It was the vehemence of the reaction from the BJP establishment that convinced me that this time was different. As I have written before, the Hindu Right-wing has followed a strategy of keeping communal tensions on a steady simmer. Hindu-Muslim issues are constantly raised — the ‘secret’ rooms at the Taj Mahal ‘which was actually a Hindu palace’, the demand for renaming of Delhi’s Akbar and Humayun Roads, the fuss over schoolgirls in hijab and so on — because the BJP usually does better electorally when Hindu emotions run high. Moreover, the religious issues serve as a useful distraction from the reality of today’s India: inflation, high fuel prices, Chinese presence inside our borders, etc.
At first, I assumed that the controversy over an alleged shivling at a mosque in Varanasi was just another of those issues. The BJP would make it a talking point and then, when the issue ran out of steam, it would find something new to raise.
But this time, it seems as though the Gyanvapi mosque issue is here to stay. As the alleged shilving in question looked a lot like a fountain, there was a flurry of jokes on social media about similarly shaped objects that could also be described as shivlings. Some of these jokes were harmless enough; others were in questionable taste. But no matter what the joke was, the BJP IT cell and its surrogates in the world of social media retaliated with devastating force. Anyone who had made such a joke was abused, threatened with prosecution and warned that the wrath of Lord Shiva had been incurred.
Then, the Delhi Police, always the best indicator of what the mood of the government is, got in on the act and arrested a Delhi University professor and Dalit activist who had tweeted about the shivling controversy. When he was produced before the court the next day, the professor was lucky enough to appear before a fair-minded judge who gave him bail though the counsel for the Delhi police asked that he be sent to judicial custody for 14 days.
All this—the simulated anger, the arrest, the vigorous social media campaign— indicates only one thing: this is not just another keep-the-pot-boiling issue. This is a matter that the BJP takes seriously and will stick with, perhaps, all the way to the next Lok Sabha election in 2024.
How the fire started
If you think about it—as I did when it became clear how serious the BJP was about the mandir-masjid issue—it really is a no-brainer. It is easy to see why the Sangh and its organs and allies want to harp on this issue. It is, after all, exactly how the BJP rose to national prominence in the first place, way back in the 1980s.
You may already know all this but bear with me while I do a brief history recap for younger readers.
In the 1984 Lok Sabha election, the BJP was wiped out, winning just two seats. It searched desperately for an issue to stage a comeback. It found one, in 1986/7, in the Babri Masjid controversy.
This was an old dispute over a mosque in Ayodhya. Some Hindus claimed that the mosque had been built by Muslims who had destroyed the temple that originally stood there. It wasn’t just any old temple either, the Hindu side in the dispute said, it was a temple erected on the exact spot where Lord Ram had been born.
The dispute had raged for decades and the controversy led to the end of all religious ceremonies in the mosque. Namaz had not been said there for years and it was, for all practical purposes, a disused, dilapidated, disputed structure.
L.K. Advani brought the dispute to national attention by asking that Muslims move the mosque so that a Ram temple could be built on the spot. The mosque had no special significance for Muslims, he said, and mosques were moved all the time, often brick by brick, in Pakistan for such mundane reasons as to facilitate the building of a highway. He would even help them move the mosque, he offered, because surely, Muslims recognised that this was one of the most sacred spots in Hinduism.
A lot of this was less reasonable than it sounded. Most Hindus outside of UP had never even heard of this Ramjanmabhoomi spot till Advani raised the issue. And in any case, we know so little about the historical Ram that is impossible to say where he was born. Advani brushed all these objections aside (“it is a matter of faith”, he said) because he knew what would happen next.
He was sure a) the management of the mosque and Muslim organisations would reject any compromise solution; b) he was sure that secularists would deny that there was ever a temple at the site even though, without archaeological excavations, nobody could be sure of this; and c) the Congress government would back the recalcitrant mosque management.
All of the above duly happened — as Advani had hoped it would. He then moved into phase two of his campaign. He used the stubbornness of the mosque management and the aggressive stance of something called the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC) to make his real point: What kind of secularism was it when Muslims could hold on to a disused mosque that had been built by destroying a Hindu temple and brazenly deny Hindus access to one of their most sacred sites? This was not secularism, he said, this was ‘pseudo-secularism’.
At this, the secular establishment doubled down on its stubborn stance, reasserted that there never had been a temple there (how did they know? I wondered) and called Advani names.
I thought they had walked into Advani’s trap. My view then (borne out, I think, by what followed in the decades to come) was that this pseudo-secularism thing was catching on and Advani had successfully created a sense of Hindu victimhood. Far better, therefore, for Muslims themselves to come forward and to offer to shift the structure as a gesture of magnanimity. After all, it wasn’t even a functioning mosque. That would deflate Advani’s campaign and make it impossible for him to go on about Muslim appeasement.
Nearly everyone who heard me out said that what I was advocating was dangerous and communal. Didn’t I realise that if Muslims gave in this time, the BJP would ask for every mosque to be moved?
I responded that if the Muslim side did not (even for purely tactical reasons) suggest some sort of accommodation, the sense of Hindu victimhood would grow, that the BJP would get even more extreme in its position and that demands for returning disputed ‘temples’ would actually increase.
I won’t bore you with the rest of the story because, well, you know it already.
Mandir-masjid claims are here to stay
The whole episode taught us several things. One of them was that when there are fault lines between communities (and let’s not forget that India was born in the bloodshed of Hindu-Muslim violence), the worst thing any government can do is to aggressively back obstinate positions taken by one community. Another was that political secularists did not really understand the Hindu sense of historical grievance.
And finally, you cannot rewrite history to suit the needs of today’s politics. You cannot say that no Muslim ever destroyed a temple or broke an idol—because they did. You cannot say with certainty whether or not a mosque was built on the site of a temple without looking at the evidence—and yet, secularists were committed to denying that any mosque had ever been built after destroying any temple.
I am not sure many secularists have learned any of those lessons, not even after the fiasco of the Babri Masjid, which was destroyed while a Congress government ruled in Delhi. And the spot where it stood has now been given to the Hindu side in the dispute to build a temple.
How much easier would it have been to settle that dispute in 1988? If nothing else, it would have stopped the Hindu Right from using the disused masjid as a symbol of so-called Muslim appeasement. And it may have prevented at least some of the communal hatred that the controversy fostered.
The BJP, on the other hand, has learned the lessons of the Babri Masjid saga well. It knows that once it raises the issue of any mosque that may have been built on the site of a mandir, the knee-jerk secular response will be to deny the historicity of the claim. When some of these mosques will turn out to have been built after destroying temples, it will reinforce the old Sangh claim that the secular establishment is biased towards Muslims.
That’s why the BJP is raising the issue of mosques and temples at Kashi and Mathura again. It wants the secular establishment to tie itself up in knots. And even if nothing happens to change the character of what it calls symbols of Islamic subjugation of Hindu religious shrines, the campaign will still appeal to its Hindu base.
Scratch at the past, blood will flow again
Will nothing happen? Secularists are convinced these issues are doomed because the Places of Worship Act passed in 1991 preserves the religious character of a place of worship as it existed in 1947. And even in the Ayodhya judgment, the Supreme Court praised this Act.
The problem is that courts will entertain suits about temples and mosques anyway, regardless of what the Act says. The Supreme Court must know that the 1991 Act was intended to “foreclose any controversy” such as those “arising from time to time in conversion of places of worship.”
Despite that, it has allowed litigation about the Gyanvapi dispute to continue and has allowed local courts to commission surveys that seek to determine whether the structure was once a temple.
Given that the Supreme Court still respects (I think) the 1991 Act, what happens if the survey shows that the mosque was indeed built on the site of a temple? Will the court take the line that even so, it’s tough luck for Hindus because the 1991 Act bans any change in the character of places of worship? And isn’t that exactly what the BJP needs? Exactly what it wants?
So, the secular establishment is mistaken if it thinks that the 1991 Act changed everything or that the Supreme Court will not allow such controversies to proliferate. Both assumptions are being proved wrong every day.
Far better for all secularists to admit what many of us intuitively believe anyway: Yes, medieval temples were converted into mosques. But centuries later, there is not a lot that we can do about it. Nor does it make any sense to blame today’s Muslims for deeds committed hundreds of years ago.
Indian history has many unfortunate chapters including the way we have treated our Dalits. But Dalits do not demand bloody revenge from us for the atrocities our society has inflicted on them for generations. All of us try and move on as one nation.
Scratch at the scabs of historical injustices and the blood will flow again. At a time when India needs healing, not more bloodshed, neighbour will turn against neighbour. Instead of going forward to claim our rightful place in the world, we will walk backwards, reliving the darkest chapters of our history.
But let’s not kid ourselves: It will certainly help swing elections. It has worked in the past. And it will work again.
Vir Sanghvi is an Indian print and television journalist, author, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)