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The Death of a Secular Republic

Since Modi assumed power, there has been a fear among liberals that the government may delete the word “secular” from the country’s constitution. They need not worry. The Supreme Court has effectively done that for him.

Nov 9, 2019

On Nov. 9 2019, the Indian Supreme Court delivered its verdict on one of the most controversial property disputes in history. In the process, the court also managed to kill Indian secularism.
On the surface, the legal case in question was a simple property dispute. In the 16th century, a mosque was built in the North Indian city of Ayodhya on the orders of the Mughal Emperor Babur. At some point in the 19th century, there was a growing but unsubstantiated belief that the mosque had been built at the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of Hinduism’s most prominent deities. A compromise was struck, where Muslims would continue to pray inside the mosque while Hindus would use the outer courtyard. It allowed for both groups to exercise their right to pray: a type of settlement required in a country as diverse as India.
It was that very diversity that Hindu nationalists sought to undermine when they launched a revivalist movement in the 1980s. The movement — led by the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party — argued that ownership of the land in question should be given to a Hindu group because a temple may have once existed on the land. It was a ludicrous claim, the type that would have gotten any ordinary person laughed out of a courtroom.
The movement ultimately culminated in one of the most atrocious days in the history of independent India. On December 6 1992, a massive mob gathered to listen to speeches made by senior leaders of the Hindu nationalist BJP. After a series of inflammatory speeches, the crowd stormed the mosque and demolished it by hand. Over the next few months, riots would be instigated all over India, leading to the deaths of more than 2,000 people.
In a country with even an inkling of justice, the action would have been condemned and the mosque would have been rebuilt immediately. Instead, the demolition of the mosque marked a symbolic shift in Indian politics. The BJP capitalized on the heinous crime and used it to inflame communal tensions. The possibility of a temple at the site became the rallying cry of Hindutva, the neo-fascist movement to make India a Hindu nation. The party attempted to make every election a referendum on the issue, as it combined thinly veiled xenophobic rhetotoric with chants demanding the construction of a temple at the site of the demolished mosque.
Instead of being treated like the criminals that they were, the perpetrators were hailed as heroes. L.K Advani, the leader of the original revivalist movement, became Home Minister. Narendra Modi, one of the mid-level organizers of the campaign, used the notoriety to kickstart a political career that — with the help of other pogroms — would eventually culminate in him becoming Prime Minister in 2014.
Meanwhile, the judicial system sputtered in any attempts to deliver justice. 27 years later, most of the perpetrators of the crime are still free. In their infinite wisdom, India’s judges have slow-walked the criminal investigation and instead chosen to focus on the property dispute: the ludicrous question of whether Hindu fundamentalist groups had a right to arbitrarily demolish a mosque and build a temple there.
In that sense, the precarious nature of the Babri Masjid dispute symbolized India in the 21st century. The deprival of natural justice to minorities marked the weakening of India’s secular identity. Yet at the same time, the inability of the Hindu Right to build a temple at the site for 27 years suggested that there was a limit to the power of majoritarian forces.
With Sunday’s decision, however, the Supreme Court — led by a man accused of sexual harassment — has put an end to that precarity. With one stroke, it legitimized the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the bigotry that accompanied it. Since Modi assumed power, there has been a fear among liberals that the government may delete the word “secular” from the country’s constitution. They need not worry. The Supreme Court has effectively done that for him.
Some may claim that the Babri Masjid dispute was always a legal issue, and the highest court in the land has rightfully ruled on it. After all, the length of the judgement — 1038 pages — seems to indicate that some form of legal rigour was exercised.
However, such counter-arguments are baseless. If the case was indeed a legal matter, then perhaps the honorable justices of the Supreme Court would have made some attempt at a cogent legal argument in those 1038 pages. Instead, the judgement is full of arguments that would not pass muster in a university classroom.
The decision rests partly on the notion that the Muslim plantiffs could not prove that the mosque was a place of religious worship for Muslims because they did not provide “evidence of the offering of namaz in the mosque, over this period [1528-1857]”. India is a country where cabinet ministers struggle to furnish university degrees from a few decades ago. In that same country, the Supreme Court expects plaintiffs to come up with concrete evidence of “namaz being offered” from centuries ago. Perhaps it was the incompetence of the lawyers in question that they were unable to come up with a digital photograph of namaz being offered in 1528. When justices make such arguments, then it is difficult to accept that the Babri Masjid issue is primarily a legal issue.
At least, the Supreme Court judgement correctly stated that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a “wrong that must be remedied.” Keeping that in mind, the spineless cowards of the Supreme Court decided to remedy the wrong by rewarding the perpetrators and punishing the victims.
The judgement was delivered to a backdrop of curfews through many parts of India. The imposition of these curfews was wise, for the Babri Masjid dispute has already taken enough lives in India. For many in India, this fear of Hindu fundamentalist violence is why the Babri Masjid judgement should not be opposed. They argue that the verdict brings closure to a vicious cycle of violence and that the country should move on.
But to make this argument is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of Hindutva. The communal fires ignited by the BJP cannot be extinguished by the granting of a temple in Ayodhya. They will move on to another target, not stopping until the BJP’s fascist conception of a Hindu nationalist state is complete. As I write these words, Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir continues to be under an unprecented communications crackdown after being stripped of its special status in the Indian Union. BJP governments throughout the country are planning to launch programs for the mass deportation of Muslim migrants. Some Hindu nationalist politicians have already entertained the possibility of demolishing more mosques across North India.
A Ram Temple in Ayodhya will not stop any of these state-sponsored crimes. Instead, it will only stand as a validation of that oppression, a monument to Hindutva’s grand fascist project.
Abhyudaya Tyagi is Features Editor. Email him at
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