Violence Averted at Lord Rama's Birthplace

November 9th was a historic day for millions of Hindu in India and abroad. On this day the foundation was laid of a new Sri Rama temple in the small town of Ayodhya amidst the chanting of hymns and blowing of conch shells, the presence of hundreds of saints and seers, 10,000 devotees drawn from all over the country-and thousands of police and military forces standing by to avert a much-feared Hindu-Muslim confrontation. The temple is to mark the birthplace of Lord Rama in Ayodhya (near the Nepal border, 230 miles east of New Delhi) several thousand years ago. The scene was one of slightly controlled chaos as Swami Paramhans Ramanandacharya dug out the first shovel of soil. Laborers took over and excavated an eight-foot deep pit in which 200 consecrated Ramshilas had been manufactured all over India, stamped, blessed, wrapped and paraded through town. The goal was to obtain at least one brick from every one of India's 600,000 villages. The 200 came from 200,000 now in Ayodhya.

The police precautions were extraordinary – two sets of metal railing topped with barb wire ringed the entire area, with a shoulder-to-shoulder, armed police cordon just outside the barrier. Closed-circuit cameras monitored the surroundings, while machine-gun carrying paramilitary men patrolled. The government wanted no repeat of riots in other towns which resulted in over 200 deaths during the preliminary marches bringing the Ramshilas to Ayodhya.

The foundation laying was the latest event in what has been termed the "Babri Masjid/Ram Janambhoomi dispute." Originally a more or less localized religious matter going back hundreds of years, it has recently taken on India-wide significance as several all-India Hindu organizations, particularly the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, chose the emotion-packed dispute as a rallying point to unify India's Hindu. From the start, the unification attempt had more political than religious overtones-the aim being to create a "Hindu vote bank" to influence political decisions. Though not a specific goal, the complex events surrounding the foundation laying may well have cost Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi his job.

The Background

Among the several place in Ayodhya claimed to be the exact spot of Rama's birth, the most famous is the site of the now dilapidated Babri Masjid mosque. Hindu claim it was built after the demolition of the Vikramaditya temple by Muslim forces in 1528CE, pointing as evidence to traditional stories about the site and the presence of several pillars in the mosque obviously salvaged from a Hindu temple. Muslims deny a temple ever stood there.

The site has been under dispute form shortly after the mosque construction when Hindus erected a temple just outside its gates, only to have it destroyed by the 17th century Mogul emperor Aurangzeb. Similar clashes in the mid-nineteenth century lead to a court-by the 17th century Mogul emperor Aurangzeb. Similar clashes in the mid-nineteenth century lead to a court-enforced division of the site in 1855. The building was extensively damaged in 1934, after which local Muslims sought to establish clear title to the mosque. This phase dragged on until December 23rd, 1949, when an idol of Lord Rama mysteriously appeared in the center of the mosque. After more legal action, the mosque was summarily locked by the courts, although puja to the installed idol was allowed.

The modern phase of the dispute started in the district court of Faizabad in 1961, but no decision has ever been handed down. Say's a former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, Mr. Rajendra Sachar: "The court simply adjourned the final hearing in the case year after year, something unprecedented in the judicial history of any country." But outside of Ayodhya, no one, no political party, neither the government of the state in which Ayodhya falls nor the Central Government, not even the state or national newspapers ever took notice of the case. No religious leader of the Hindus or the Muslims ever took the matter to public platforms. The reason was simple: the possibility of its being exploited to yield political advantages was not realized until recently.

Enter the Politicians

A few years ago, certain political parties, particularly the Congress (I) of Rajiv Gandhi which has been in power in New Delhi and several states for decades, decided to exploit the dispute for electoral advantages. The Congress (I) sought initially to satisfy its traditional Muslim allies, while opposition parties saw the opportunity to gain Hindu support.

The controversy isn't beyond amicable resolution. But such an attempt was not sincerely made because those who have done so were leaders of one party or another with their interest in power rather than in the welfare of the country. As the crucial general election approached Muslim leaders, like Syed Shahbuddin and organizations like the Muslim League felt encouraged to politicize the issue, seeing that government had adopted an ambivalent attitude. In reaction, Hindu leaders organized to counter the efforts to belittle the religious sanctity of the place where Shri Ram took birth, and to thwart the growing Muslim influence with the Congress (I). Bodies like VHP grew fast and gained wide popularity among Hindus.'

The government was unnerved and forced to change its strategy when the VHP mobilized all the highly respected saints, acharyas and mahants in the country with their millions of followers and gave a call for the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the building of a new Shri Ram temple in its place. Muslims too felt the impact of the upsurge of the Hindu nationalism But they were sure the Congress (I) would be on its side, for it could not ever hope to come back into power without the Muslim voters who retain 16 percent of the electorate.

Even when faced with the determination of the Hindu bodies to demolish the mosque, the government did not make a try for an amicable settlement of the controversy, but stalled. Realizing the government had its own agenda, the VHP leaders declared that they would organize a march of millions of Hindus to Ayodhya on November 9th and begin the construction of the new temple after demolishing the mosque.

This move of the VHP had an electrifying effect all over the country. Millions of Hindu were aroused by the perception of a threat to their religion, to their traditions and to the places they hold as sacred at the hands of the Muslims. A chord had been struck.

The Politicians Play the "Hindu Card"

It was at this stage that the Congress (I) thought of playing what is called the "Hindu Card" in the parliamentary elections. Faced with unprecedented charges of corruption and failure to check more and more people from falling below the poverty line, Congress (I) decided to risk losing the minority votes of the Muslims by giving the impression of supporting the VHP.

Shortly before November 9th, the VHP modified their plans and said the mosque would not be demolished but that an alternative site – specified by the government – for the foundation laying ceremony was to be used. This pleased the Hindus and the Congress (I), who thought it had been finally able to win over the Hindu vote, without losing the Muslims.

Then a turn in the situation occurred. With encouragement from Muslims in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Indian Muslims declared that their community would not vote for the Congress (I) party in the coming elections, charging it had conspired with the VHP.

The Rajiv Gandhi government was upset by the possibility of the Muslim votes swinging to his detractors. It rushed to make a nationally televised statement that amounted to appeasing the Muslims. It also instructed the district administration in Ayodhya not to allow the construction of the temple. The inevitable then happened: Hindu votes that seemed sure to go to the Congress suddenly turned against it. The party thus lost support of both Hindu and Muslims and, consequently, the election.

On November 12th, a local court suspended any further construction of the temple because the chosen site was still under dispute in the courts, even though this was the site allowed by the government. The charge is now being openly made that the government only allowed the foundation-laying ceremony in exchange for promised support in the election, not because it wanted to avoid a Hindu-Muslim clash.

Pans for the Future

For the time being, all parties to the dispute in Ayodhya are avoiding any further confrontation. The Muslims want the courts to settle the issue. The Hindu nationalists, having proved they can control Hindu votes, are involved in negotiations for a new coalition government.

VHP General Secretary, Ashok Singhal, told HINDUISM TODAY that the "future course of action" would be decided at "Dharmacharya Sammelan" to be held at Allahabad during the Kumbh Mela on Journey 27th, 1990. Mahant Nritya Gopaldas, Vice-President of the Ram Janambhoomi Mukti Yojna Samiti, said, "The sadhus do not want any violence, and therefore the construction of the temple has been put off for the time being." The sadhus are, however, unhappy at the government's attempts to appease the Muslims, he added.

The Public's Reaction

Opinion is sharply divided among political observers and intellectuals over the social and political fall-out of the November 9th event in Ayodhya. [See Publisher's Desk, page 3.]

Nikhil Chakravarty, an eminent journalist and columnist, feels that, "The crisis has only been averted, nor solved. And this will not be solved until and unless the fundamental axiom is unhesitatingly acknowledged by one and all that the rights of one community can be ensured only by respecting the existing rights of other communities; that the claims of one cannot be upheld by invading into the claims of others."

Mr. Bala Saheb Deoras, the Chief of the Rashtriya Swaya Sewak Sangh (RSS) which fights for the cause of the Hindus, is happy at the foundation-laying ceremony as he considers is an "accomplishment" of the centuries – old Ayodhya conflict. For him the ceremony will strengthen the unity of the country.

The most prestigious daily of India. The Statesman, editorialized on November 11th, "What has indeed been demolished [by the event] is not only the spirit of secularism but even the civilized restraint in religious matters which is the hallmark of a liberated and progressive society."

Homi J.H. Taleyarkhan is one of those liberal Muslim leaders of India who always seeks an understanding with Hindu leaders to avoid any confrontation between the two communities. He offered, "A possible solution of the problem arising from the dispute is to turn Ayodhya from an area of hostility to a model of hospitality of faiths, meaning respect for all religions."

India is already experiencing great social and moral crisises, beside serious political instability. All sections of public opinion agree that positive moral and spiritual forces must assert themselves quickly to check the present situation from worsening.

Article copyright Himalayan Academy.