By Swapan Dasgupta
A good wine improves with age and good cellarage. To understand why 17 years of official patronage transformed a rich harvest of frenzy in Ayodhya into Justice Liberhan’s rancid pickle, it is instructive to look at the demographic realities of today’s India.
Assuming that the political consciousness of an average individual begins at 18, it is revealing that the traumatic events of December 6, 1992, constituted a lived experience for only those Indians who are 35 years of age and older. For the remainder who make up some 60 per cent of the population, the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid battle was the obsession of an earlier generation. In a country where a sense of history is in any case feeble, the emotive fervour of the past has not been passed on to another generation.
The furore over the Liberhan report is likely to prove a five-day wonder for a number of reasons.
First, the credibility of the exercise has been sullied by Justice Liberhan inveigling for himself the longest deadline in officialdom.
Secondly, its conclusions have not added to the pre-existing knowledge of the involvement of the RSS in the demolition of the 16th century structure.
Thirdly, its strictures against the usual suspects have been rendered farcical by the needless inclusion of Atal Bihari Vajpayee among the 68 persons responsible for sullying communal relations.
Fourthly, by exonerating the P.V. Narasimha Rao government of any responsibility, it has given the impression of political bias. If, as Liberhan claims, there was a widespread conspiracy involving the entire Sangh Parivar to bring down the Babri structure, the Centre must have been a repository of either high-level ineptitude or complicity to believe Kalyan Singh’s assurance of good conduct.
Finally, by choosing caution over grandstanding in its Action Taken Report, the Centre has negated the possibility of renewed mobilisation over a dormant dispute.
The Centre’s refusal to extend the accusing finger pointed at the RSS and BJP to a punitive political conclusion may be the object of initial ridicule. In the short run it may even embolden hotheads into imagining that the fear of a Hindu backlash has thwarted a fresh bout of prosecutions and bans — the RSS was banned by the Rao government immediately after the demolition but this was lifted by the Bahri Commission review six months later. In the coming days we are certainly going to hear a lot of unrepentant noises from a section of the Sangh Parivar, particularly the VHP.
However, while the Centre may have based its passivity on the need to prevent Hindu nationalism from re-acquiring a united face, there is a more awkward reality the BJP and RSS must come to acknowledge.
In hindsight, L.K. Advani’s famous assertion in 1990 that the Ayodhya movement will be the “biggest mass mobilisation” of independent India turned out to be almost prescient. The movement to right a historical wrong shook India, redrew the contours of electoral politics and destroyed the Congress’ monopoly over political power. Yet, this spectacular Hindu upsurge had a definite context. To many, particularly in the rural Hindi heartland, it was an outpouring of simple religiosity — the need to give back to Lord Ram his imagined janmasthan in Ayodhya — tempered by the clever symbolism of Ram shilan, rath yatra and kar seva. To others, it was a simple expression of Hindu pride — “garv se kaho hum Hindu hain.” To a third group, the so-called “political Hindus”, it was a movement to roll back the frontiers of the Nehruvian consensus. Its Hindutva — the first time this term acquired a meaningful political currency — lay in forcing agnostic secularism into acknowledging the Hindu basis of nationhood.
Individually, none of these diverse currents had the ability to shape the political agenda. It was the grand (and expedient) coalition of the three that made Ayodhya the dominant theme of Indian politics for a decade.
It is, however, equally important to remember the wider social and political environment that nurtured the Ayodhya movement. The late 1980s were marked by the growing realisation that India’s experiments in socialism had reached a crisis point. The domestic economy was in crisis and riddled with corruption, nepotism, shortages and over-regulation; opportunities for individual and collective self-improvement were hard to come by; and the new age promised by Rajiv Gandhi was soured by Shah Bano, Bofors and Quattrocchi. It was this wider existential dejection that gave the Ayodhya movement its fillip. It encapsulated protest, millenarianism and modernity under one roof; simultaneously, it was an upsurge born of the frustrations of prolonged defeat.
Now, 17 years later, India is a changed place. The sense of defeat has given way to a new optimism centred on expanding opportunities. The beleaguered Hindu of 1992 is now the self-confident Hindu of 2007, confident that India can make a mark in the world. The root causes of the Ayodhya explosion no longer exists. It has been replaced by a new headiness, a new brashness, a new impatience and even a new nationalism. The sons and daughters of the very Hindus who celebrated December 6, 1992, by distributing mithai and then voting the BJP into power in 1998 today recoil in horror at the images of frenzied kar sevaks tearing down an old monument. A generational change has witnessed a shift in mentalities brought about by concentrated economic growth, sustained global exposure and the slow disintegration of the joint family. The slogans which inspired an earlier generation don’t gel with those who reached political maturity after 1992.
In their own way both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani recognised this and attempted to reinvent the BJP. Two general election defeats have, however, rekindled the ambitions of those who are unfamiliar with the 21st century and most at home in their own little ghettos. There is a tussle in the BJP between those who want to leave Ayodhya to history and those who want to relive the past in the present. Liberhan’s report may force a decision. Let us hope it will be a choice grounded in reality.