Mandir wahin baneyenge (We will build a temple there). On Saturday, the Supreme Court of India agreed.
Awarding the entire 2.77 acres of the disputed site where the Babri Masjid once stood to the Hindu community, which holds that the site is the birthplace of Ram Lalla, the Supreme Court granted the Muslim community 5 acres of land to build a mosque elsewhere in Ayodhya.
A centuries-old mosque, the Babri Masjid, was demolished by Hindu “activists” in December 1992 because it lay on the purported birthplace of Ram in Ayodhya. The Supreme Court agreed that the demolition of the mosque was unlawful, but it displaced the Muslim community from the land anyway. The judgment said there was insufficient evidence that the structure demolished to build the mosque was a Hindu temple, but it displaced the Muslim community anyway. Most importantly, the Supreme Court agreed that the disputed land not too long ago was a place of peaceful Hindu and Muslims co-existence, but it displaced the Muslim community anyway.
Challenges to syncretic India
As a secular country, one’s experience of India is that of a land in which all religions—whether churches, gurdwaras, mandirs or masjids—have the right to proud public display of religious thought, practice and ritual, often in close geographic proximity to one another. This rich historical tapestry, a melding of influences from Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Jainism, has created modern Indian culture as the world knows it. Such physical, cultural and spiritual sharing of this singular geography is what leads academics to describe India’s space as “syncretic”, something that reflects the amalgamation of different religious practices and cultures.
In the Supreme Court judgment, the five justices write, “The disputed site has witnessed a medley of faiths and the co-existence of Hindu and Muslim practices, beliefs and customs…[T]he distinctive features of the site, embodying both Hindu and Islamic traditions led to the creation of a space with an identity of its own” (emphasis in the written judgment).
The court’s judgment thus affirms the syncretic nature of Ayodhya.
Beyond merely being a geographical terrain, ‘space’ is an entity produced from multiple social and political experiences, both lived and desired, of multiple entities, such as citizens or governments. How we as active contributors construct and experience the space of our nation also shapes the relations we share with each other and with our government. Because of India’s unique secularism, and guarantee of constitutional equality, one could say that there is some measure of ‘spatial equality’ that all Indian religions enjoy.
But the Ayodhya title dispute judgment, while intending to uphold constitutional equality, poses serious challenges to both syncretism and spatial equality — qualities unique to Indian secularism.
Separating mandir and masjid
A Hindu temple will now be built where the Babri Masjid once stood. The Supreme Court found the previous ruling by Allahabad High Court dividing the land between the Hindu and Muslim communities as “legally unsustainable” and “not feasible”. The sanctioning of a temple in place of a mosque signifies that spatial control, and therefore the shaping of social relationships between religions, rests in the hands of the Hindus and all else must negotiate with it.
To allow one religion to dominate a space is to diminish another’s claim over it.
As the judgment makes clear, this is not a dispute that goes back to the time of Mughal ruler Babur or Hindu god Ram. It is a dispute that can be traced to religious riots that broke out in 1856, soon after the British annexed the kingdom of Oudh. Rather than settling the dispute in line with Ayodhya’s syncretic and peaceful past, the Supreme Court has chosen to erase one side altogether. The allocation of land to Muslims at a “prominent place” elsewhere in Ayodhya redefines how space is to be understood in Indian secularism. Muslims may be granted public space as long as it does not adulterate Hindu space. Mandir and masjid, and consequently their custodians, are best separated.
Two wrongs don’t make a right
None of this is to say that Hindus and Muslims have always co-existed peacefully or that there have not been invaders that destroyed temples (even if that is not so clear in this matter). And one should expect the principles of Indian secularism to restore peaceful co-existence between religions in times of crisis — not choose a winner.
To adjudicate the case, the Supreme Court had to ascertain details on when and where each community prayed in the masjid complex over the course of history. Needless to say, history is far murkier than the exacting details required in this case. By giving into an interpretation of history in which Hindus and Muslims cannot co-exist peacefully, the Court has generated incentives for further aggressive tactics to “reclaim” Hindu spaces — perhaps this time in Mathura or Varanasi.
If we are to set off on this journey of ‘spatial reclamation’ to account for all that was stolen in the name of conquest, then where do we draw the line? For two, or even many, wrongs cannot make a right.
Khushdeep Kaur Malhotra is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. Neelanjan Sircar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.