In fact, real closure will depend on how, going forward, India treats its more than 175 million Muslim citizens. Anything other than equitable justice will only leave deep scars and gaping wounds.
My generation can never forget what happened in December 1992. I was a college student when the central dome of Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid — a mosque that stood on the site where Hindus believe their revered God, Lord Rama, was born — was brought down by a rampaging mob. What followed was even more terrifying. Religious riots erupted, and 900 people, both Muslims and Hindus, were killed in Mumbai, the country’s financial capital. And in March 1993,13 blasts ripped through the city in apparent retaliation for the mosque’s demolition, killing 257.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as we know it might not have come to exist were it not for the political campaign to demand the construction of a Ram temple at the site of the mosque. The party, which had just two seats in Parliament in 1984, won 85 seats in 1989, at least in part because of its ability to mobilize sentiment around the cause. Proponents of the campaign argued that 16th-century Mughal invaders desecrated an already existing temple and built a mosque on its ruins.
India’s Supreme Court has now said the specifics of this particular argument are hazy. Nevertheless, it has judged that the Hindu groups are better able to establish continuous worship over centuries at the site, where the remains of a structure that is “not Islamic” have been reported beneath the mosque. The decision will allow the BJP and Modi government to bolster its political fortunes further, with the construction of a grand Ram temple possibly just ahead of elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most politically significant state.
Since the announcement on Saturday, there has been no violence, protests or special triumphalism. Yet we should not mistake this for indifference. All sides had publicly committed to respecting the court verdict. This is how a mature democracy must behave. But if this entails Muslims accepting the construction of a Ram temple at the site, Hindu groups need to pay equal attention to the court saying that the demolition of the mosque was “a serious violation of the rule of law” and that “it is necessary to provide restitution to the Muslim community for the unlawful destruction of their place of worship.”
This is possible only if those responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid are punished. Many high-profile right-wing personalities and BJP leaders are facing trial in this case, including former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani. But the byzantine twists and turns of a 27-year-old legal process, in which both witnesses and some the accused have died or claimed amnesia, have made many cynical about the eventual outcome. Justice in this “other” Ayodhya case is critical to Indian democracy’s promise of fair play and equality.
In this moment, ideologues should also show generosity and compassion to India’s Muslim citizens. On the eve of the Ayodhya verdict, the prime minister appealed for harmony and warned against seeing the outcome as a victory or defeat for either side. One way to nip any majoritarian gloating in the bud is for his party to recast its most contentious Hindutva policies. For starters, proposed new legislation on citizenship rights, which links citizenship to religion and enables only non-Muslim refugees or immigrants from neighboring countries to become Indian citizens, must be scrapped or altered. It is patently discriminatory against Muslims.
Similarly, the BJP’s political engagement with Muslims has remained abysmal. In the 2019 election, the party fielded only seven Muslim candidates. In the 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, where the temple will be built, the BJP did not field any Muslim candidates. India owes it to Muslim citizens to address this sense of political marginalization.
Finally, for real reconciliation, the temple and mosque should be inaugurated on the same day, with the same fanfare. Some of us would have preferred multi-faith prayers at both sites, but if that is not possible, the government must ensure that one moment is not considered lesser than the other.
Many in India respond to these arguments by pointing to the happy integration of Muslim citizens in India compared with the poor state of minority rights in Pakistan. But this benchmarking against Pakistan is redundant. Our countries are built on competing ideas of nationhood. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once reminded the country that “whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have to deal with this minority [India’s Muslims] in a civilized manner. ... If we fail to do so, we shall have a festering sore.”
That was 1947. It’s just as true in 2019.