Ram Temple movement erected a big tent
The project to ensure India's emergence as an Indic civilizational-rooted modern state will come undone if lumpen anti-intellectualism continues
Happenstance, perhaps, but as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Ayodhya Demolition on December 6, I received a phone call from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), informing me that my deposition as a witness is overdue before the CBI Special Court in Lucknow where the case on the “criminal conspiracy” aspect of the demolition is being heard. It brought home to me, apart from the reality that I’m no longer a tyro 20-year-old political reporter for a national newspaper (not The Pioneer) who was the first in and among the last out of Ayodhya in November-December 1992, that many a political fortune has turned over this passage of time. But the discourse against the Ram Temple continues — tired, regurgitative and banal in the main.
So, I start by paying tribute to LK Advani, whose 90th birthday was last week. Not because I necessarily agree with everything he has said, done, or stood for but as an exemplar of probity in public life and as the arch-disrupter of public discourse who raised the political issue of the Ram Temple as a symbol of national and not denominational pride. Ever since the late 1980s, Advani has earned the undying viciousness of the Commentariat for his politics which made it possible for new thinking on the nature of our nationhood and the agency of nationalism — an Idea of India, in Mickey Mouse terms — to emerge.
Till Advani’s intervention in the political sphere with the Ram Temple issue as a symbol of civilizational/cultural India in the manner he did, the dominant post-colonial narrative was statist, derivate and located in a Semitic-originated Abrahamic religious tradition-infused cultural consciousness, pushed especially vociferously by the post-Nehru Indian power elite via their academic co-travellers presumably in good faith (no sarcasm intended). To be fair, though, the latter did produce some high quality traditional academic output in the social sciences. The Ayodhya movement, however, came at a time when two key concepts in academic-public discourse found resonance among those who retained a degree of intellectual curiosity and were willing to incorporate lived experiences and oral histories along with critical readings of extant literature on culture, community, caste et.al into original scholarship as opposed to being confined to the knowledge claims made by Western social “science” which in themselves were not unproblematic, an aspect brought out in his ground-breaking work by the philosopher SN Balagangadhara, a major voice in the study of the cultural differences between India and the West who has developed his own research programme devoted to it.
First, was Advani’s assertion that the Ram Temple movement was intrinsic to the notion of an Indian exceptionalism, in a value-neutral sense, which is to say, not better or worse than others but, like the ketchup advertisement, “different”. Seizing the opportunity thus provided, some Hindutvawadis pushed the cultural nationalism thesis and others the Hindu Rashtra (as a cultural concept and/or a theocratic state depending on their provenance) while Sangh Parivar elements tagged to the Ram Temple the demand for a Krishna Janmabhoomi Temple in Mathura and the restoration of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple to achieve closure once and for all on the festering wound of “40,000 temples destroyed over 800 years”. A minority, as is historically evident with vanguards, if you will, ploughed more or less co-terminus with Advani’s intervention its own lonely furrow in the academic project of addressing the conceptually problematic issues with post-colonial studies, India studies and Indology as practiced till then, an effort in which Balagangadhara played the pivotal role as at the heart of his work is the proposition that research objects cannot escape from the scope of a secularized Christian discourse.
Secondly, allied to the notion of an Indian exceptionalism, came the very welcome propagation post-1992 by sober voices from the Sangh of what is in effect the notion of “folk multiculturalism” as a means of accommodative nation-building. This translated on the ground into celebrating differences in language, food, dress, music and mode of worship but drawing a line at separate and/or exclusive legal rights for any group whether religious, cultural, linguistic or other, and campaigning for a single, uniform civil and criminal legal framework that has at its core the individual rights of every Indian citizen. There was a reason, it must be remembered, why by the early 1990s Advani’s stand against what he termed “minority appeasement”, freighted as it was to the Ram Temple movement, gained such traction. For, the contours of a de facto differential citizenship model had begun to emerge in India which may have irrevocably damaged not just the Indic civilizational trajectory but also threatened to muscle the way of life of an overwhelming majority of the people of India into becoming just another “religion”.
As a modern state in the making, however, there is no running away from the demographic fact that millions of Indians do follow non-Indic religions and have a Constitutional right to do so freely. Which is why propagating a robust folk multiculturalism simultaneously with a Uniform Civil Code became part of the national conversation sparked by the Ram Temple movement, which was, let’s not forget, symbolic in more ways than one. These solutions are never ideal, of course, but as the political philosopher Joseph Raz put it rather pithily: “Conflict is endemic to value pluralism in all its forms”. We can at best hope to manage such conflicts in the most reasonable manner possible.
It was, thus, the proverbial ideological big tent that Advani’s political intervention with the Ram Temple issue ended up erecting. But the criminal-lumpen and anti-intellectual element within is threatening to derail the project — whether it is louts threatening bodily harm to actor Deepika Padukone today or those in the Ram Temple movement who threatened, and in some cases inflicted, brutality and violence against fellow citizens who happened to be Muslims 25 years ago, or indeed those who have internalised a Western social sciences’ predicated view of India’s past and are busy creating their own “Hindu” version of a Biblical/Koranic history.
To quote Balagangadhara who, ironically, has in an online academic publication been identified by historian Shalini Sharma as being at the centre of the “resurgence of all (nationalist) historical revisionism” post the 1992 Ayodhya events and is alleged to have the Modi Government’s ear: “The ideologues of the Sangh Parivar might do what centuries of colonialism tried but could not accomplish: Destroy Indian culture and her traditions irreplaceably and irrevocably. They might do that while truly believing that they are ‘saving’ Indian culture and her traditions.”
Back to Ayodhya, and not to Methuselah, ought to be the rallying cry.
(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer.)
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