My radical leftist friend thumped a bunch of newspapers down on the table and took the chair opposite to mine. “Buddy boy,” she winked and said, “Muslims must be feeling like the Germans did after the Treaty of Versailles.”
I blinked in confusion. It wasn’t because I was oblivious of the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed at the end of World War I. It not only imposed humiliating terms on the Germans, but also asked them to accept the guilt of triggering the Great War. The Germans baulked, but they accepted the Treaty because they had been vanquished.
I was confused because I couldn’t even sniff a war around me. Without a war there can’t be a treaty – that’s common sense.
To dispel my confusion, my friend said, “Babri Masjid. Chief Justice JS Khehar.”
She was, obviously, referring to the Chief Justice Khehar generously offering to mediate an out-of-court settlement between two parties in the Babri Masjid dispute pending in the Supreme Court. There are two sets of litigants in the case, and because one set comprises Muslims and the other Hindu, the dispute is classified as a Hindu-Muslim one.
“Worth a try,” I said, taking a cue from TV debates in which, barring a legal-eagle or two, just about everyone had welcomed Khehar’s offer. Aware of my radical friend’s politics, I thought it prudent to add: “Even though the chief justice made the offer in response to, of all the people, the Bharatiya Janata Party MP Subramanian Swamy’s request to expedite the Babri Masjid case.”
She smiled at my taking a swipe at Swamy for writing and delivering speeches dripping with hatred against Muslims.
But her smile soon segued into a penetrating gaze, quickly followed by the question: “Why do I think Muslims must be feeling like what Germans did after the Treaty of Versailles?”
Since I couldn’t understand what she was driving at, I simply crunched my eyebrows.
“The timing,” she said. “It couldn’t have been more inappropriate.”
My friend said the Bharatiya Janata Party has swept the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, which, as is now being said, witnessed voting along communal lines. Just in case people were misled into interpreting the verdict as a mandate for development, the party chose Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
“You understand his symbolical significance, don’t you?” my friend asked.
She then took to regurgitating the sensational comments Adityanath had made in the past on issues ranging from love jihad to anti-cow slaughter to Muslims breeding inexorably to alter the country’s demography.
Throughout his political career, she said, Adityanath has been a doughty crusader for building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, repeatedly making it clear that the only compromise formula possible was to have Muslims relinquish their claims to the site of the Babri Masjid.
“Let us face it,” she said, “the Muslims have lost the war for Uttar Pradesh and you can already see the consequences unfolding.”
Without even glancing at the newspapers for a prompt, she took to updating me on the happenings in Uttar Pradesh over the last one week, as if I wasn’t aware of them.
Here a BJP flag had been hoisted on a mosque and there a notice has been found asking Muslims to leave a village. Here slaughterhouses have been sealed and there an anti-Romeo squad has been constituted. Here meat-shops have been shuttered and there vends selling chicken and fish have been burnt, and…
“Enough,” I said.
“Humiliating terms are imposed on the vanquished through a post-war treaty. In a democracy such as ours, discriminatory policies are introduced after an electoral victory,” she said with an unmistakable air of profundity.
She didn’t take mercy on my discomfort, which should have been evident on my face. Instead, she said, “You journalists are nuts.”
She picked up the newspapers from the table and began to read the headlines, all of which, one way or another, spoke of the abiding faith Muslims employed in the Gorakhnath Temple have in Adityanath, and how they have never encountered discrimination.
“Tell me,” she said, leaning forward. “Will journalists ever publicly criticise the owners of media houses in which they work? Isn’t your fraternity aware of something called power relations?”
I looked away in embarrassment.
“Why are journalists lavishing praise on Adityanath for talking about inclusion and development?”
I refused to look at her.
She said the art of new politics is to emerge from that colourless world of anonymity through remarks full of hatred, spite and threats of violence. Once such a person comes into power, even an anodyne remark or a mouthing of cliché – “development” too has slipped into that category – has journalists mistake him for a statesman.
“What can you do but give him a chance,” I said, turning to look at her.
“Really, India has discovered a new method of self-improvement – give the hate-speakers a shot at power.”
My friend said she couldn’t quite fathom the degree of self-flagellation among Muslims, blaming their hotheaded speakers for communalising the Assembly elections or ascribing it to the community’s attempt to consolidate behind one party or the other, as if it was a patently undemocratic act.
“Adityanath is right, Asaduddin Owaisi is wrong,” she said and exclaimed, “What hypocrisy!”
My eyes shifted to the newspapers lying on the table. A jumble of headlines danced before me.
She said, “Do you now understand why I think the offer of mediation in the Babri Masjid dispute has come at such an inopportune moment?” She accused me of being deracinated, of being disconnected from the community. “Think how Muslims would interpret the offer.”
My friend gratuitously took to explaining her theory. There is a BJP government at the Centre and in Lucknow too, she said. Muslims will likely think that the offer – wrongly so because the court can’t be influenced by the country’s political matrix – has come now because a show of recalcitrance or a refusal to surrender the Babri Masjid site would invite a backlash from which they might not receive protection from police or administration.
“These things happen in India, right?”
I remembered the 2002 riots of Gujarat and the carnage against the Sikh ins 1984 in Delhi.
Nevertheless, I countered, “Muslims have full faith in the judiciary. Their leaders have said that repeatedly.”
My friend shook her head in exasperation. She said she too has faith in the judiciary. But the problem is that if Muslim leaders don’t engage in negotiations, they would be accused of obstinacy, of not respecting the sentiments of Hindus. Should they enter into a parley, it is doomed to fail.
“In 2003 too,” my friend replied, “there was an attempt at reconciliation but it collapsed because the Muslims were asked to surrender not only the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya, but also mosques in Mathura and Varanasi. Why would it be different this time round?”
She said the negotiations will be prolonged on one pretext or another until a few months before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It will then enable the Bharatiya Janata Party to turn that election into a referendum on Ayodhya.
“If the rhetoric of shamshan ghat and qabristan can divide Uttar Pradesh, a campaign built around a Ram temple will be of quite another order.”
Finally, I understood my friend’s allusion to the Treaty of Versailles.
”Basically,” I said, “it is about compelling Muslims to accept the guilt that their community forbearers converted temples into mosques around the country.”
“Buddy boy,” she exclaimed, “has, finally, understood why Muslims have to feel like Germans did after the Treaty of Versailles.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.