The Ayodhya dispute has a close relationship with India’s first Lok Sabha election that was held from October 1951 to February 1952. But no one talks about it today.
This strategic denial of the 1950s in the popular Hindutva retelling of the Ayodhya story fits well with the story of the conflict itself. According to this popular political rendition: the dispute begins in pre-historic times with the birth of Lord Ram in the city of Ayodhya; takes a swift turn in 1528 AD when Babar allegedly demolished the Ram Mandir and built the Babri Masjid to dishonour Hinduism; the opening of the locks to the disputed site and allowing religious rituals by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986; and, finally culminates in 1992 when Hindutva groups demolished the Babri Masjid to pave the way for a new struggle for a grand Ram Mandir.
But this chronicling representation of the conflict is factually wrong. The Hindu elite did recognise the significance of the Ayodhya conflict in the 1950s. However, it did not become an election issue. And the political maturity of Jawaharlal Nehru’s government did not allow them to exploit it at that time.
Nascent Hindutva politics
A nascent political party called Ram Rajya Parishad, founded in Rajasthan in 1947 by jagirdars and religious leaders like Swami Karpatri, was formed to revive Ram Rajya, dharma and the old order. It was against secularised Hindu Code Bill, killing of cows and monkeys, and the reform of the caste system.
In 1949, Swami Karpatri along with Digvijay Nath of the Hindu Mahasabha raised the Ayodhya janmasthan issue in several local meetings, found University of Toronto’s associate professor Malavika Kasturi’s during research for her forthcoming book.
But when the Ram Rajya Parishad fought in India’s first Lok Sabha election with universal franchise in 1952, the Ayodhya issue was conspicuously missing from its election manifesto. The party promised to bring back the “blessed days of Lord Rama’s reign…(when) everyone was contended, happy…and religious”. It assured the voter that they would link India’s “glorious past with budding future” (Myron Weiner, Party Politics in India: The Development of a Multiparty System, London: Oxford University Press, 1957, p. 174). This evocation of Ram Rajya, however, was not linked to the liberation of the birthplace of Lord Ram or any proposal to construct a grand Ram Mandir.
This was curious because there were some incidents in Ayodhya, police complaints and lawsuits in the years preceding the 1952 election.
In fact, the three prominent pro-Hindu nationalist organisations active in eastern UP at that time —the Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS (and later Jana Sangh) and the Ram Rajya Parishad— gradually moved away from the Ayodhya issue.
A local mazar (tomb) was demolished near the Babri Masjid in mid-December 1949. This was followed by a nine-day uninterrupted recitation (Akhand Path) of Ramcharitmanas around it organised by Swami Karpatri and the leader of Akhil Bhartiya Ramayan Mahasabha, Baba Raghav Das (who was associated with the local Congress in Faizabad). (Christophe Jafferlot, Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925-1990s, Delhi: Penguin, 1999, p. 94)
This Akhand Path was followed by an organised and successful attempt on the night of 22 December 1949 to place idols of Lord Ram forcibly inside the Babri Masjid. An FIR on the incident mentioned around 60 people who trespassed and desecrated the mosque. The district administration took possession of the mosque on the same day. However, it did not remove the idols from the inner part of the mosque. A civil suit was filed in 1950 to seek the right to worship. (Hilal Ahmed, Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation, Oxon: Routledge, 2014, p. 213)
Political management of the crisis
Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel criticised this incident and asked the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, G.B. Pant, to protect the status of the mosque. Although Pant did not support the Hindu Rightists’ version of the conflict, he remained reluctant to follow the advice of Patel.
Nehru was deeply worried about the situation, especially at a time the country was going for the first Lok Sabha election.
In a letter written to K.G. Mashruwala on 5 March 1950, Nehru said: “Baba Raghav Das gave his approval to it…District Officer…took no step…Pant condemned the act…but refrained taking definite action…I have been greatly distressed about it.” (A.G. Noorani, The Muslims of India: A Documentary Record, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 242)
The Uttar Pradesh government did not disappoint Nehru. It controlled the situation firmly in the coming months. The status quo was maintained at the site of the dispute; and at the same time, main leaders and supporters of the temple agitation, including the local secretary of Hindu Mahasabha, Gopal Singh Visharad, were arrested. (Christophe Jafferlot, Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925-1990s, Delhi: Penguin, 1999, p. 95)
Reasons why Babri Masjid didn’t make it to national politics
There were three reasons, which discouraged the political elite, especially the Hindu organisations, from using the Babri Masjid site as a nationally significant symbol for electoral politics in 1952.
First, the Ayodhya conflict did not have a wider symbolic appeal in the 1950s. It was certainly easier for the Hindu Right to evoke the argument that an old temple of Lord Ram was demolished to construct the Babri Masjid, and therefore the mosque should be reconverted into a temple in Ayodhya. But such an argument did not have the capacity to produce a politically organised community of Hindu voters at the national level. This was, after all, the first election when everybody got the right to vote. They were unsure if the issue would work on a mass scale.
Second, the nature of legal conflict in the Ayodhya case transformed it into a politically irrelevant entity. Babri Masjid had legal status as a waqf property, which was technically owned and possessed by Muslims of Ayodhya at the time when it was declared a disputed site. It was not an easy task for the Hindu political elite to challenge this legal status in the realm of electoral politics. They did not have any legal evidence and it was not possible for them to rely entirely on faith-driven history of Lord Ram’s birthplace.
Even in 1959, the RSS passed resolutions about Krishna’s birthplace in Mathura and Gyanvyapi mosque in Varanasi, but not Ayodhya.
The lethargic nature of legal processes actually produced concrete evidence in favour of Hindutva claim only in later years. The presence of idols inside the mosque; court-appointed priest to offer bhog to the idols and adverse possession of the property for more than 12 years empowered the VHP/BJP to play a more confident legal politics of Ram Janmabhoomi only in the late 1980s—almost after 35 years of the dispute.
Third, the active state-intervention by the Congress government in Ayodhya did not allow the Hindu organisations to use the Babri Masjid site as a symbol of political victory for many years. The status quo in the case also went against them. The Congress, on the other hand, relied on the charismatic personality of Nehru and his promise of nation-building.
The 1952 Lok Sabha election results clearly reflect the success of Nehru’s confident politics of positive nationalism. The Congress not only won both the seats from Faizabad district, but its candidate M.A. Kazmi also secured 41 per cent votes and defeated his nearest rival – Ram Rajya Parishad’s Surendra Prasad Sahi in Faizabad – by a huge margin. (Statistical Report On General Elections, 1951, Election Commission of India, New Delhi. p. 115)
And it happened just after two years of the communal incidents in Ayodhya. Therein lies the argument about political will.
The author is associate professor at CSDS, and author of the new book titled Siyasi Muslims: A Story of Political Islams in India. Views are personal.