The ‘afterlife’ of Babri Masjid is starker and more provocative than its former life as a disputed political entity. It may have been demolished without a trace, but it is now being commemorated, remembered and even idolised by the Hindutva groups as an ‘imagined monument’. They do not want to address it as the ‘Babri Masjid’, yet, their imagination of the Ram Temple is incomplete without it.
This is evident in the narrative of the Supreme Court-appointed ‘non-political’ Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra (SRJTK) Trust as well.
The new Hindutva worshippers of the imagined Babri Masjid do not want to destabilise the triumphant memories of 1992. For this particular reason, even the Supreme Court judgment is seen through the prism of Hindu aastha (faith) and the proposed Ram Temple is envisaged as a symbol of Hindu victory.
For the unresolvable conflict between Hindus and Muslims to dominate the minds of future generations, the memory of Babri Masjid must be kept alive. And this is what the Trust is doing too, in drawing its inspiration from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
This overwhelming obsession with Babri Masjid is not entirely accidental. It actually stems from the core ideological premise of the Hindutva project, and from its unsettling and impermeant nature.
There are two facets of this ‘unsettling Hindutva’, which, in a way, determine the afterlife of Babri Masjid — the centrality of religious conflict, and a conflict-driven interpretation of present-day Hindu faith.
The centrality of religious conflict
The VHP’s website offers us two very different imaginations of Babri Masjid. The mosque is evoked more directly as an important historical reference point to illustrate the essential and unresolvable conflict between Hindus and Muslims.
The website tells us:
“… the Babri structure, supposed to be a Muslim place of worship, would still be termed as a monument of the slavery and subjugation of the Hindus… since it was built after destroying Shri Rama’s temple, the recovery of the site is…justified”
The success story of the Ram Temple movement, however, is described differently. There is a long discussion on the sacrifice and struggles of the Hindus, without any direct reference to Babri Masjid. The website says:
“Ram Bhaktas relentlessly fought from the year 1528 in 76 battles sacrificing more than 400,000 lives for the reconstruction of a grand Temple at His birth place. The battle intensified from 1984 in a well-organised and mobilised campaign.”
This implicit presence of the mosque, especially with regard to historical chronology, forces the readers to visualise the Ram Temple as a legitimate Hindu response to Islam.
Let us now look at the reception of this centrality of religious conflict thesis in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgment.
The Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, an ‘autonomous non-political body’, was constituted by the Narendra Modi government in 2020. It is worth noting that the Supreme Court judgment empowered the Modi government to set up a body to look after the construction of the Temple as per Section 6 of the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993. The SRJTK Trust, in this sense, is expected to work out a plan of action in accordance with the overall secular spirit of the judgment.
However, we find a very different reception to the Supreme Court verdict. A fragile definition of the term ‘non-political’ has been used to accommodate VHP members in it. At the same time, the VHP’s version of the Ayodhya dispute is accepted as the official history of the proposed Temple. In fact, one finds an almost identical description of the history of Ram Temple on the SRTJK’s website given in Hindi.
The SRJTK’s official history follows a strict timeline — a selected chronology. It tells us that it took 492 years, including 37 years of an organised movement, to liberate the birthplace of Lord Ram. The story identifies a few crucial moments — an implicit reference to 1984, when the VHP launched the Ram Temple movement; 1989, when shilanyas (laying of foundation stone) took place; and 2019, when the Supreme Court delivered its judgment.
There are two interesting aspects of this official history. First, it confines itself to a very specific time period of 492+ years. It simply means that the year 1528 AD (2020-592) — when Babri Masjid was constructed — is identified as the most crucial chronological moment. It doesn’t go into the pre-Babri history of the site.
The SRJTK Trust does not show any interest in tracing a positive history of this site even from its own point of view. Nor does it underline any artistic or spiritual aspects associated with Lord Ram’s religious status as maryada purushottam.
A revised interpretation of the Supreme Court judgment is the second aspect of this narrative. It says:
“Though a matter of faith, it got entangled in the long-drawn processes of courts of law for about 70 years. Finally, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court unanimously declared on 9 November 2019 that ‘this 14,000 square feet of land belongs to Ramlala’.”
This interpretation gives us the impression that the Supreme Court eventually recognised the core Hindutva argument – that the existence of Ram Temple at the site of Babri Masjid is unquestionable – because it is a matter of Hindu aastha.
This is absolutely wrong. The Supreme Court gave its decision on a technical-legal basis. It very categorically refused to accept the Hindu faith argument. The Court strongly asserted that the judiciary “cannot reduce questions of title, which fall firmly within the secular domain…to a question of which community’s faith is stronger”.
It is obvious that the SRJTK Trust, like the VHP, proposes a ‘conflict-driven’ interpretation of the Hindu faith. In this schema, Ram Temple emerges as a symbolic victory of the Hindus, which cannot be understood without invoking Babri Masjid and/or the stories of civilisational wars between Hinduism and Islam.
The emptiness of Hindutva discourse
The survival of Babri Masjid as a formless and nameless entity highlights the emptiness of Hindutva discourse. The SRJTK Trust, which is supposed to be an independent religious body, follows the deeply vexed and troublesome premises of political Hindutva. As a result, Ram Temple has eventually become an anti-thesis of Babri Masjid, and in that sense, the demolition of the mosque doesn’t amount to the erasure of a memory of conflict.
Nehru’s original critique of communalism is very relevant to explain this phenomenon. In Discovery of India, Nehru underlines the limitations of communal worldview. He argues that communalism will always remain a negative, regressive and destructive form of politics. And precisely for this reason, it cannot have any constructive imagination of the future.
The afterlife of Babri Masjid proves that Nehru is absolutely right.
Hilal Ahmed is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)