The demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, by a frenzied communal mob of kar sevaks remains a shameful episode in the history of independent India. It is shameful and condemnable in the same way as the deliberate demolition of many Hindu temples by iconoclastic Muslim invaders in the medieval period. One wrong cannot justify another wrong – certainly not in a republican India that has adopted an enlightened Constitution, with secularism as one of its preambular principles.

December 6 polarised India’s society and polity in an unprecedented manner. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which had plunged into the Ayodhya movement in 1990 with its then president LK Advani launching the Ram Rath Yatra, gained some electoral benefits in its immediate aftermath, but not enough to catapult it to power at the Centre. Its success in forming the government in New Delhi, first in 1998-'99 and again in 2014, has little to do with its demand for building a temple in Ayodhya at a site many Hindus claim to be the birthplace of Lord Ram. Several other factors – decline of the Congress as the principal pole of Indian politics being the chief among them – account for the BJP’s rise. Indeed, the BJP these days does not even speak much about this issue, even though it has not, and it will not, give it up either.

The ruling party’s opportunism lies in this dual approach. Bringing the Ayodhya issue to the centrestage is now impractical for the BJP because it is in no position to deliver on its promise, the matter having entered into the long labyrinth of a court battle. Also, the party does not have, nor is it likely to have in the foreseeable future, the requisite parliamentary majority to pass an enabling legislation to pave the way for building the temple at the disputed site. Any attempt on the part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to prioritise the temple issue would carry obvious political risks for him with no compensatory gains. However, burying it altogether is also unhelpful for the BJP because that would alienate its core constituency of Hindutva voters (who constitute a small but solidly reliable percentage of the electorate), besides angering the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and allied organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in the Sangh Parivar.

The paradox

Hence, continuation of the status quo is something that suits the BJP well. But it does not quite suit the RSS, because that would mean that even the mother organisation of the parivar is quite satisfied with, and hence complacent about, the Ayodhya issue having gone into limbo. Early construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya is far more of a pressing priority for the swayamsevaks and the core supporters of the RSS-VHP than it is for the BJP. Indeed, one of the chief grouses of the RSS-VHP leaders and cadres against former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was that he and his government had shown no interest in fulfilling the BJP’s promise on building the Ram Temple. Their disappointment manifested itself in their lack of enthusiasm in mobilising the core Hindutva voters in support of the BJP in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, which was one of the reasons behind Vajpayee’s failure to win a renewed mandate.

Modi’s spectacular victory in 2014 had even less to do with the issue of the Ram temple. This for two reasons. First, the issue itself has receded in people’s consciousness compared to its salience in 1998 when the first BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government came into being. Secondly, Modi was not one of the front-ranking leaders of the Ayodhya movement, even though he did benefit from it some extent. He used a different set of issues to capture the voters’ imagination in 2014. Therefore, as far as fulfilment of the BJP’s old promise of temple-building is concerned, he does not seem answerable to the people who voted him to power. This is yet another reason why Ayodhya is not a priority for him.

Mohan Bhagwat’s compulsions

The very fact that the Ayodhya issue is not a priority for the Modi government has begun to create rumblings in the Hindutva constituency. Staunch supporters of the RSS-VHP are beginning to feel apprehensive that yet another BJP-led government – and this one having absolute majority in the Lok Sabha – is going to disappoint them.

This incipient tension is the main reason why the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, is – or, rather, wants to appear to be − keen on bringing the Ayodhya issue on the agenda of the Modi government. How else can one interpret the fact that he has articulated the Sangh Parivar’s demand on this issue twice within a fortnight? Speaking at a meeting in New Delhi on November 23 to offer condolences to Ashok Singhal (who passed away on November 17), he said that building the Ram Temple in Ayodhya would be a befitting tribute to the departed leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Since Singhal was a stalwart of the temple movement, it was only natural for Bhagwat to say what he said. Condolence meetings are occasions when the deceased person’s main pursuits in life are remembered.

Significantly, Bhagwat returned to this issue in his speech in Kolkata on December 3, just three days before the anniversary of the Babri mosque demolition. This time, he did so with a new twist. “Let's build Ram Temple on the lines of Somnath,” he said. Likening Ayodhya to Somnath – where an ancient jyotirlinga shrine of Lord Shiva, attacked and plundered many times, first by Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century and later by Alauddin Khilji in the 13th century, and rebuilt in 1951 with India’s first President Dr Rajendra Prasad performing the idol-installation ceremony − is not an altogether a novel idea. After all, LK Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra began from Somnath in Gujarat with Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh as its destination.

However, Somnath cannot be the template for the future of Ayodhya for several self-evident reasons. First, there was no protracted legal dispute over the land on which the ruins of the sea-facing Somnath Temple stood. Second, there wasn’t any substantial Muslim opposition to the temple re-building project at Somnath. This was partly due to the fact that, in the immediate aftermath of bloody Partition, Muslims who stayed behind in India did not want to raise any contentious religious issue. In contrast, the title of the mosque-temple site in Ayodhya is hotly disputed, and the dispute has not ended even after the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court gave a verdict in September 2010. In a majority 2:1 judgment, the court decreed a three-way division of the 2.77-acre disputed land – one-third for the Sunni Waqf Board, one-third for the Nirmohi Akhara and one-third to the party for 'Ram Lalla'. However, this judgment was stayed by the Supreme Court in May 2011. The apex court has also directed the parties to maintain the status quo at the site.

This being the case, there isn’t the slightest possibility of a Somnath-like solution to the Ayodhya dispute. Bhagwat in his Kolkata speech mentioned that India’s first home minister and deputy prime minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had taken the initiative in reconstructing the Somnath Temple. Projecting Patel as a Hindu hero will no doubt please supporters of the Sangh Parivar. But it does not alter the basic reality that he, assisted by Dr KM Munshi, another ministerial colleague in the Nehru cabinet, could accomplish reconstruction of the Somnath Temple only because no legal hurdle stopped their effort. In today’s circumstances, Prime Minister Modi, notwithstanding his enormous admiration for Patel, can do little to emulate the Somnath model to build the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. Should the RSS-VHP choose to raise the Ayodhya issue seriously, one can expect fissures to appear in Modi’s relationship with the non-BJP Sangh Parivar. And this could well endanger the stability of the Modi government.

Bhagwat is well aware of this. Hence, the RSS may not want to do any such thing that would create serious troubles for the Modi government. This is clear from Bhagwat’s own statement in Kolkata – “We need to plan it (preparations for temple construction) carefully… We need a good mix of ‘josh’ (enthusiasm) and ‘hosh’ (caution).” This being the case, the RSS chief’s articulations on Ayodhya can best be interpreted as rhetorical, aimed at maintaining a “feel good” atmosphere in the parivar.

The way ahead

So how will – and how should - the Ayodhya dispute get resolved? It is certainly not in the nation’s interest that the dispute remain unresolved in perpetuity. Issues of sensitive nature should see an early and amicable closure. Otherwise, there is every possibility of such issues igniting a new cycle of communal tension and violence at some point in the future.

There are three ways of ending the Ayodhya dispute – through a verdict of the Supreme Court, through an act of Parliament and through a mutual agreement among the parties to the dispute. As mentioned earlier, the legislative route is more or less closed. Even though the apex court should give its judgment soon, this is unlikely to happen given the tardy functioning of our judiciary. Until the judiciary speaks its final word, it is advisable for the leaders of Hindu and Muslim communities not to raise this contentious issue at all. There is, after all, great virtue in showing patience.

The status quo can of course be altered if the representatives of the Hindu and Muslim communities, who are parties to the dispute, come to a mutually acceptable agreement through negotiations.  However, such negotiations have a chance to succeed only in an atmosphere of mutual trust and accommodation, not when one side – the Sangh Parivar in this case – wants to project the building of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya as a symbol of Hindu triumphalism. Indeed, the greatest obstacle to the construction of the Ram Temple is that it has been politicised by the Sangh Parivar for the electoral benefit of the BJP. In this sense, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is right in responding to Bhagwat’s latest comment by saying that the RSS and BJP have been “treating Ram as if he were a party member".

On their part, leaders of the Muslim community should also recognise that giving up their claim to the disputed site, and enabling the building of the Ram Temple, will send a positive message to the Hindu community at large. Both Muslim religious-political leaders and also non-Muslim secular leaders should accept the incontrovertible historical fact that temple-demolition and other atrocities were created by certain bigoted Muslim invaders and kings in the medieval period. If the Taliban could blast the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan in our own time, how can we believe that such acts were not committed by fanatical Muslim rulers in bygone centuries? None other than Dr BR Ambedkar himself has written about this at great length in his book Pakistan or the Partition of India (1940). He has given specific instances of idol-breaking and temple-plundering (including the one at Somnath), with references to descriptions by Muslim historians themselves. The Allahabad High Court’s 2010 verdict also mentions, based on ample archeological evidence, that a temple existed at the site where the Babri Masjid was built by (or in the name of) the first Mughal king in 1527.

However, as I have stated at the beginning, even if it is true that the Babri Mosque was built after demolishing a pre-existing temple, it does not justify the crime committed by a group of Hindu Talibanis in Ayodhya 23 years ago. Hence, the best solution to this dispute is simply this: First of all, BJP, RSS and VHP should express genuine remorse over the demolition of the Babri Masjid and for hurting the sentiments of Muslims. It is worth noting here that Advani described December 6 as “the saddest day in my life”. Expression of contrition by the Sangh Parivar should be followed by Muslims withdrawing their claim on the contentious site, paving the way for the construction of the Ram Temple in such a way that no political party (ie the BJP) can seek benefit from it and no Hindu organisation (ie the RSS) can project it as a “victory” for Hindus and “defeat” for Muslims. Simultaneously, Hindus should join hands with their Muslim brethren in re-building the Babri Masjid at a nearby site mutually agreed upon.

Many Muslims are concerned that giving up their claim in Ayodhya would embolden the Sangh Parivar to launch copycat agitations for reclaiming the disputed sites in other places, especially Kashi and Mathura. These concerns have been fully addressed by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, which has laid down that the religious character of all places of worship in India shall continue to be what it was on August 15, 1947. The law had specifically exempted the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue from its scope. Hence, once the Ayodhya issue is amicably resolved, our country will hopefully see no repetition of communally driven campaigns over mandirs and mosques.

May Ayodhya be transformed into a city of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation and national integration, never again to become a cause for conflict and bloodshed.

The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the Prime Minister's Office between 1998 and 2004.