any lesson – Vikas Pathak

Akbaruddin Owaisi visits the tomb of Aurangzeb at Khuldabad in Maharashtra.

Vikas PathakIt seems that the path of legal confrontation—which may again yield precious little except ensuring that a divide between the Hindu and Muslim communities is sustained—is the familiar path we are headed towards. – Vikas Pathak

With a “Shivlinga” at the Gyanvyapi Mosque in Varanasi and the Eidgah at the Krishna Janmabhoomi site being talked about, many commentators have weighed in on how Kashi and Mathura seem set to follow the path of Ayodhya, where the Babri Masjid not just stayed in news for long but also changed the course of Indian politics.

There is a favourite template among liberal commentators when these issues are talked about—these, they claim, are raked up with an eye on politics by cynical manipulators to hoodwink the masses and draw their attention away from “real” issues of jobs, inflation and the like.

However, such arguments presume the people to be gullible. They deliberately attempt not to look at historical trajectories of framing of communities and their responses to them.

The liberal desire to sell the idea that Muslims have been wronged by what they see as “Hindutva fascism”—without either having any stakes in the well-being of Muslims or sharing any of the life experiences of ordinary people from the community—is in part responsible for these issues becoming politically potent repeatedly.

Indian liberals—and Left intellectuals—are caught in a web of duplicity. Their prescriptions for Hindus and Muslims are often opposite. And this duplicity makes common Hindus see them as “anti-Hindu”.

The skewed vision of the Indian liberal also makes him side with conservative sections of Muslim society—something that makes reform or even rational engagement between the two communities impossible.

Let us look at this issue from the prism of history.

The advent of the British saw the framing of Hindus and Muslims in two different ways—something that became part of social common sense.

Medieval India—or the Muslim period—was seen as a period of history when Muslim kings committed atrocities on their Hindu subjects. Be it temple destructions or imposition of jizyah, Hindus were seen to have borne the brunt of atrocities by Muslim kings. This led to the popular perception of the “fanatic Muslim”, a term that has been used even by Bhagat Singh and Mahatma Gandhi if one were to go through their writings closely.

Much later scholarship tried to reverse this common sense, but it was largely confined to ivory towers. Moreover, as Amalendu Mishra has argued, Hindu folk traditions and symbolic-memorial traditions have a role in this common sense sustaining, as these capture traumatic rather than happy moments of history.

So, the modern Muslim leadership of India pre- and post-Partition had this common sense of medieval oppression and fanaticism to deal with and respond to.

It isn’t that the Hindu leadership of modern India had no baggage to deal with. The common sense about Hinduism that emerged in the 19th century was that it was ridden with caste, untouchability and gender discrimination. They had to respond to these charges.

How true or constructed either of the common senses was is not important. How they were addressed by the communities is far more important—because it is these responses that shape the future.

The responses of the two sets of leadership were largely opposite. Influential Hindu social and political leaders from the 19th century to Independence and afterwards tried to address the charge through social reform and change. The abolition of sati, widow remarriage, Dalit temple entry movements of Mahatma Gandhi and others, the abolition of untouchability by a Constituent Assembly largely comprising Hindus and the passage of the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, to prescribe punishment for practising untouchability were all reform measures that were achieved through the efforts largely of Hindu leaders, who often had to counter the Hindu orthodoxy for the same.

In the long term, Hinduism thus survived and flourished by addressing rather than dismissing the charges levelled at it, largely due to a leadership—be it Dayanand Sarawati, Swami Shraddhananda, Swami Vivekananda or Mahatma Gandhi—that sought to address rather than dismiss the charges made on their religion.

Muslim leadership evolved largely in a communitarian direction from the days of Syed Ahmed Khan, who charted a separatist path by insisting that the interests of Hindus and Muslims could not meet and that notions of past Islamic power in India were a sign of historical importance that should make the British promote the interests of the community. True, he was a moderniser for Muslims as regards modern education, but he was India’s original “communalist”. Instances such as the turn of Allama Iqbal and M.A. Jinnah towards separatism never allowed the Muslim community to spawn a leadership that could address concerns regarding the common sense of oppression by Muslim kings.

Post-Partition, as the Muslim population in India fell, there was a chance of course correction. However, a line of scholarships from Tara Chand to Satish Chandra never allowed this to happen. Entire discourses were constructed to balance temple destructions with temple grants—as if destructions were thus justified—and project any oppression as political rather than religious. Even Aurangzeb, who reimposed jizyah and got Guru Tegh Bahadur beheaded, became reasonably “secular”. These “secular scholars” damaged the cause of the common Muslim in India in the long run. For, while they upheld the “commonsensical” charges against Hinduism and celebrated reform, they sought to reject similar charges against Islam in India.

Secular politics also tended to instinctively side with conservative Muslim voices, thus effectively stifling any chances of a secular Muslim leadership in India. Be it the Shah Bano case of the 1980s—when Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister sided with conservative sections among Muslims against the basic needs of an old, divorced, woman—or the recent hijab controversy, when hijab magically became a symbol of free choice for Indian liberals, the tilt was always clear. Those who would never see a ghoonghat as a free choice suddenly found the hijab to be more important than a school uniform in an all-girls’ school, ironically dissociating patriarchal conditioning from attire. And irony died a thousand deaths when they claimed insistence on school uniform was a denial of the right to education, when, in reality, putting the hijab over exams amounts to that.

One wonders how the course of politics would have unfolded if Muslim leaders had agreed to shift the Babri Masjid in the mid-1980s, when the Ram temple movement was picked up by the VHP, as an offer of goodwill to Hindus on the condition that no such dispute would be raked up later, getting the government, Hindu religious orders and the VHP to sign an agreement? The answer is simple: There would have been no Rath Yatra and no rise of the BJP. And the Muslim community would have earned the right to say that they made a generous offer to another religion.

However, neither the conservative Muslim leadership preferred by the Congress nor the liberal and Left intelligentsia took forward this option, pushing Muslims on the path of a legal confrontation. The end result is there for all to see: The Supreme Court awarded the Hindu petitioners the Ayodhya land title.

It seems that the path of legal confrontation—which may again yield precious little except ensuring that a divide between the two communities is sustained—is the familiar path we are headed towards.

The Left and liberal intelligentsia have no stakes in the well-being of Muslims. Rather, their stakes lie in getting published by claiming that India is on the verge of a full “fascist” takeover and is nearing social collapse. This, however, will only deepen fault lines.

The Muslim leadership of India should ideally learn from how Hindu leaders addressed the charge that the religion is caste-ridden. They did not deny the existence of caste. On the contrary, they abolished untouchability by law and offered reservations.

Denial does not obliterate fault lines; it only deepens them. – Firstpost, 19 May 2022

The author is a journalist and media educator.

Gyanvapi Masjid