Mandir-masjid syndrome

Source: By Prafull Goradia: The Statesman

Reports that some 49 temples have been built on government land in a single Delhi parliamentary constituency are unfortunate. They should be treated by the government as a law and order issue and be dealt with expeditiously. If left in suspense, the chances are it would turn into a communal conflict. There are some three thousand temples across the country which were in the centuries past converted into mosques. Not all of them may remain dead issues; no government has taken the trouble to solve them and they have been left to be settled judicially. In course of time, such issues turn into political controversies. The self-styled secular parties would be reluctant to offend their Muslim constituents, whereas others would need to assuage their Hindu followers.

Take Ayodhya and the Ram Janmabhoomi controversy which has soared the heights of absurdity. There has never been any doubt about who brought down the mandir, replaced it with a structure and when. He was Mir Baqi in about 1530 A.D. The edifice was without a minaret or a wazoo; so unusual for a mosque. Responsible Muslims avoid praying in edifices which were earlier used by nonbelievers for their worship. In all probability, this structure at Ayodhya was a maqbara or mausoleum for Babar or for Mir Baqi.

Down the decades, someone must have called it a mosque and so it became. At some stage, the Shias lost interest and the local Sunnis took over. Lately, the head of the Shia Personal Law Board Janaab Rizvi has declared that his community wishes Hindus to build a temple as they like. The Shias no longer lay any claim at Ayodhya. On the other hand, the Sunni Personal Law Board is fighting the case in the Supreme Court with a do or die determination. What has the Sunni Personal Law have to do with a Shia stone structure whatever it might have been?

It is not widely realized that the fact that this conflict is going on and on is a price of our democracy. For fear of losing votes, politicians avoid dealing decisively with such issues, and prefer the judiciary to handle them. When in the 1930’s Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan was the Premier of Punjab, the High Court decided a case favouring the Sikhs to retain Shahidganj edifice as a gurudwara although it was earlier a masjid.

The popular Muslim reaction was that the verdict was unfair and the government should go in appeal to the Privy Council in London and get back their place of worship. Sir Sikandar said “no, let us not appeal”. The reason he gave was that all the mandirs had turned masjids in the rest of India, especially Ajmer Sharif. If mandirs were to win in the Privy Council, all these masjids would have to be returned. This was statesmanship, decisive despite its potential unpopularity.

Sir Arnold Toynbee, the distinguished British historian, associated a place of worship with national honour when in 1960 he had come to Delhi to deliver the Maulana Azad Memorial Lecture. He expressed great surprise that Aurangzeb’s mosque in Varanasi was still there. He felt that it should have been removed and illustrated the issue with a Polish example. In 1817, when the Russians conquered Warsaw, they converted the city’s main church from a Catholic to an Orthodox place of worship, merely to humiliate the Poles. When in 1918 Russia had lost in World War I and Poland became independent, the Poles retaliated by demolishing the Orthodox church and replacing it with a Roman Catholic one. That was for national honour, said Toynbee.

Now to take an Indian example, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel visited Junagadh on November 12, 1947, as a mark of celebration for the people of Saurashtra… having recovered the princely state of Junagadh from the jaws of Pakistan. The Sardar had the humiliation of Somnath in his mind. In the afternoon, he visited Veraval beach where the original temple of Somnath was situated. The current temple was a modest one, built at the behest of Maharani Ahilyabai of Indore. Patel, having had a darshan, decided to build a grand temple of Lord Shiva nearby. He appealed to the public to donate funds and the government to have the mandir built under the direction of Kanaiyalal Munshi, a Cabinet colleague as well as an outstanding Gujarati litterateur.

The project was completed in 1951 and to the exasperation of Prime Minister Nehru; Rashtrapati Rajendra Prasad agreed to inaugurate the new Somnath temple. So far, governments in India have been turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to issues relating to places of worship, especially mandirs and masjids. This is escapism so as not to risk losing votes. This, however, is wrong; it is the duty of the state to resolve such issues in a rightful manner. It is therefore suggested that, without interfering with worship or religion, the government concerned should take hold of any controversy and give an early decision in an impartial manner, so that disputes do not turn into communal conflicts and eventually land themselves into political opportunities.

Relevant in this context would be the Places of Worship Act 1991, which was tailor-made for mischief. It was passed during the monsoon session of Parliament a year earlier in preparation for the Babari demolition. The moot point that this legislation made was that no place of worship could be changed from the shape or form it was in at the time of Independence. But with one exception; namely, the Babari edifice at Ayodhya, which could be altered as was implied in the Act.

After 6 December 1992, the motive behind the Act could be seen through. When darkness fell on Ayodhya, by 5.30 pm, the Babari structure had not fallen; only the three domes had crashed. Uncannily, no photograph of such a scene, the building without the domes, has been available anywhere. By 5.45 pm, four BJP state governments had been dismissed. The UP Governor was in charge of the state in Lucknow. The state of UP, after 5.45 pm, was in the hands of the central government. At 10 pm, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in a television speech condemned the demolition at Ayodhya and promised that the masjid would be rebuilt. In actual fact, all that was necessary was to reconstruct the three domes.

By the morning of 9 December, there was not a sign left of the erstwhile edifice. Ram Lalla’s murti had taken its place in a tent temple, where it still is. What was uncanny earlier in the day of December 6 was the thrashing received by several press photographers. These young men had thought that they were going to project the Kar Sevaks by photographing them. Instead, the Sevaks asked them to stop taking pictures and surrender their camera films. When the photographers did not comply, their cameras were snatched and the men were severely beaten up. Normally, the Kar Sevaks should have been appreciative of being photographed, but in this instance, they were antagonistic. The question arose whether they had any official connection and whether their photographs could compromise their positions.