On 6 December 1992 thousands of Hindu fanatics tore down a medieval mosque in the temple town of Ayodhya, in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
The demolition of the 16th century Babri Masjid mosque, constructed under the rule of the first Mughal Emperor Babar, sparked violence across India which resulted in 2000 deaths. On that fateful day, top leaders of the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the party now in government – gathered in Ayodhya in what is alleged to be a well-planned conspiracy to demolish an historic monument that was part of the cultural and archaeological heritage of the Indian people.
Jihadist groups later cited the destruction of the mosque as a reason behind the 1993 Mumbai bombings and other attacks that rocked India in the 1990s.
That the BJP was involved in the demolition of the Babri Masjid is clear. Leaders including L. K. Advani, who went on to become deputy prime minister (and a former mentor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi); Uma Bharti, who is currently a cabinet minister in Modi’s government; and scores of other major and minor figures faced conspiracy charges. Last April, after successive appeals, the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s highest court, reinstated these charges, ordering that the trial be completed within two years.
The destruction of Babri mosque was a watershed event that continues to divide India. It was a moment that stained the nation’s politics, shaking the secular foundation of modern India and marking a ‘rightward’ shift towards a greater Hindu ‘majoritarianism’. The fact that the BJP has held power for only nine of the years since, with the known Secular–Congress combine party in power for the majority of this period, has done nothing to stop this shift.
Political pundits believe the destruction of Babri mosque marked the day when ‘Hindutva’, or the Hindu nationalism project, was launched on the country’s political stage. The event propelled the BJP into mainstream politics, the party went on to win the 1998 general election on its slogan of Hindu nationalism and has been on a consolidation spree ever since.
For Hindu activists, the destruction of the mosque was merely the first act. Right-wing Hindu nationalists claimed it stood on the site of the birthplace of Lord Ram, a revered Hindu deity, and a destroyed, millennium-old Hindu temple. The main area of contention is a 2.77-acre piece of land where Muslims argue they had been offering prayers at the mosque for centuries before the dispute.
The construction of a Ram temple at the site in Ayodhya is an issue that has acquired renewed significance at a time when the ruling BJP enjoys a fully fledged majority in parliament. The pursuit of the Hindu vote remains as determined as ever. In a recent article in the Indian Express, the BJP’s powerful general secretary Ram Madhav said the construction of a Ram temple had to be a 'movement to the finish'.
'And the finish we had envisaged was the building of a magnificent Ram temple at the spot which is described historically as the birthplace of Bhagwan (Lord) Ram,' he said.
The controversy has led to worrisome and increasing tensions between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority. Inter-communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 that left more than 1000 dead are only the most notable of several eruptions of sectarian violence. No single event in independent India has so polarised public opinion as the destruction of Babri mosque or led to such widespread suspicion, hostility and violence.
Indian liberals accuse the BJP government of deliberately creating rifts between Hindus and Muslims and emboldening right-wing extremists. Several cases of ‘cow vigilantism’ and Muslim killings by radical Hindus have increased communal divisions in India recently, many of which can be traced back to the Babri mosque demolition and resulting violence in the 1990s.
For more than two decades, India’s courts have been trying to resolve the dispute. India’s Supreme Court has begun hearing a case on the site that will conclude next month. The Sunni Waqf Board, one of the appellants, had argued the hearing should be deferred to after the national election in 2019, a move the court turned down.
Although the issue is far from resolved, the BJP-led government in Uttar Pradesh is quietly moving, and in the last three months 24 fresh truckloads of stones have arrived at the workshop located two kilometres from the disputed site.
The demolition of Babri Masjid changed India’s political discourse and practice. The debris of the ruined mosque brought down by frenetic Hindu volunteers just over 25 years ago has given rise to a disturbing trend that has called for assertive Hindu cultural nationalism. This has become ever louder and continues to dominate political discourse.
Given the absolute majority Modi enjoys currently, and his willingness to promote Hindu nationalism, there are concerns that if the temple is reconstructed at the same disputed spot it will clearly signal the death of India’s plural soul.