The Mosque and the Temple: The Rise of Fundamentalism

Ved Mehta. Foreign Affairs. Volume 72, Issue 2. Spring 1993.

Today, everywhere one looks in India one sees political deterioration and religious turmoil. In the northeast, in the state of Assam, the Hindus are trying to expel hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants who have been streaming in from impoverished Bangladesh; and, in other parts of the northeast, for some time the Nagas, the Gurkhas, the Mizos, and the Jharkhands have all had secessionist movements afoot. In the northwest, the government has turned Kashmir, which has a predominantly Muslim population, into a virtual police state, thereby stoking its secessionist movement. Similarly, Indira Gandhi’s 1984 attack, in Amritsar, on the Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, and the government’s military suppression since then of the violent Sikh movement for an independent homeland in Punjab have created an apparently insoluble religious conflict between the Hindus and the Sikhs there, turning that state into an Indian version of Northern Ireland. Throughout the country, in all the major religions, extremism has been steadily on the rise over the last decade.

The Mosque’s Destruction

The most egregious example of Hindu extremism concerns Babari Masjid, a mosque built in Ayodhya in 1528 by a lieutenant of the Mogul Emperor Babar in what is now the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. In 1987, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in concert with several private extremist Hindu organizations, embarked on a campaign to demolish the mosque and erect in its place a temple to Ram, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu and the protagonist of the great Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana. The BJP and its allies could not have chosen a more effective image and symbol than Ram to promote their cause among the people. For centuries, his exemplary life has been a model for Hindus, especially in northern India. His name is known to every child and is constantly invoked as a symbol of love and peace, unselfishness and renunciation, suffering and endurance. The recitation of his name is to most Hindus a little like what making the sign of the cross is to Catholics. Although only the town of Ayodhya is associated with Ram, the BJP and its allies claimed—on the strength of some dubious legendary sources—that the very site of the mosque was the birthplace of Ram. They called for its liberation from Muslims and for the establishment of Rama Rajya, a sort of “God’s kingdom,” throughout India.

The BJP campaign was immediately seen by the Indian Muslims, a minority a hundred million strong, as a Hindu attack on their religion and their rights. But the JP and its allies only intensified their campaign, whipping up Hindu sentiment and rallying millions of people to their cause, most of them in northern India. In October of 1990, V. P. Singh, then prime minister, went as far as to use troops to block tens of thousands of demonstrators marching on Ayodhya. Nonetheless, the march received enormous national attention and launched the BJP as a major political force. By 1991, it had become the main opposition to the ruling Congress Party in Delhi and had captured four important state governments. The BJP and its allies organized a second march on Ayodhya for December 6, 1992. In preparation for the event, the state government of Uttar Pradesh—a BJP government —constructed approach roads to the town, installed electrical connections, and, through a fraudulent legal maneuver, acquired a plot of land near the mosque. On the appointed morning, marchers thronged around barricades cordoning off the mosque and began praying. Around eleven o’clock, some of them broke through the barricades and, climbing up onto the domes and using primitive tools, such as sledgehammers, set to work smashing the mosque; others began a clearing the surrounding land by demolishing the houses of Muslims, who could offer no resistance. Within a few hours, the structure was razed to the ground, its debris whisked away, a makeshift temple erected, and an idol of Ram set up inside. The vandals and their leaders seemed such a well-trained band and did their work with such dispatch that it was hard to escape the conclusion that the entire operation had been planned.

The BJP had given assurances to the new prime minister, Narasimha Rao, that the marchers would not harm the mosque, and Rao had accepted the assurances—either because he thought that if something happened to the mosque blame would be attached to the BJP or, more likely, because he is an indecisive man, who prefers to do nothing. (It is said that when he is a guest he has trouble deciding whether to drink coffee or tea.) In any event, he had not posted troops at the mosque. State police had been present, but had done little more than set off a few rounds of tear gas and charge into the crowds with bamboo staves.

On the face of it, the destruction of one mosque might not seem likely to have long-term consequences. Moreover, Babari Masjid, a crumbling structure, was a mosque of no particular architectural distinction and, because of bitter religious controversy between Hindus and Muslims, had not been used as a place of worship since 1949. But over the years the mosque had become a symbol of the Indian government’s determination to protect the Muslim minority and uphold the tradition of the secular state. India has a long history of maintaining amicable relations among its many religions; for instance, the sixteenth-century Mogul Emperor Akbar was renowned for his policy of impartiality toward all religions. Every leader of independent India has known that neither democracy nor the union can survive without a national policy of religious toleration. Now the mosque’s destruction has touched off the most widespread Hindu-Muslim riots since the partition of India in 1947.

At the time of this writing, more than three thousand people have been killed and more than a hundred cities have had to impose dusk-to-dawn curfews. It was originally thought that the mosque was an issue only among the illiterate poor, and that middle-class people living in the cities would not be drawn into the religious conflict. But then Bombay, the commercial capital of the nation, was all but shut down by the worst religious riots it has ever known. On December 15, 1992, Prime Minister Rao was forced by Arjun Singh, a powerful Congress Party Leader, to dismiss the BJP government in the four states where it was in power and to arrest the party’s national leaders. Although the leaders were later freed, the belated and seemingly vindictive action against the BJP further weakened what had already been seen as India’s feeblest government since independence. Recently, however, Rao has shown some resolve—in, for instance, preventing the BJP from holding a big political rally in the capital. One reason he is able to take such action is that the BJP has to rely for support on only a few northern states, and therefore must show some restraint and responsibility if it is to have any hope of winning a national election.

India’s National Identity

At the time of the destruction of the mosque, the Indian Supreme Court was adjudicating the question of whether the land on which the mosque stood belonged to the Hindus or the Muslims—an issue that had been in dispute since at least 1857. The handling of the case was a typical Indian response to an insoluble problem: allow confusion, delay, and neglect to run their course in the hope that one day a compromise would emerge. Now mob rule has been allowed to supersede the rule of law. The BJP and its allies have taken to claiming that Hindu temples once stood on the sites of other mosques besides Babari Masjid. Some BJP hotheads are even making that claim about the Jama Masjid, in Delhi, which is perhaps the greatest mosque in India, and also about the Taj Mahal; indeed, the authorities are reported to be considering surrounding the latter, a “wonder of the world,” with barbed wire. These extremists have produced little evidence to buttress their various claims. One is bound to ask how far, and to what effect, they will carry the process of erasing hundreds of years of the Mogul past from the palimpsest of Indian history in the hope of discovering Hindu glory.

The recent Hindu campaign is seen as having given justification both to the Hindu faithful for taking the law into their own hands in the service of a higher purpose and to the Hindu politicians for capitalizing on the firestorm started by the destruction of the mosque. Certainly politicians have succeeded in making “Ram” a battle cry and turning a symbol of peace and renunciation of regal prerogatives into a symbol of violence and greed for power. Muslim militants have always used “Allah” as a battle cry—it is part of Islam’s military inheritance—but the use of a god’s name as a battle cry has no precedent in Hinduism, which is singular among religions in its reverence for all living things. Also, unlike the Muslims and the Sikhs, whose divines, as a matter of course, have always been involved in politics (both religions are theocratic), Hindus traditionally stayed out of politics, in part because they have no one sacred book, no one god—indeed, no one set of beliefs.

But now Hindu priests have entered politics. Some of them are calling for a revision of the constitution in order to establish a wholly Hindu India—an India where Hindus, who make up eighty-three percent of the population, would rule, and religious minorities would be reduced to second-class status. If one directs those priests’ attention to the example of Lebanon, they look blank. Either they have not heard of the country or they do not think that what has happened in Lebanon can happen in India. One detects all across India a new feeling of uncertainty and religious instability, and also a general hardening of mood among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, who seem to lack all comprehension of the degree of social upheaval it augurs. Information is inaccurate and unreliable, since the government is constantly trying to keep inflammatory news out of the press, fearing that disturbances will spread like wildfire through a country filled with antagonistic castes, tribes, and religious groups.

The mosque episode has raised anew the whole issue of Indian identity. In the old secular climate, people tended to think of themselves as Indians first; now they tend to think of themselves as Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs first. Even some enlightened, liberal Hindus have started thinking of themselves as Hindus first, and have jumped onto the BJP bandwagon in the hope of bringing about the transformation of secular India into Hindu India. Thanks to inflamed religious passions, the Hindu right and the promoters of religious bigotry seem to be winning votes from secular centrists and advocates of religious toleration (most of them in the Congress Party).Just as India is finally freeing its economy from socialist shibboleths and government controls in preparation for joining the global economy, the country seems to be regressing into the pre-Mogul, medieval Hindu India; its response to rapid change seems to be atavistic retreat. In a smaller country with a more uniform religious character, the failure to resolve such a conflict between the new and the old might not be catastrophic. India, however, is all but a subcontinent, with a population that includes more Muslims than that of, for instance, the Muslim nation of Bangladesh. Even Pakistan has only ten million more Muslims than India.

Indian Muslims must share the blame for the rowing religious conflict. Since independence, their leaders, like Imam Bukhari and Syed Shahabuddin, have taken a conservative—almost fundamentalist—line, doing nothing to encourage open-mindedness and cooperation with Hindus and Sikhs. They have also done very little to improve the status of their people, who, by and large, are less well off economically than either the Hindus or the Sikhs. Hindu leaders, for their part, have never accepted the so-called two-nation theory, which holds that Hindus and Muslims must have separate countries. They have long feared a pan-Islamic movement stretching from Pakistan through Afghanistan and Iran and across the whole of North Africa, and are now delighted to have their own country’s Muslims on the run. In a country whose religious minorities include not only Muslims and Sikhs but also Christians, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, and Jews, and which has already been partitioned, the struggle in Ayodhya over the mosque and the temple has raised the specter not only of Lebanon but also of Yugoslavia. Balkanization has all along been the greatest threat to the country—for, like the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire, India has many warring races, nationalities, and language groups.

Will India Crumble?

Cassandras, always highly vocal in India, maintain that only some kind of military dictatorship can now preserve the unity of the country, and they predict that sooner or later it will succumb to such a system, as so many of its poor neighbors have done. One can argue, however, that Indians are resilient people and have a way of living with their problems; hence John Kenneth Galbraith’s description of independent India as “functioning anarchy.” The country’s democratic tradition, though relatively new, has served as a safety valve for every kind of national, religious, and caste rivalry. The middle class, which was a tiny fraction of the population at independence, may now amount to as much as twenty percent, and it has a strong interest in the survival of a democratic, united India. Moreover, Hinduism has been for most of its history a pacific and tolerant religion, accommodating everything from animism to Tantric exercises and mysticism. It has never proselytized. And it may be that the extremely rigid hierarchy of three thousand or more castes and subcastes in Hinduism, which has been a force of stability for more than twenty-five hundred years, can help to keep the country together. Castes have been such a dominant part of Indian society that even when some of its people were converted to Islam or Sikhism—and most of the original Indian Muslims and all the original Sikhs were converts—they continued to observe the social distinctions of the Hindu caste system. In a sense, Indian Muslims have much more in common with Indian Hindus than with the Muslims in the rest of the world. And certainly all Indians have much more in common with each other than do, say, the peoples of the former Soviet Union.

While, in the end, India may not disintegrate, the country has, in its forty-five years of independence, forfeited a singular opportunity to modernize itself. The government could have been minimizing expenditure on defense and concentrating instead on hygiene and sanitation, on a safe water supply, on agriculture, on extending electricity in villages, on controlling population growth (since independence the population has almost tripled), on preventing the spread of pollution (New Delhi now ranks third among the world’s worst-polluted cities), and on truly liberating the Indian economy and opening it up to foreign capital, thus averting the rise of the religious extremism and Hindu chauvinism that now threaten the nation’s very existence.