Rajiv Gandhi tried to please both Hindus and Muslims in his search for cheap votes. In April 1985, four months into his term as prime minister, the Supreme Court granted a plea by Shah Bano, a 73-year-old Muslim woman, that her former husband pay her alimony beyond the customary three-month period specified under the Muslim Shariat law. The court also asked the government to legislate, as the Constitution of India promised, a uniform civil code that applied to all Indians.
The moderniser in Rajiv sympathised with the Supreme Court’s decision, but protests by Muslim clerics against interference with Muslim law caused him to waver. In December, Rajiv promised Muslim leaders that he would legislatively override the Supreme Court decision. By making that promise, he annoyed women’s groups and progressive Muslims, who viewed the Shariat law’s denial of alimony as retrograde. Rajiv also enraged the Hindus, because they believed he was “appeasing” Muslims to win their votes – which he was.
The next series of events do not have clear fingerprints but seem curiously choreographed. On February 1, 1986, a district judge ordered the long-closed gates to the Babri Masjid property to be reopened. Thirty minutes after the judge’s order, a policeman broke the lock on the gate. A camera crew from the state-owned television station Doordarshan was present to telecast the breaking of the lock live to the nation. Hindus across the country cheered.
Many believe that Rajiv had sent instructions that there be no impediment to opening the Babri Masjid gate. Others suggest one of his ministers, Arun Nehru, gave the go-ahead. Either way, as a tearful Muslim elder poignantly said, “Today, it appears we have become second-class citizens.”
Less than a month later, on February 25, 1986, Rajiv fulfilled his promise to Muslim clerics. He introduced a bill in parliament to overturn the Supreme Court decision that awarded Shah Bano alimony. In May, he used his huge parliamentary majority to turn the bill into a law.
Rajiv also had something for the Hindus. In early 1985, in the flush of his moderniser phase, he had instructed Doordarshan to commission and serially broadcast a production of the Ramayana, the beloved mythical tale of Lord Ram that nearly every Hindu mother tells her infant children.
In January 1987, Doordarshan began broadcasting the Ramayana serial. It continued every Sunday for 78 episodes, ending in July 1988. Indians were transfixed. All over the country, life came to a stand-still during the 45-minute Ramayana time slot on Sundays. Shops closed down, nurses and doctors took time off from patients, and people scheduled social and cultural engagements for after the episode was over. Viewers prepared for each episode with pujas (religious ceremonies). They even “bathed” and reverentially garlanded television sets.
In 1987, Indians owned just 13 million televisions. Friends and neighbours gathered around television sets in homes and at shopfronts. In villages, hundreds of people assembled around the one available set. On average, about 80 million people (almost 10 percent of the population) watched an episode. By the time the serial ended, almost all Indians had seen multiple episodes. More so than the Ekatmata yagna (the series of processions in late 1983), the Ramayana serial fused Savarkar’s view of India as the fatherland and holy land of the Hindus.
In a tribute Savarkar might have savored, the Indian Express’s media correspondent Shailaja Bajpai commented on August 7, 1988, a week after the series ended, “From Kanyakumari to Kashmir, from Gujarat to Gorakhpur, millions have stood, sat and kneeled to watch it.” Reflecting on that total absorption, she wondered: “Is there life after Ramayana?” No, she answered, there could be no life after Ramayana. Instead, echoing the void Jawaharlal Nehru sensed when Mahatma Gandhi died, Bajpai wrote: “the light has gone out of our lives and nothing will ever be the same again.”
For the 78 weeks that Ramayana ran, it presented a martially adept and angry Ram dispensing justice. The VHP projected its partisan view of the serial in its iconography of Ram. The author Pankaj Mishra described the Ram in VHP posters as an “appallingly muscle- bound Rambo in a dhoti.” Theatre scholar Anuradha Kapur lamented that VHP images showed Ram “far more heavily armed than in any traditional representation.”
In one image, Ram carried a dhanush (a bow), a trishul (trident), an axe, and a sword “in the manner of a pre-industrial warrior.” In another image, Ram, the angry male crusader, marched across the skies, his dhoti flying, chest bared, his conventionally coiled hair unrolling behind him in the wind. Accompanying those images, every VHP poster pledged to build a temple in Ayodhya. The dismayed Kapur noted that Ram, the omniscient and omnipresent Lord, was everywhere. Pinning him down to Ayodhya made no sense. “Hinduism,” she despairingly wrote, “is being reduced to a travesty of itself by its advocates.”
The Hindutva movement’s heavy reliance on young hypermasculine warriors to achieve its mission only exacerbated this travesty. In April and May 1987, when the Ramayana serial was in its early months, bloody Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Meerut, a city in western Uttar Pradesh. By most accounts, Muslims provoked the riots. But then the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary, infected by the Hindutva virus, killed hundreds of Muslims in cold blood.
The fever spread. Bajrang Dal volunteers formed so-called suicide squads (balidani jathas), groups of men who professed a willingness to die for the Hindutva cause. In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena stepped up its anti-Muslim campaign in 1987 and 1988. It rallied supporters around the slogan “Say with pride we are Hindus [garv se kaho hum Hindu hain].” Many of the Shiv Sena troops (Sainiks) were “educated” in the colleges proliferating in small Maharashtrian towns and cities. Such men with college “degrees,” writes anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen, found “their social mobility blocked by what seemed an impenetrable and complacent political establishment.” The Hindutva message appealed to such men.
In June 1989, the BJP concluded it would no longer ride the coattails of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal. At a meeting of the BJP’s national leadership at Palampur in Himachal Pradesh, Party President Lal Krishna Advani shepherded the “Ram Janmabhoomi resolution,” which made the BJP’s support of a Ram temple in Ayodhya official. Ayodhya was now an electoral issue.
Rajiv continued his strategy of appeasing both Muslims and Hindus. In a nod to Muslims, he authorised the Uttar Pradesh government to adopt Urdu as the province’s second official language. He approved the Hindutva protagonists’ proposal to lay a foundation for the Ram temple on land next to the Masjid.
Hindutva supporters around the country “consecrated” bricks (shilas) with Ram’s name inscribed on them. These bricks travelled to Ayodhya for the foundation stone laying ceremony (the shilanyas) on November 9, 1989. No one, other than perhaps Rajiv, was surprised when Hindutva leaders held the foundation stone ceremony not, as they had promised, on the land next to the Masjid but on the disputed land itself.
Rajiv began his reelection campaign from Faizabad, on the outskirts of Ayodhya, about six kilometers from the Babri Masjid. He promised he would usher in Ram Rajya, Lord Ram’s golden administration. It is not clear if Rajiv understood he was making a fool of himself. He became a laughingstock for promising Ram Rajya. With his prep school and British university education, he mispronounced some Hindi words in his speech and made historically odd references. The Hindutva virus continued to rage: another gruesome Hindu-Muslim riot broke out in mid-November in Bhagalpur in Bihar.
Why would Hindutva supporters vote for the Congress Party when they could have the real thing? Not surprisingly, the Congress Party was routed in the elections held in late November 1989. The BJP did not win a majority but did make a dramatic advance from two parliamentary seats in 1984 to 85 seats in 1989.
History had forced Rajiv to face two of India’s most ferocious anti-democratic forces. He tried to confront and fight back corruption and black money, and he tried to appease Hindutva. Unfortunately for India, history’s force overwhelmed him in both instances. Corruption remained entrenched in politics and society. And when he played politics with Hindu-Muslim divisions, Rajiv helped unleash virulent Hindu nation-alism, an ideology imbued with the fury of an authoritarian culture but one that now showed itself capable of winning impressive parliamentary victories. Both corruption and Hindutva would continue to eat away at the country’s democratic norms.
Of immediate relevance, though, was Rajiv’s inability to generate economic dynamism in India. Instead, India was tumbling headlong into a financial crisis he had set in motion.
Excerpted with permission from India is Broken: And Why It’s Hard To Fix, Ashoka Mody, Juggernaut.