Will Indian Democracy be Tested Due to ‘Places of Worship’ Plea?

Dr Shashi Tharoor explains why the Places of Worship plea in the SC is ‘untrue’ to the promise of Indian democracy.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image of the Babri-Ayodhya site, and a profile photo of Dr Shashi Tharoor, used for representational purposes.
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“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 battle axe, against each other.”

The businessman does not exist; I invented him for a novel — Riot — that came out in 2001 and concerns a Hindu-Muslim riot that erupts during the early stages of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. Yet the views of this fictional character seem more real each day, as reports come in of the Supreme Court’s willingness to hear arguments by BJP spokesperson Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, challenging the validity of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.

What is the ‘Places of Worship’ Plea All About?

At least three suits and one writ petition have been filed seeking the restoration of ancient temples at sites on which mosques or Islamic monuments now exist – exactly the same scenario as the demand to build a temple to Ram above the ruins of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. These seek the removal of the Shahi Idgah Masjid adjacent to the Shri Krishna Temple Complex at Mathura, revered by many as the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and the restoration of an ancient temple at the site of Gyanvapi Mosque at Varanasi, both dating back to Aurangzeb’s rule; and another seeks the right to worship at the Qutb Minar complex, which allegedly stands on the ruins of 27 Hindu and Jain temples destroyed by Qutbuddin Aibak.

Intent of the Places of Worship Act

In a nonfiction afterword to Riot, I alerted readers to the threat by Hindutva extremists to a renewed cycle of killings and mob violence, which duly occurred a few months later in Gujarat in 2002. I take no solace whatever from prescience. The tragedy in India is that even those who know history seem condemned to repeat it.

In 1991, the Parliament was of the same view — enacting the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, whose Section 4 states that the religious character of a place of worship — existing on 15 August 1947 — shall continue to be the same as on that day, and bars courts from considering cases filed over the character of such places of worship. The intent of the Act was to ensure social peace, which had been so grossly violated in the Babri Masjid affair.

It is one of the ironies of India's muddled march into the third decade of the 21st century, that it has a technologically-inspired vision of the future, yet appears shackled to the dogmas of the past. The petition challenging the Act is about places of worship, not software labs; it is devoted to religion and not ‘vikaas’.

India: ‘A Land Where History, Myth, Legend Often Overlap’

We have seen this movie before. In 1992, a howling mob of Hindutva extremists tore down the Babri Masjid, vowing to replace it with a temple to Ram. They wanted to avenge history by undoing what they saw as the shame of half a millennium ago. That is exactly what will happen at Mathura, Varanasi and Delhi if the challenge to the Act is upheld.

India is a land where history, myth and legend often overlap; sometimes we cannot tell the difference. To destroy a mosque and replace it with a temple would not be righting an old wrong but rather, perpetrating a new one. The Babri issue has been settled by the Supreme Court, but wounds fester. The current case seeks to reopen these wounds before they have even healed.

What the Babri Dispute Truly Meant to Most Indian Muslims

To most Indian Muslims, the Babri dispute was not about a specific mosque but about their place in Indian society. For decades after Independence, 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 hajj pilgrimages to Mecca. Three of India's first nine presidents were Muslim, as have been innumerable Cabinet ministers, ambassadors, generals, cricket captains, and even Supreme Court justices.

Until the mid-1990's, India's Muslim population was greater than that of Pakistan. The destruction of the mosque felt like an utter betrayal of the compact that had sustained the Muslim community as a vital part of India's pluralist democracy. Dismantling more mosques and undermining other Islamic sites on Indian soil would underscore that betrayal.

That is why the Parliament drew a line at 15 August 1947. Enough, they decreed, was enough. It was time to stop trying to scratch the scars of history, and move on into the future.

What Hindutvavadis Root Their Hinduism In

The Hindutvavadis who attacked the mosque had little faith in the institutions of Indian democracy. They saw the State as soft, pandering to minorities out of a misplaced and alien secularism. To them, an independent India, freed after nearly 1,000 years of non-Hindu rule (first Muslim, then British) and rid of a sizeable portion of its Muslim population by Partition, had an obligation to assert an identity that would be triumphantly and indigenously Hindu.

That is what the current petition is about.

Hindutvavadis 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 in its role as a source of identity. They seek revenge in the name of Hinduism as a badge of affiliation, rather than of Hinduism as a doctrine.

In doing so they are profoundly disloyal to the religion they claim to espouse, which stands out not only as an eclectic embodiment of acceptance of difference, but as the only major religion that does not claim to be the only true religion.

All ways of worship, Hinduism asserts, are 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 stone.

The true Hindu seeks no revenge upon history, for he understands that history is its own revenge.

‘Time to Put Memory Aside and Focus on the Future’

The Places of Worship petition is also untrue to the promise of Indian democracy, which seeks to order society to permit the welfare and prosperity of the Indian people tomorrow, rather than correct the imagined wrings of yesterday. As the courts deliberate on a solution to the case, the violence could resume, spawning new hostages to history, ensuring that future generations will be taught new wrongs to set right.

“We live”, Octavio Paz once wrote, “between oblivion and memory”. Memory and oblivion: one leads to the other, and back again.

It is time to put memory aside and focus on the future. The petition before the Supreme Court needs to be consigned to the oblivion that it, and our ravaged nation, deserves.

(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 21 books, most recently ‘Tharoorosaurus’ (Penguin). 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.)

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