Young, Muslim and reflecting on Ayodhya
Travelling in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the September 30 Allahabad High Court verdict in the Ayodhya title suits, I was struck by the uniformity of Muslim opinion. Older Muslims said they wanted the verdict delivered quickly and whichever way, because that would bring to closure a wracking issue that had destabilised their lives and set them back by many valuable years. The educated post-technology generation, innocently young during the benumbing years of the Ram Mandir movement, seemed disconnected from the issue. Not that they were unaware of the pain and insecurities of that time. Young or old, the heartland Muslim is a political animal, always well-informed and sharply intuitive. Yet conversations revealed an impatience to leave behind the past and embrace the future, however uncertain. There were complaints about biases, about being shut out of opportunities, about a sense of alienation. Yet even by these yardsticks, the world ahead was better for the young than the violence and darkness of the past. Their parents would know: All that mattered to the community in the decade after December 6, 1992 was their personal safety. Mulayam Singh in U.P. and Lalu Prasad in Bihar became saviours not because they delivered jobs but simply because they pledged to protect Muslim lives. A constant refrain heard in those troubled times was: “Hum hi nahin to aur kuch ka kya matlab?” (If we are not alive what use is anything else?) Who would want a return to that blighted past? The “we-have-moved-on” buzz heard in U.P. became a roar in Delhi. It was everywhere. Television channels, hardwired to sensationalise the tiniest scrap of news, reverently mouthed the lines. Hindus said it. Muslims said it. Most of all, political parties, never known not to exploit an opportunity, said it. Verdict over, a fantastic, incredible quiet followed. There was not one incident reported from anywhere — not from Ayodhya, not from the rest of U.P., not from any of the known trouble spots, not from anywhere in India. The maturity of the average Indian was on spectacular display. For once, opinion-makers had got the mood right: India had indeed moved on. Equally heartening, Indians had proved that communal violence is never spontaneous, it is always politically engineered. Unfortunately, the joy of this discovery was diminished by a disturbing realisation: The verdict itself was not in tune with the aspirations of a modern, democratic, young nation. The first dissenting notes emanated from the condemned world of “pseudo-secularists.” The three-way division of land, ordered by the judges, was based not on hard, irrefutable evidence but on the claimed faith and belief of a claimed Hindu majority. Did India's Hindus, all 80 million of them, believe that Lord Ram was born at the same, precise spot where the mosque's central dome once stood? The verdict implied so, and handed that portion of the mosque to the Lord himself, deeming his rights to be overriding because he was a “perpetual minor.” Was this the “majesty of law” that all sides respectfully invoked before the verdict, that Muslims in particular emphasised over and over? Muslim organisations began to voice their disappointment. The Sunni Central Wakf Board, the main litigant on behalf of Muslims, correctly announced its decision to move the Supreme Court. But there were also the malcontents. The Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid used the Friday prayers to deliver a fiery, rabble-rousing speech. Mr. Mulayam Singh began stoking Muslim fears. There was no mistaking the opportunism in these actions. It was time, then, for some unbiased, untutored Muslim opinion. I decided to reconnect with the Muslim respondents I had met in U.P. I also decided to tap my circle of Muslim friends for young, educated contacts. The list included, among many others, the teenaged Shafat from Balrampur, Shamshad Ahmad from Barabanki, Ehsanbhai from Ayodhya, Aftab Alam, a teacher from Delhi University, Arif Ali, an M. Phil. student of Japanese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Shamshad Khan, a researcher at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, and Zafar Ahmad, a software consultant with a multi-national company. They spoke calmly but clearly, a small minority with a sense of resignation but almost all others feeling pained that 21st century India could substitute reason with faith. There were no raised voices, no uncontrolled flashes of anger, no talk of invading the streets or starting an agitation. Mr. Shamshad Khan was “deeply disappointed” with the “extra-judicial” verdict but felt Muslims had other far more important matters to focus on: “Are we going to be held hostage to this issue forever?” In truth, nobody wanted to be dragged down yet again by the Mandir-Masjid dispute. Without exception, everybody I spoke to said “never again; not down that path.” However, most people added a caveat: This did not imply unreserved acceptance of the verdict. I reminded them of the Muslim promise that the community would honour the verdict, no matter how it went. Laughed Mr. Aftab Alam: “How do we welcome a judgment that talks of theology in the 21st century? I would have felt the same way if a standing, living temple in independent India had been demolished and its demolition justified in the name of Islamic faith.” As Mr. Alam and others saw it, there was no contradiction between wanting to move on and feeling dismayed by the judgment. Besides, how could India itself move on when the justice it offered went deep into the unknown past? Mr. Zafar Ahmad summed it up beautifully: “As a Muslim I may not question this judgment. But as an Indian I do because ultimately this issue is about Constitutional guarantees, about the preamble, about how modern India views itself. What precedents are we setting at a time we are projecting ourselves as an emerging superpower moving into the era of science, technology and reason? Are we now going to start digging underneath each time an issue of faith is raised?” Another interesting point emerged from the discussions: The same verdict might have been acceptable to Muslims had the judges used secular reasoning to divide the property between Hindus and Muslims. A sagacious judgment would have been for the judges to dismiss the Muslim suit for being time-barred though accepting that the facts in the case were clear, well established and in favour of Muslims. A division on the grounds of joint worship could have followed thereafter. Instead, the court sanctified the 1949 political manoeuvre of physically moving the idols into position under the central dome; that crude, blatant act, watched over by a 40-50-strong mob, had become the faith of all Hindus. Though perhaps not wanting it that way, older Muslims had found their identities entwined with the fate and survival of the Babri Masjid. In 1990, with Lal Krishna Advani astride his Ram rath, Mandir wahin banayenge (we will build the temple only there) had escalated into a war cry. Every Hindutva milestone crossed thereafter heightened the Muslim sense of isolation. The courts spoke reassuringly of maintaining the status quo. But the status quo had always altered — and always in favour of Hindus. In 1949, the installation of the idols became the status quo. In 1986, the opening of the locks became the status quo. In 1989, the shilanyas ceremony became the status quo. And finally, in 1992, the demolition of the mosque followed by the erection of the temple became the eternal status quo. That year, the Supreme Court severely censured the destroyers of the mosque. But in 2010, a lower court would stamp its imprimatur on that very status quo — by accepting that Ram lalla was born under Babri Masjid's central dome. The BJP's 1994 white paper on Ayodhya was almost prescient when it noted that the same courts that for years could not help Hindus came around once “the structure was physically occupied.” Today's young Muslims are very different. They do not identify with the mosque. It is immaterial to them whether a mandir or a masjid comes up on the spot. But as some of them told The Hindu, they are Indians first and committed to the values held sacred by the Constitution. These values, including protection of minority rights, cannot but come into question when justice, delivered in a court of law, tilts visibly towards the majority. Even without the shadow of the Babri Masjid, life is not easy for Muslim boys and girls, a fact brought out most graphically by the Rajinder Sachar Committee report on the status of Muslims. The report situated the community at a level below the Hindu OBCs but above Dalits. It highlighted lack of access to education, bank credit and employment. It said Muslims bore the double cross of terrorism and appeasement. For the Muslim sense of injustice not to grow, for young Muslims not to feel the way their parents' generation did, justice, in every manner of speaking, must be delivered to them, and must be seen to be delivered to them.