Even the so-called Muslim parties involved in the dispute are more interested in the land on which the mosque once stood.
As the Ram Mandir-Ayodhya pitch gets shriller in the run-up to the 2019 polls, no one talks of Babri Masjid these days.
Even the so-called Muslim parties involved in the dispute are more interested in the land on which the structure of the 16th century mosque once stood.
The Uttar Pradesh Sunni Wakf Board and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) are hesitant about evoking the assurance given by then Prime Minister P.V. Narsimha Rao in Parliament in 1993 that the Babri Masjid would be rebuilt on the same site.
Does it mean that the structure of Babri Masjid that was destroyed by the kar sevaks in 1992 does not have any political significance in 2019?
Site versus structure of Babri Masjid
The structure of Babri Masjid became a contested entity only after 1949, when a local mob forcibly occupied the mosque and placed the idols of Lord Ram in its central hall.
The local Hindus were never interested in the interior of the mosque before that incident. Their demand was to construct a temple on the site called Janmsthan Chabutra-near the outer boundary wall of the Babri Masjid compound.
The petition filed by the Mahant of the Janamsthan Chabutra in the court of a sub-judge, Faizabad in 1885 was primarily a request for erecting a proper temple at the Chabutra. This suit was dismissed and the permission to construct the temple denied.
Nevertheless, the judge accepted the Mahant’s claim that the Janamsthan Chabutra was actually the property of the local Hindus.
The land/structure debate found a new political life during the time of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani’s famous Rath Yatra. In an interview, Advani made an intresting comparison when he said: “I hold that there is no mosque there. There is a structure of a mosque above the temple. And the problem is that the Hindu sentiments are attached to the place.” (Muslim India, No. 103, July 1991, p.309)
This place-centric politics had crucial implications. In the post-1992 period, the ownership of land became the central point of debate. All stakeholders as well as the political elite began debating the fate of the land and the mosque itself gradually became unimportant.
This overemphasis on the site suited the political requirements of the Muslim elite, who had already started playing the victimhood card. It was inevitable for Muslim leaders to evoke the act of demolition for carving out a space in the post-2000s narrative of Muslim marginalisation.
Demolition, reconstruction, and right to heritage
Babri Masjid was not merely a mosque; it was a heritage entity. Although the mosque was never protected by the Archeological Survey of India as a monument of importance, the historical and archaeological significance of the demolished building cannot be underestimated.
However, its demolition is never interpreted as an attack on the constitutionally granted right to heritage. Even the legal discussion in the famous Ismail Faruqui case (1994) revolved around the government’s ultimate right to acquire any land, including places of worship such as mosques and temples in the name of public purpose.
Similarly, the Place of Worship (Special Provision Act 1991), which declares that the religious character of a place of worship cannot be changed, is not applicable to the Babri Masjid site.
Article 29 (1), which is often described as one of core ‘minority rights’ given to religious and culturally minorities, is very relevant if we go beyond this Hindu versus Muslim representation of Babri Masjid. It says:
‘any section of the citizen residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have a right to conserve the same’
Here, the term ‘culture’ is not specified and it is possible to infer that historically relevant places of worship such as the Babri Masjid could also be seen as culturally relevant sites. Since the Constitution does not define the term ‘any section’ with regard to any religious or linguistic community, a possible reading of this article would suggest that all Indian citizens have a right to preserve the heritage of the country.
In this sense, the demolition of Babri Masjid was a clear violation of the constitutional right to heritage. Therefore, the Ayodhya dispute is not only about ownership of land but also the symbolic destruction of secular heritage.
This possible and overtly secular reading of the Constitution empowers us to make two crucial arguments.
First, the Ayodhya dispute should not be seen through the prism of imaginary history as Hindutva forces do; nor do we need to think of it as a symbol of Muslim victimhood. Indian citizens are legitimate stakeholders in this case and the destruction of the structure of Babri Masjid must be recognised as the violation of the right to heritage.
Second, the 67-acre land in Ayodhya that was acquired by the government in 1993 must be used for ‘public purposes‘ defined strictly in secular terms.
Following the spirit of the Constitution, no religious and/or political organisation should be allowed to use this land. Instead, a memorial must be constructed for commemorating the constitutional principle of ‘unity in diversity’.
This may sound odd in 2019; but this is exactly what many ‘creative minds’ proposed in 1993, immediately after the demolition of Babri Masjid.
Hilal Ahmed is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
(ThePrint is publishing three series on minorities in India by Hilal Ahmed. The ‘Sarkari Muslim‘, Minority Report, and Line of Law will trace the political journey of Muslims in the country. This is the sixth article under Minority Report)