For the last month or so, I have been carrying out this dialogue with my father who is no more. How does one argue with those advocating for the ‘restoration’ of temples that were demolished in the past?
When I was in school, I was into debating. My father would want me to first present arguments in favour of my opponents in the debate. Instead of quickly demolishing or ridiculing their position, he would find nuanced arguments that supported their position. I found it annoying, for my opponents would not come up with such sharp arguments. But he was adamant: If you cannot present your opponent’s viewpoint fairly, your refutation of it is not worth taking seriously. Throughout his life, he would present the ‘other’ side with unfailing regularity and sympathy.
I guess that is what made me take Professor Rajeev Bhargava’s courses in political philosophy when I went to the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. He formally trained us to do what my father did intuitively. He taught us that you cannot dismiss an argument simply because you dislike its conclusions, and that seemingly illogical arguments deserved logical consideration and response. Much later, I learnt that this is central to the Indian philosophical tradition: You first build ‘purva paksha’, the argument you wish to critique, with utmost fairness. Then you proceed to its refutation in ‘uttar paksha’, or the rebuttal.
That is what I have been mulling over ever since the latest round of digging up disputed sites began with the Gyanvapi Masjid conflict. As I expressed anguish and outrage over this madness, I heard my father’s voice: Have you considered their true argument at its best?
The case for temple restoration
Let me state the case for temple restoration. The past lives in our present. The idea that the past should just be forgotten does injustice to the historical memories that constitute the identity of a community. The idea that historical wrongs must be set right is a universally accepted principle used in the case of indigenous people’s rights. Historical injustice, after all, is the basis for caste-based reservations in India.
Why not apply that argument to the case of historical injustice suffered by the Hindus? Hindus were wronged, their sacred places defiled, desecrated and destroyed by the Muslim rulers who came to India. For long, their powerlessness did not allow that wrong to be addressed. Finally, now a historic injustice is being corrected. Restoring the temples that were destroyed to build mosques is an act of restitution and rectification. This would restore the cultural confidence of Hindus and pave the way for the resurgence of Indian civilisation and nation. The Places of Worship Act, 1991 was a partisan political intervention that comes in the way and must be disregarded or repealed.
I’d have hoped my father would approve of this summary of my opponents’ case. Following his precept, let me also acknowledge where I agree with my “worthy opponents” as we used to say in school debates. They are right to say that historical injustice cannot be glossed over, it needs to be addressed. They are also right to say that there were many instances of the destruction of Hindu temples by several Muslim rulers. Destruction of a place sacred to any community is wrong. Doing it deliberately by using political power in order to target a dispossessed community is the worst form of humiliation. This is bound to cause deep psychological hurt and leave scars on the psyche of the victim community.
Does this make a good case for temple restoration? It would, provided four additional conditions are met. One, this is the only major historical wrong that we need to address today. Two, there is a clear identifiable successor or inheritor of the victim and the perpetrator present before us. Three, the harm caused by the historical wrong continues to put the ‘victim’ community at a disadvantage, and four, the proposed action — restoration of temples in this instance — would redress historically inherited injustice and help society bring closure to that memory.
The case for temple restoration fails all these four tests.
Why the case fails
First of all, this was not the only category of the destruction of places of worship in Indian history that we have to deal with. There are umpteen examples of the destruction of Hindu temples by Hindu invaders and of Jain temples and Buddhist viharas by Hindu kings. Besides, a number of mosques were demolished during Partition in India, just as temples were demolished across the border. A plea for razing ‘disputed’ mosques and the restoration of temples would, thus, invite similar claims for the razing of a number of other places of worship, including some famous Hindu temples.
Second, the idea that the present Hindu community is the victim of historical injustice and its counterpart, the Muslim community, is its perpetrator is simply untrue. Inheritance linkages are far too complicated. Assuming that rulers in Mughal India were the perpetrators of this injustice, by what logic do we see Muslims of today as their descendants? What about those Muslim communities (Meos of Mewat being a prime example) that fought against the Mughals? What about the Rajput and other Hindu rulers that collaborated with them? What about the communities whose ancestors were Hindus at that time and who are Muslims today? Would it not be doubly unjust to now punish them for being at the receiving end of injustice?
Third, it would stretch credulity to claim that the destruction of temples placed the entire Hindu community in a relationship of enduring disadvantage vis-à-vis the whole Muslim community, a disadvantage that persists even after some 500 years. If anything, evidence suggests that whatever advantage any section of the Muslim elite might have enjoyed during the Mughal rule was wiped out during the British rule. The 2006 Sachar Committee Report leaves little doubt that in the current context, the Muslims are clearly in a position of disadvantage vis-a-vis the Hindus in terms of education, jobs, income and social status. This is where the comparison with caste-based reservations fails. Reservation is not vengeance against past injustices. It is based upon a direct and visible impact of historical injustice in contemporary social, educational and economic privilege and disadvantage among different communities.
Reconcile, don’t ‘restore’
Finally, it is quite evident that demolishing one set of religious structures and replacing them with another is not the solution. It would do anything but bring a just closure. The present demand for the restoration of temples is not about justice but triumph — it may succeed in retribution but not in reconciliation. If anything, this will further perpetuate the sense of disadvantage and discrimination among Muslims. This would be the beginning of another historical wrong, further alienation and greater trouble for our society and the nation. Besides, some of these sacred places like the Taj Mahal and the Qutub Minar are part of our national heritage. Any Taliban-like destruction of world heritage would be a crime against humanity.
The only way forward for India is to draw a line and say, “This far and no further.” And the only point where we can possibly draw the line is 15 August 1947. Whichever sacred structure existed in whatever form that day cannot be changed. That is precisely what the Act of 1991 said. That is why that Act must guide us today, not just because it is the law of the land (it may be repealed any day) but because it formalises a condition of our civilised existence.
At this point, my father would have stopped me and asked: Your case may be powerful, but are you saying that we don’t owe anything to the memory of the victims of wanton destruction of places of worship, simply erase our memory and just move on? That forces me to think, as most of his interventions did, even when I resented them. The way to respond to this question is to acknowledge the historical wrongs and the victims of injustices without presupposing that their successors can claim exclusive rights or privileges of retribution on that basis. As a civilisation with a history of co-living as well as conflict and suspicion, we need methods of reconciliation. We need to face the truth of destruction and acknowledge its pain, not just for the Hindus but for all communities that saw the desecration or destruction of their sacred places in the past.
What would that ritual of reconciliation be? A national monument? A national day of truth and reconciliation? I cannot turn to my father for an answer. Maybe I should ask the well of wisdom, the Gyanvapi.
Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)