“I’ll tell you what your problem is in India,” the American businessman said. “You have too much history. Far more than you can use peacefully. So, you end up wielding history like a battleaxe, against each other.”
The American businessman doesn’t exist; he is a fictional character in my 2001 novel Riot, about a Hindu-Muslim riot that erupts in the course of the Ram Sila Poojan campaign, the forerunner of the agitation to construct a Ram Janmabhoomi temple on the site occupied for four-and-a-half centuries by the Babri Masjid. As headlines in recent days have spoken of a renewed cycle of tension and incipient conflict over the Gyanvapi issue, again over a mosque built on the site of a temple – the original Kashi Viswanath Temple – I have received several comments on the eerie similarity between art and life.
Even Those Who Know History Are Repeating It
The Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed unleashed a cycle of killings and mob violence that convulsed most of India. Yet, those who are stirring the cauldron on Gyanvapi seem to have forgotten. The tragedy in India is that even those who know history seem condemned to repeat it.
It is one of the ironies of India’s muddled march into the 21st century that it has a technologically inspired vision of the future and yet appears shackled to the dogmas of the past. In 1992, a howling mob of Hindu extremists tore down the Babri Masjid, a disused, 16th-century mosque that occupied a prominent spot in a town otherwise overflowing with temples. The Gyanvapi mosque may well have been built on the partially-demolished ruins of Kashi Vishwanath, but unlike Babri, it is in active use for regular worship.
The 1991 Place of Worship Act says that the present religious character of every religious place should be left undisturbed. But Hindutva zealots do not agree; they aim to rebuild the most prominent of the Hindu temples the Mughals allegedly destroyed, in order to avenge history, to undo the shame of half a millennium ago with a reassertion of their glory today.
Of course, it does not matter what is historically verifiable when it comes to matters of faith. It is enough that millions of Hindus actually believe that the masjid had occupied the site of a mandir. And indeed, there is evidence of multiple mosques – perhaps as many as 3,000 – having been built elsewhere in India on the ruins of demolished temples. And yet, when acting on that belief causes deep hurt to innocents who had nothing to do with the original wrong, do we not have a greater responsibility to the present than to the past? To destroy the mosque and replace it with a temple would not undo an old atrocity but perpetrate a new one.
The Dispute Is Not Just About a Mosque
To most Indian Muslims, the dispute is not about a specific mosque or even three (Mathura may be on the Hindutva list, and there is already ominous talk of the Qutub Minar and even the Taj Mahal being claimed to have been erected on Hindu temple sites). Rather, it is about their place in Indian society. For decades after Independence, successive Indian governments had guaranteed their security in a secular state, permitting the retention of Muslim Personal Law separate from the country’s civil code, and even financing Haj pilgrimages to Mecca. Three of India’s Presidents were Muslims, as were innumerable cabinet ministers, ambassadors, generals, and Supreme Court justices. Until the mid-1990s, India’s Muslim population exceeded Pakistan’s. The destruction of the mosque seemed an appalling betrayal of the compact that had sustained the Muslim community as a vital part of India’s pluralist democracy.
As I have observed before, India is a land where history, myth, religion and legend often overlap; sometimes we, as a people, cannot tell the difference. The Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya ruled that a Ram Mandir should be built and that the religious sentiments of the Hindus had to be respected – implying both that such sentiments were of greater weight than legal provisions, and that the religious sentiments of the minorities were of less consequence than that of the majority. The Gyanvapi lawsuit hopes for a similar verdict in Varanasi.
Wearing Hinduism As a Badge
The Hindu fanatics who attacked the Babri Masjid had little faith in the institutions of Indian democracy. They saw the state as soft, pandering to minorities out of a misplaced and Westernised secularism. To them, an independent India, freed after nearly a thousand years of alien rule (first Muslim, then British) and rid of a sizeable portion of its Muslim population by Partition, had an obligation to assert its own identity, one that would be triumphantly and indigenously Hindu.
The zealots who have gone to court over Gyanvapi are in the same tradition. They are Hindutva chauvinists who root their Hinduism not in any of its soaring philosophical or spiritual underpinnings – and, unlike their Islamic counterparts, not in the theology of their faith – but rather in its role as a source of identity. They seek revenge in the name of Hinduism-as-badge, rather than of Hinduism-as-doctrine.
In doing so, they are profoundly disloyal to the religion they claim to espouse, which not only stands out as an eclectic embodiment of tolerance, but which is also the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. All ways of worship, Hinduism asserts, are equally valid, and religion is an intensely personal matter related to the individual’s self-realisation in relation to God. Such a faith understands that belief is a matter of hearts and minds, not of bricks and stones. A true Hindu seeks no revenge upon history, for he understands that history is its own revenge.
Hindutva's Narrow Definitions of What's 'Truly' Indian
Much of India has long celebrated the intermingling of Hindu and Muslim cultural practices in what is referred to as “Ganga-Jumni Tehzeeb”, or the “composite culture”, emerging from the interaction of practitioners of the two faiths. This is now under assault from officially fomented bigotry. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which derives its political strength from campaigning aggressively as the vehicle of an assertive Hindu community, polarising public opinion on perceived Muslim transgressions in the past, has been seen as a vote-winner.
Modern Hinduism has always prided itself in its acceptance of differences; as Swami Vivekananda persuasively taught us, this was the hallmark of Hindu civilisation. Today, Hindu chauvinists are fundamentally betraying Vivekananda’s Hinduism as well as assaulting the Constitution. Their narrow-mindedness and bigotry betray the very culture they claim to be defending.
Ironically, the Hindutva brigade has no real idea of Hindu tradition – their idea of Indian values is not just primitive and narrow-minded, it is also profoundly anti-historical. India’s culture has always been a capacious one, expanding to include new and varied influences, from the Greek and Muslim invasions to the British. The central battle in contemporary Indian civilisation is that between those who acknowledge that as a result of our own historical experience, we are vast and contain multiple diversities, and those who have presumptuously taken it upon themselves to define, in increasingly narrower terms, what is “truly” Indian.
The issue is not a trivial one. If intolerant bullies, now enjoying the blessing of elected BJP governments, are allowed to get away with their acts of intolerance and “lawful” intimidation, India would be allowing them to do violence to an ethos profoundly vital to its survival as a civilisation and as a liberal democracy.
Creating New Hostages to History
A pluralist and democratic India must, by definition, tolerate plural expressions of its many identities. To allow the self-appointed arbiters of Hindu culture to impose their hypocrisy and double standards on the rest of us is to permit them to define Indianness down until it ceases to be Indian. This war must be fought in the courts, not in the streets.
As the courts deliberate on a solution to the dispute, the cycle of violence could resume, spawning new hostages to history, generating new victims on both sides, and ensuring that future generations will be taught new wrongs to set right. In dredging up the past, we are imperilling our future.
We live, Octavio Paz once wrote, between oblivion and memory. Memory and oblivion: how one leads to the other, and back again, has been the concern of much of my fiction. As I pointed out in the last words of Riot, history is not a web woven with innocent hands.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)