By Mihir S. Sharma
Oct 02 2010
There were many of us who never felt particularly strongly about the Ayodhya dispute. Some of us were too young then to be swept up in the dangerous enthusiasms that swamped a rapidly-changing India; some of us were a little too irreligious; some of us were simply too focused on what more narrowly impacted our own material future.
Hence the sentiment that dominated in the run-up to the Allahabad high court’s judgment: a generalised unease that this issue, with all its blood-soaked historical baggage, its appeal to an atavistic, communal sense of who we are, would once again take over India’s political conversation. That sentiment, universally apparent — even in the various quirky suggestions about what to do with the disputed site — was driven by those who felt that they had a stake in only one thing: in moving on.
So, now the judgment’s out, naturally everyone wants to move on quickly. Nobody really wants to look at it very closely: because we’re happy to read it as an attempt to force a compromise; because we’re desperate to ensure nobody loses their temper; because partitioning something equally has a certain intuitive appeal; and because very few of us are lawyers, and we’re correspondingly diffident.
And yet, suddenly, a good many of us who didn’t really care earlier have started to care now. Because elements of the judgment, however sound in law, aren’t really of the India that would leave religious-ideological brawls like Ayodhya behind. On the contrary.
Look, we want an India where an impartial law prevails. Where the institutions of the state step away from appearing to appease, subsidise, selectively ignore or interfere with people’s faith. Where an individual’s choice of identity slowly begins to expand out of the boxes in which this country has traditionally confined its people. Where the convenient fiction of property is respected — by the state, by our neighbours with lathis, by powerful corporations. Where our millennia of history are not mined for memories that serve as sources of grievance, but are viewed as a common inheritance, yet interpreted in whatever way we like.
But that isn’t the India of the judgment. Yes, the alacrity with which everyone has pointed out that the Supreme Court always exists, that everyone must compromise, speaks of our deeply-ingrained respect for the judicial process. But can an India of impartial law make of this particular site an exception of the sort that it appears to? Is it really the only site in India where our religions have worshipped side-by-side — or on top of each other, alternately? If not, can our legal conception of ourselves push for an exception that’s convenient, politically?
Can an India which believes there is a place for expertise in public life, be comfortable with the use of an archaeological report that can be read by judges in different, mutually exclusive ways? Either a temple there was demolished by Babur; or it was already in ruins before the mosque was built; it can’t be both. Does it matter which? Does this, we think quietly, help us trust expertise? Or move us towards an India where conflicting histories matter less?
Can an India which has grown beyond pronouncing on people’s religion be totally comfortable with a judgment that announces that a disputed site “is” the birthplace of a deity? We want our institutions to respect and protect the right to worship; but we aren’t certain they can, or are meant to, certify what the essential features of a religion are. That doesn’t fit our hopes for an India which wishes to leave behind the restrictions of identity.
Can an India which wishes to respect one set of beliefs of its citizens — in what they possess, which is essentially what property is — have its institutions privileged over that set by another set of beliefs some others may hold? That hope for India was undermined by some of the reasons that were trumpeted as lying behind the denial of permission to mine in “sacred” Niyamgiri. Has it, we wonder, been strengthened today?
It could be, and has been, argued that some of these are precisely the strength of the verdict: that it establishes for our methods of social organisation, our historic mental structures, a point of entry into our grafted-on institutions of governance. Two things are deeply wrong with this idea: first, any point of entry for religious identity should be political. That’s where the strength of numbers, of the ebb and flow of belief, should be reflected. The protections that our law provides, on the other hand, should act in the opposite direction, towards smoothing out the enthusiasms of a people gathered together to legislate. While no doubt sound in law, taking a majority belief as ground for a judgment is not what we’ve come to hope for and expect from our courts: that they stick up for those who have no other recourse, who feel otherwise disempowered. Facts about faith are central to the dispute. But, we worry, should they be central to the legal dispute?
Moreover, it seems plain odd that, even as we celebrate the possibility of an India where identities like those of caste becomes ever more fungible, as we protest institutions that appear to crystallise those identities, we aren’t willing to express our doubts about creating a place for community identity that traps our public life in the conflicts of the past.
And how, precisely, is allowing the claims of religion to determine state policy, or the framing of the law, or its application, different from the “appeasement” that all of us, especially the “appeased”, wish to leave behind?
Perhaps it’s understandable that those of us who’re privately worried but who want to look ahead, and have always been consumed by other concerns will speak out very loudly. We’re all looking sidelong at each other, hoping that no voices are raised, that we can get back as soon as possible to worrying about the Commonwealth Games or the Navi Mumbai airport.
And, of course, for us as for the various actual parties to the case, there’s always the Supreme Court. The court that Justice S.U. Khan quotes as declaring, in 2004, that “as far as a title suit of civil nature is concerned, there is no room for historical facts and claims.
But the universal complaisance about this judgment is still worrying. The India we hoped for looks more distant today. And that’s why, now, we care.
Source: The Indian Express