Much of the Indian city of Ayodhya is dotted with small Hindu temples. But there is a particular site with no temple on it, which draws worldwide attention and remains a flashpoint of Hindu-Muslim religious tension.
For centuries, a mosque, known as the Babri Masjid, stood on this site in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The founder and first emperor of Mogul India, Zahir ud-Din Muhammad Babar had ordered it built nearly 500 years ago. It took two years to erect the structure, which was completed in 1529, the year before his death. While a functioning mosque until the early 1990s, its history has been controversial.
Ayodhya was a fabled mythical city-state. Legend has it that it was the kingdom of Hindu god Ram, who is believed to have been born exactly on the spot where the Babri mosque was built. A legend being a legend, there are no verifiable historical records to substantiate this claim. That, however, never prevented the Hindu majority of Mogul India, ruled by an Islamic minority, from holding on to this view.
Archaeological evidence suggests the site had a temple structure prior to the building of the mosque.
During the period of Mogul rule, which lasted between 1526 and 1857, there were murmurs about Ram’s birthplace being usurped by the Moguls for their mosque. When the British took charge of India in 1857, some Hindus protested against the illegality of the site. The colonial British administration was well aware of the contested dynamics of the Ayodhya site and kept it divided – much like Temple Mount in Jerusalem. While it permitted the Muslim worshippers to pray inside the mosque, it nonetheless allowed the Hindus to perform puja, a Hindu form of worship, outside the disputed site.
When India became independent in 1947, many hardline Hindus demanded the site be returned to their community. In 1949, two years after the partition of India, Hindu activists entered the mosque building and placed the idols of Ram and his consort Sita in the main prayer hall. The then-prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, demanded that the idols be removed. For a while, the local hardline Hindu priests kept offering daily worship. However, following a lawsuit by Muslim clerics, the courts intervened and the gates to the mosque were locked, leaving the idols inside.
In the decades that followed, both Hindus and Muslims made several legal and populist attempts to claim ownership of the now out-of-bounds mosque. But it would be another quarter of a century before the issue would once again become the rallying cry for Hindus. In 1984, the Hindu organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or the World Council of Hindus, initiated a nation-wide campaign to garner public support for access to the mosque.
This move galvanized Hindu right-wing sentiment in a big way. On December 6, 1992, a Hindu mob tore down the mosque with pickaxes and hammers. In the months that followed, a countrywide communal fury led to the killing of more than 2,000 people, most of them Muslim. Some critics argue that the destruction of the Babri mosque by the Hindu radicals was the turning point in Hindu-Muslim relations in contemporary India.
India being a democracy, the matter didn’t end there. The courts intervened and the site was cordoned off. Subsequently, the event provided fuel to the religious nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which made building a new temple dedicated to Lord Ram an election manifesto issue. Nearly 30 years later, nationalist Hindus continue to push for a new temple to be built on the site. Yet Muslims want to rebuild the mosque in the same spot where it once stood before it was destroyed.
There have been several court battles over the site. For the legal bodies involved, it has always been a dispute wrapped in myth and boxed in contentious history. In 2011, appreciating the historical and mythical nature of claims and counter-claims, the top legal adjudicating body in the province, the Allahabad High Court, ruled that the disputed land be divided between Hindus, Muslims and a Hindu religious sect based near the site.
The key Hindu and Muslim disputants in the case, however, challenged the verdict and moved their case to India’s Supreme Court, which has been tasked with finding a final resolution to the conflict.
In March 2019, the Supreme Court appointed a three-member panel for mediation – one retired Muslim supreme court judge, a senior advocate and a Hindu spiritual guru with a global following. The method, if somewhat unorthodox, shows awareness of the emotional dynamics surrounding this dispute.
The mediators’ objective is to balance emotions and seek a middle ground solution that can help provide healing. They are expected to suggest who should have ownership over the 2.77 acres of disputed land in Ayodhya before India elects a new federal government in late May 2019.
The militant Hindu hardline party, the Shiv Sena, with a rowdy cadre base, is less convinced about the mediation process. Instead, it proposes that in order to break the impasse, the central government should “start the construction of Ram temple.”
Despite the ongoing mediation, the Ayodhya dispute has not been at the forefront of the campaign for the 2019 elections. Yet, it would be wrong to suggest the nationalist BJP of prime minister Narendra Modi has abandoned the issue altogether. Ayodhya remains a rallying point for hardline Hindus. In its 2019 “Sankalp Patra”, or election manifesto, the ruling BJP has expressed its resolve to explore all possibilities surrounding the construction of Ram temple in the disputed site.
The destructed Babri mosque site, known as the Ramjahmabhoomi, is a location suffused with emotions. Many Hindus feel they cannot part with it, as that would imply letting down their god-king Ram. And, being the majority community they feel they have an innate right to have it their way.
To many moderate Muslims, their community’s future security in India is intimately linked to this religiously charged land issue, and there is some sympathy among moderate Muslims in India for an out-of-court settlement in the dispute.
But according to Syed Ghayorul Hasan Rizvi, chairman of the National Commission for Minorities: “The Muslim community is ready to give up the Babri mosque claim, but their leaders are not.” To this constituency of hardline Muslim leaders, voluntary withdrawal from a claim of ownership over the disputed site risks being interpreted as the community giving into Hindu majoritarian hegemony.
Expressing frustration about the state of affairs between Hindus and Muslims over the disputed site, the chief justice of the supreme court recently told the petitioners in an associated legal case: “You will not let this country live in peace … somebody has to always poke.”
Come the post-election period, it’s possible there will be more fireworks surrounding this intractable dispute.
Amalendu Misra is a senior lecturer in the department of politics, philosophy and religion at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom.