“People had already decided that we will accept whatever decision the court makes. This is about respecting the court,” said the 45-year-old businessman in Varanasi. He was referring to the city’s Muslim community. The court decision that had been accepted calmly was the ruling on the Ayodhya land title dispute, which paves the way for a Ram temple on the site where the Babri Masjid had been demolished. The Supreme Court had also ordered the allocation of five acres of land for a mosque in Ayodhya.
“It does not mean that we are happy with it,” the businessman said. It had been a property dispute but the court seemed to have no evidential basis for its judgment, and was there no other land to build a temple?
A young Muslim journalist based in Varanasi was more blunt. “We had expected that there would be a decision, not justice,” she said. “But we had not expected the judgment to go so much against us.”
There was no proof of a Ram mandir ever having existed on the site, she pointed out, and the Supreme Court had admitted that a mosque built by Babur had stood there. “The Supreme Court gave such a baffling judgment,” she said.
But if there is bitterness, both businessman and journalist also speak of keeping the peace, of not wanting “more damage to the country”. The businessman preferred to dwell on how people from all faiths had been invited to a chhat puja on the ghats of Varanasi, how Eid-Milad-un-Nabi processions had passed off peacefully a day after the verdict.
An unquiet silence
With the November 9 judgment, the Supreme Court decided on an matter that has riven the political life of India post Independence. What began as a sullen legal dispute in 1949, when idols were smuggled into the inner sanctum of the mosque, became a communal flashpoint after 1992, when a Hindutva mob demolished the mosque. Since then, the dispute has triggered riots that killed thousands, cut through the social fabric of villages across North India and poisoned political speeches, especially those of the Hindu Right. For close to three decades, Ayodhya has been a byword for polarisation in Indian politics.
The final judgment, decades in the making, has been read by many as serving majoritarian interests. Yet there have been few protests from the minority, whose claims to the site have been dismissed. All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi rejected the offer of alternative land for a mosque, and has found growing support on social media. A few voices have urged a review petition.
But, on the whole, Muslim political and socio-religious leaders said the verdict in favour of a Ram temple had to be accepted. Even in North India, where Ayodhya resonates the most, Muslim communities took in the judgment with stoic calm. Going by reports, Muslims in Ayodhya expressed sorrow and helplessness. In Old Delhi, Muslim shopkeepers were more worried about businesses that had struggled after demonetisation and a shrinking job market.
After years of contestation, what explains this lack of protest? There are no easy answers. But social scientists point to the place of the Babri Masjid in the Muslim faith, how the dispute figured in Muslim identity politics, the absence of a monolithic Muslim identity in India, as well as a growing majoritarian consensus.
‘Not a special mosque’
“Babri was a mosque for us but not a special mosque,” said the businessman from Varanasi. “It is not like Muslims from all over the country came to pray there. For us, the important places are Mecca and Medina.”
The Babri dispute has always been a mix of the sacred and secular. For a section of Hindus, the site was the birthplace of Ram. For Muslims, it was consecrated ground. But it was not central to the faith, many argue. “Babri wasn’t even a grand mosque like Jamia Masjid,” said Saeed Naqvi, journalist and author of Being the Other: The Muslim in India. “If you say Ramchander ji was born here and I say Prophet Muhammad was born here then we have a contest.”
Over the years, the Mughal-era mosque had paled in religious significance for Muslims. Even if the plot had been allotted to Muslims, the journalist from Varanasi explained, they would not have been able to pray there – the tenets of Islam said prayers could not be offered on disputed land.
Political scientist Hilal Ahmed even contends that Babri had become an “irrelevant mosque” for Muslims, especially after 1992. “The mosque or at least the structure of it, was demolished in 1992, hence, there is no mosque at all there on the disputed land,” he explained. “On the other hand, there is a functional Hindu temple, which is open to all Hindus. A Hindu can visit this temple, offer bhog to the deity and commemorate lord Ram’s birthplace on the site where Babri Masjid once stood. However, this is not the case with Muslims. A Muslim is not allowed to offer prayers on this land. This legal restriction discourages the Muslims from asserting their religious claim on this site for regular namaz etc. as the Babri Masjid does not have any special religious status for Muslim communities.”
A secular debate
Rather, Muslim claims to the site have been rooted in questions of historicity and legality. In his book, Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation, Ahmed writes that the dominant Muslim position on the dispute hewed close to the “secular, objective” position: that there was little evidence to support the presence of a Ram temple on the site, the monument was a part of India’s national heritage, the dispute was not just a local issue but spoke to the rights of religious minorities in India.
Local Muslim narratives, Ahmed argues, connected legal and historical facts with myths and folklore. The deserted hilltop in Ayodhya had been a site for Sufi worship, according to local folklore. The prayers of Sufi mystics had helped Babur win the Battle of Panipat against Sikander Lodhi, and so the victorious Mughal ordered the construction of a mosque on the spot. Local histories also note the presence of Hindu bairagis who forced their way in and built a platform in the outer courtyard of the mosque but continued to worship there at the indulgence of the nawab of Awadh. The Hindu-Muslim unity of Awadh was only disrupted by the British, who created the dispute, according to the local narrative.
At least some of these ideas still endure in the former kingdom of Awadh. For centuries, Hindus and Muslims had lived together and fought together, said the businessman from Varanasi. “It was the British who created these divisions to get power,” he explained.
Both dominant and local Muslim positions sought negotiations in the domain of law. It was only briefly, in the 1980s, that these legal contestations entered the political domain, Ahmed argues.
The political Babri
The 1980s saw Muslim political responses shaped by an increasingly animated Hindu Right. In 1984, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad started an active campaign for the Ram temple and in 1986, the Faizabad district court allowed the mosque to be unlocked after decades. With that, Babri entered a wider current of Muslim identity politics, Ahmed argues, becoming the symbol of a “collective Muslim resistance”.
The Babri Masjid Action Committee was formed soon after the gates were unlocked, Muslim parties such as the AIMIM as well as Muslim political and religious leaders joined in political mobilisations, mostly in North Indian cities. It was a decade marked by other battles of identity – the Shah Bano case, which triggered a debate over Muslim personal law, and the Satanic Verses, the Salman Rushdie novel which incurred a fatwa.
The Babri case was folded into the demand for a law to protect the right to worship in other mosques. But the Muslim agitations could not prevent the performance of the shilanya, or stone laying, for a Ram temple in 1989. That same year, Ram Lalla Virajaman, the deity itself, represented by a “sakha” or “friend”, became a party to the title suit.
It proved to be an inflection point for Muslim identity politics around Babri. “The common Muslims, who were mobilised in the name of protecting the mosque, were always told that Babri Masjid was a political failure for them,” said Ahmed. There was a victory of sorts in 1991, when the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act was passed, ensuring that the religious character of places of worship would be maintained as it existed on August 15, 1947. But while it boosted the legal proceedings, political mobilisations receded, especially after the demolition.
“All Muslim parties and groups decided to recognise the AIMPLB’s [All India Muslim Personal Law Board’s] High Power Committee as the core body to look after the legal case on Babri Masjid after its demolition,” said Ahmed. “The Babri Masjid Action Committee passed a resolution on December 1, 1993, to suspend all the agitational programmes and activities.”
Which Muslim politics?
In the decades after the demolition, the Ram Mandir became a core issue for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its Hindu nationalist project, which involved the attempt to construct a homogenising Hindutva politics. It helped propel the party from two seats in 1984 to over 300 seats in 2019, Naqvi observes. But after the mobilisations of the 1980s, no such consolidated identity politics was visible among Muslim communities across the country.
Naqvi, for one, is indignant when asked about a “Muslim response” to the Babri dispute. Muslims in India were a diverse group, ranging across states, speaking different languages, with varying political impulses and responses. Most Indian Muslims wanted social harmony, he said, it was a section of the religious and political leadership which kept Babri alive to stay relevant.
Besides, social scientists and writers point out, Muslim communities wanted to be identified as political subjects outside “Muslim issues”. But they had been boxed in, by socio-religious and political leaders from within the community and by the wider sweep of politics, even apparently secular politics. “Muslims wanted jobs, security, entrepreneurial help. But what has the system imposed on them? Babri, Shah Bano, Satanic Verses,” said Naqvi.
Living in a majoritarian state
Beneath the quiet after the Ayodhya judgment, there is also a dry-eyed recognition of political realities. Even if the court had awarded the land to the Muslim parties, Naqvi says, they would never have been able to build a mosque their in the current climate of majoritarian bullying.
Some of the silence is dictated by fear. The journalist in Varanasi spoke of FIRs against Muslims in Uttar Pradesh who had criticised majoritarian policies or politics on social media. The businessman did not want to be named – “you know what the political situation is”.
It had created silences in personal relationships. “Even with Hindu friends, we don’t discuss the the mandir-masjid issue. We don’t want to ruin our relationship with them,” said the journalist.
As for protests, there was no space for the political articulations that were possible even a couple of decades ago. “Earlier, there were politicians who would listen to us. Now, no one will listen to us,” said the journalist.
The sense of political marginalisation was sealed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech after the Ayodhya verdict. “He congratulated Hindus for the mandir but did he talk about Muslims even once? What are they getting?” she asked.
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