Can tax-payers’ money be spent by a secular State on rebuilding and repairing places of worship destroyed in communal violence? That question was posed by the Supreme Court last week.

The court was hearing an appeal by the Gujarat government against a Gujarat High Court order directing it to repair or rebuild mosques and dargahs destroyed during the 2002 post-Godhra mob violence.

The question posed by the apex court leads to other questions.

Salaries of police and other security forces are paid by tax-payers. Their duty is to protect places of worship from attacks by mobs. When they fail in their duty, as they did in Gujarat, who should pay?

The most significant destruction of a place of worship by mobs post-Independence has been the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. It was demolished in 1992 by Bharatiya Janata party-led mobs under the watchful eye of security forces, after a guarantee had been given by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh to the Supreme Court that it would not be touched. Leave alone rebuilding it, the chief minister made sure that another structure – a makeshift temple – was built at the site where the masjid had stood.

The security forces that stood by and watched it being demolished were paid from public money. Their deliberate refusal to protect the monument from the mobs shamed us all. Yet, that shame could have been wiped out had the government cleared the site and started the process of rebuilding the mosque. Indeed, the next day, then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao declared that it would be rebuilt. He repeated this promise eight months later in his first Independence Day speech after the demolition.

But neither Rao, nor any government since, has taken any steps to rebuild it, nor does it seem likely that any government will.

Specious argument

A secular state had let mobs belonging to the majority community destroy an ancient place of worship held sacred by the country’s largest minority. The same thing happened 10 years later in Gujarat.  Those who worshipped at the shrines that were destroyed by Hindutva mobs in Gujarat also contribute towards paying the salaries of the Gujarat police and other forces on duty there. Should they repair or rebuild their shrines at their own cost,  though they were destroyed because of the failure of the State’s forces?

Isn’t the failure of the State to protect these shrines a failure of its commitment to secularism, where members of all religions must get equal security? Yet, it now argues that its commitment to secularism forbids it from spending tax-payers’ money to rebuild religious places of one community.

This isn’t the first time this argument is being made. The Orissa government gave the same reason to the Supreme Court while refusing to rebuild churches destroyed by Hindutva mobs after the murder of VHP leader Swami Lakshmananand Saraswati in 2008. The Court, however, rejected the argument and asked it to take a generous view. Naveen Patnaik obeyed the court’s order, and at least 100 out of 169 churches were rebuilt.

But going to court to ask that the State rebuild shrines destroyed by mobs  is rare. For the most part, communities quietly rebuild on their own. But in every such rebuilding, the State’s secular character suffers a loss of credibility. When Delhi’s gurudwaras were rebuilt after the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, which saw 72 of them burnt, high walls replaced the previous low ones, and armed guards were posted outside round the clock. An open place of worship became a fortress. Along with faith, the process of rebuilding had the element of fear, the desire to keep out the enemy, and, a lack of faith in the State’s ability to protect.

In Kashmir, Muslims have come forward to help repair temples damaged by militants, or misused in the prolonged absence of Hindu devotees. That’s perhaps the best illustration of how the relationship between the two communities can be restored. Yet, it doesn’t take away from the State’s responsibility to rebuild these temples.

In Mumbai, a similar offer by Muslims was rejected by then Shiv Sena MLA Madhukar Sarpotdar when an idol was decapitated in a Ganesh temple the very night the Babri Masjid was demolished. Sarpotdar led a massive Hindu procession to re-install the idol, which saw anti-Muslim slogans being raised. Years later, Sarpotdar and two Shiv Sainiks were convicted for the hate speeches they made on the occasion.

The re-installation of the idol followed the same agenda of religious hate that its desecration had. Had the Maharashtra government announced that it would rebuild all temples and mosques destroyed during the riots, this agenda of hatred may not have played out.

If allowing communally motivated mobs to destroy religious shrines is a failure not just of the State’s law and order machinery, but also of its duty to uphold secularism, what happens when the State itself destroys religious shrines? The biggest example is Operation Blue Star, when the army aimed its guns and cannons at the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in a bid to flush out militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers.

The overwhelming outrage among Sikhs to this attack forced the government to very quickly try to make amends. It got a Nihang, Santa Singh,  to begin kar seva to rebuild the devastated historic  Akal Takht, and televised this "healing touch’’ on Doordarshan.

But the Sikhs would have none of it. The community didn’t just excommunicate Santa Singh, they pulled down the repaired Akal Takht and rebuilt it on their own. While repairing the Golden Temple, they made sure the bullet holes left by the army’s guns remained intact.

Operation Blue Star was seen by Sikhs as an assault on their identity, The continuing arrests of Sikhs on suspicion and their torture by the Army which remained in control of Punjab for months after Blue Star, made the so-called healing touch a cruel joke.

Different experiences

Interestingly, reactions in Kashmir to State aid in rebuilding shrines destroyed during army operations haven’t been entirely negative. The ancient and popular shrine Charar-e-Sharief was gutted in 1995 during a prolonged face-off between militants and the Army. The Army blamed the militants for setting it on fire; the people believed the Army had done so. But within five years, the shrine was rebuilt by the State’s Aukaf Trust, then headed by Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, with financial help from the Centre. It continues to attract pilgrims.

Why this goodwill by the State in Kashmir, and so little in the North East, where human rights groups have documented how churches have been desecrated by the army, which has been there under Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts and the Disturbed Areas Act for decades? These human rights reports have told courts how villagers rounded up in search operations have been tortured in the village churches, with altars and crucifixes desecrated. The Yankeli Baptist Christian Church in  Nagaland was abandoned by villagers after four minor girls were raped on its altar by jawans on July 11, 1971. The incident, which has become part of Naga consciousness, was described in detail in a letter sent to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by Naga militants through the convener of a "peace observers team".

Could the different approaches to secessionist movements in Kashmir and the North East lie in the powerful omnipresence of Pakistan in the former? Or the fact that Kashmir is an international issue whereas the North East hardly figures even in national news?

It is impossible to ignore that while most shrines desecrated by mobs belong to minorities (the numbers may vary in Kashmir), all shrines desecrated by the State’s agencies belong to minorities. After that, for any State to using secularism as a defence for not rebuilding them is shamefully cynical.