- The demise of Indian secularism
By B Z Khasru
India has just set an example of how a nation can retreat into darkness, with its Supreme Court ruling on Saturday that a Hindu temple be built to honour the fictitious God Ram on the disputed site of a historic 400-year-old Muslim mosque, named after the first Mughal emperor.
The top court agreed with Hindus that a structure existed under the mosque, that the Babri Masjid was not built on vacant land. It decided to give Muslims land elsewhere to construct a mosque, a consolation prize that seems akin to giving the continental USA back to the Indians and resettling the Americans in Hawaii.
Indian Muslims should reject the land offer and not build any mosque at all in protest. To defy Hindu extremists, they should also start holding weekly Friday congregations under open skies whenever the weather permits. They should forcefully assert their equal rights under India’s constitution, but shun violence. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence creed is the most powerful weapon civilians ever invented.
The verdict capped years of legal wrangling, which reached India’s highest court in 2011 when Hindus appealed a lower court order that the site be shared by the two religions. In 2018, a three-judge panel declined to send the case to a constitution bench, prompting the Chief Justice to form a body to decide who owns the property.
The five-member bench, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, ordered the government on Saturday to set up in three months a trust to manage the site on behalf of Ram Lalla Virajman, the child deity, worshiped by Hindus at the site.
Now the Hindu ultra-nationalist government will form a board to erect the Ram temple where once stood the Babri Masjid. This action ends India’s secular tradition by patronising one religion against another. India, a nation of 1.3 billion people with 200 million Muslims, is to treat all religions equally under the constitution.
The court decision will create chilling effects among Muslims and intensify simmering Hindu-Muslim tensions inside India and out. Moderate Muslims in Bangladesh and Pakistan, for example, will stumble to cite India as a model to fight extremism. Muslims rather will point to extremism of Buddhists and Hindus as well as Christians as existentialist threats to their religion
The verdict is faulty also because it ordered the government to construct a temple, even though the court admitted there is no evidence that one ever existed at the site. The court overstepped its jurisdiction, too; its task is to decide the ownership. What will be done with the property that is no business of the court— that will be decided by the owner.
Hindus, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supporters, claim that Mughal Emperor Zaheeruddin Muhammad Babur, whose dynasty ruled India from 1526 to 1857, built the mosque on top of a temple at the birthplace of Ram, a character in the Ramayana, an epic written by the sage Valmiki about 200 BC. An archaeological survey found no evidence of this, only that an unspecified structure existed before the mosque.
In deciding the case in favour of the Hindus, the justices accepted infant Ram as a perpetual minor under law, an ill-conceived legal doctrine without precedent outside India. It is beyond a modern man’s imagination how learned jurists of an ancient civilisation can accord legal status to a fictitious deity. Only the dark mind of India seems to be at work.
This judgment has irreparably damaged the Supreme Court and undermined minority confidence in the judiciary. The court made a mistake by deciding the case based on whether Hindus worshiped at the site, which has been used as a mosque since 1528. It ignored the main instrument of ownership— the title to the land.
The court said “there is clear evidence to indicate that the worship by the Hindus in the outer courtyard continued unimpeded in spite of the setting up of a grill-brick wall in 1857,” which means the Hindus were in possession of a part of the land and hence have a valid ownership claim. By this logic, Muslims in the USA can rightfully claim ownership of many churches, where they held weekly Friday prayers. No one in the USA can claim ownership of a house just by the virtue of living in it for some time.
The court contradicted itself in saying that titles can’t be decided on faith when it actually ruled in favour of Hindus because of the evidence that Hindus continuously worshiped at the site for a long period.
The pendulum of justice cannot swing according to political wisdom or pragmatism. Justice upholds legal principles. The court should have given the land to its valid title holder. Even better would have been for the apex court to stay above the fray and send the case back to the lower court to settle the ownership dispute.
Like the US Supreme Court, the Supreme Court of India should be minimally interventionist, hearing only the cases that involve serious constitutional issues. Indian justices decide as many as 700 cases a year, against 70 by their US peers.
The unanimous landmark verdict is pure politics, and it has voided respect for history, which India’s founding leaders treasured as mythical cobras protect their pots of gold. This ruling relegates India’s Muslims into perpetual discrimination based on religion, an idea ultra-nationalist Hindu guru V.D. Savarkar espoused a century ago.
Muslims prayed at the mosque for generations until 1949, when Hindu activists placed idols of Ram inside the complex. The mosque was demolished in 1992 by Hindu mobs triggering nationwide religious violence that killed about 2,000 people, most of them Muslims.
This destruction of the mosque highlighted the failure of secularism in India, and divided the country along religious lines, giving politicians an opportunity to appeal to base instincts of Hindu masses to win elections.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political organisation, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which wishes to create a Muslim-free India, vowed decades ago to build the temple at Ayodhya. Behind this movement has been the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a militant umbrella group with a tax-exempt affiliate in the USA, which works to reconvert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism.
The verdict gave a major victory to the 69-year-old Modi, who was blamed for the Muslim massacre in 2002 and has been under fire since August for scrapping special autonomy for Muslim-majority Kashmir.
Since Modi came to power in 2014, India has passed laws against Muslims, and several states are planning to deny government jobs to people with more than two children. The Muslim birth rate exceeds the Hindu, and India has a phobia that Muslims will outnumber Hindus and re-establish the Muslim empire. Muslim history has been removed from school textbooks. Modi is considering a law to grant refugee status to everybody but Muslims.
With the verdict, India is now a Hindu nation, which means that Muslims are free to leave if they so choose, or stay as subservient to Hindus. This is how Hindus want to avenge their humiliation under Muslim rule for 1000 years.
The court decision will create chilling effects among Muslims and intensify simmering Hindu-Muslim tensions inside India and out. Moderate Muslims in Bangladesh and Pakistan, for example, will stumble to cite India as a model to fight extremism. Muslims rather will point to extremism of Buddhists and Hindus as well as Christians as existentialist threats to their religion.