Without a little background information, which will be provided below, the above headline may seem rather obscure to most readers of New Eastern Outlook.
Let us first look at the “problem”, which, in this case, has deep historical roots. Its current political significance is related to a serious increase of tensions in India’s domestic politics, largely due to the upcoming general elections to the lower chamber of parliament, which are to be held next spring. The situation has escalated to the point where leading politicians are now being publicly insulted.
As tends to be the case in every country, the pre-election campaign period (which is, in effect, just starting) is focusing attention on various latent problems, of the sort which a complex country like modern India has in abundance. Of these, the most pressing are what could be termed “religious” problems.
Readers will remember that in the last general election, held in 2013, the country’s oldest political party, the Indian National Congress, (which played a key role in India’s independence in 1947 and had led the country, except for one short interlude, ever since) suffered a crushing defeat. The INC governments followed a policy of secularism: the newly-independent nation’s official neutrality in relation to the country’s main religions.
However, the 2013 elections saw the triumphal rise to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party, headed by India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s main ideology is Hindutva, a concept which even specialists in Indian mythology and culture would find it hard to define.
The most important thing, in the current situation, is that, with Bharatiya Janata’s rise to power, religious tendencies – and these are, unsurprisingly, of many kinds, and are frequently irreconcilable – have started to dominate Indian politics.
What do the attempts to regulate society according to the Hindutva ideology mean for those of other faiths, for example for Muslims, who represent “only” 14% of the country’s population and form its second-largest religious group? In real terms, that gives a figure of 180 million people, the third largest Moslem community in the world.
The problem of what domestic policies to follow, given the religious and cultural diversity of Indian society, is particularly relevant to the main foreign-policy issue affecting the country: its relationship with its Moslem neighbor Pakistan. A country which is, like India, a de facto nuclear power. It is not easy to say how many wars India and Pakistan have fought against each other: it depends on what you count as a war.
We have already reported on the heated discussion of that question which was kicked off in the pages of the popular newspaper the Indian Express. Without getting involved in that debate, it is worth pointing out several striking public statements made in recent months, both by mainstream representatives of Bharatiya Janata, and by that party’s nationalist “genitor”, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh movement.
For example, a “series of lectures” on key aspects of the country’s internal politics, given in mid-September this year by Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have generated a huge amount of discussion in the Indian press. It should be noted that Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is often seen as a puppet master that controls the actions of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Some commentators on Mohan Bhagwat’s lectures claim that they demonstrate a fundamental ideological shift towards secularism and religious tolerance by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. As evidence of this, they adduce Mohan Bhagwat’s statement that Hindutva is an “inclusive” ideology that embraces all the country’s citizens, including Muslims. It is still unclear whether the Moslem population are willing to be “included” in this way.
Other commentators agree that the lectures demonstrate important and positive new developments in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh movement’s ideology, but regard these “changes” as temporary in nature, and clearly tailored to the current political situation, i.e. the upcoming general elections.
One test that may show which of these views is more accurate may be the way in which the “problem” referred to in the headline of this article is resolved. Ayodhya is the name given to of one of the oldest cities in India, located on the country’s northern border with Nepal. It currently has a population of 50 000, which is infinitesimal by Indian standards.
But it is one of the seven holiest cities in India and a major pilgrimage center. For the Indian epics claim that it was here that the god Rama was born, 900 thousand years ago.
Other texts state that (much later, of course) Gautama Buddha, incontestably a real historical figure, spent some time here. From the beginning of the 16th to the mid-19th Century, Ayodhya was part of what became known, in English, as the Mughal Empire, a Moslem state founded by the descendants of Timur. As a result, the city is an important sacred center for several religions.
What concerns us is a fairly small site of the city, approximately one hectare in area, which is covered with ruins. This was the site of the so-called Babri Masjid, a mosque founded by the Mughals in the 16th century. In December 1992 it was demolished by a huge mob of Hindus. That act was accompanied by rioting in which some 2000 people, mostly Moslems, were killed.
And it is still hard to say exactly what it was that roused the crowd to such a blind (as often happens) fury. Some people claim that the Babri Masjid was built on the site of a Hindu temple to Rama, which was demolished to make way for the mosque.
But this claim is problematic from an archaeological point of view: despite 150 years of attempts, no undisputed evidence of the temple’s existence has been found on the site. That, at least, is the present author’s conclusion after reading a number of articles on the subject on Wikipedia.
The 2010 court decision to divide the above site in Ayodhya between the various claimants failed to satisfy any of the parties and the future of the site is still unclear.
However, as the lectures mentioned above make clear, the position of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its leader is that the temple of Rama must be “restored”. It is worth noting that the future building, if it is ever built, will not even be a reconstruction. A reconstruction is a copy of a demolished building, based on original plans and such evidence as photographs: Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral is a good example.
As far as the future temple of Rama is concerned, as we have already noted, it is impossible to state definitively that there was ever a previous temple of Rama on that site. But, as everyone knows, until fairly recently the Babri Masjid certainly did exist on the site. And it is equally certain that several thousand people died in the rioting that accompanied its demolition.
The conclusions that can be drawn from such facts tend to undermine all the positive messages addressed by Mohan Bhagwat to non-Hindus.
In general the author’s view in relation to the above problem is that controversies relating to the past can only be resolved by taking a scientific approach to history. And history will, inevitably, be “rewritten”. After all, even the laws of physics sometimes get “rewritten”. Disputes between specialists, conducted in the pages of learned academic journals (unread by anybody other than specialists), generally do not relate to pressing social problems.
Serious problems arise when politicians start to make use of those controversies to further their own (frequently underhand) aims. In doing so they restrict academics’ ability to do research, by passing disgraceful “memorial laws” and laws aimed at protecting various types of “feelings” against “insult”. It is easy to see examples of the destructive effect that political campaigners’ activities have had on history.
Just a month ago the vexed issue of “comfort women”, already discussed more than once in NEO, raised its head again. It started with a “gift” in the form of a memorial to “victims”, presented to the City of San Francisco in the name of the Korean community. The memorial had to be installed somewhere. It would have been hard for San Francisco’s authorities to refuse to erect the statue, given the current global campaign to protect “women against male violence”.
Japan’s reaction was entirely predictable: the mayor of Osaka dissolved the links between his city and San Francisco: these two huge population centers had been sister cities for 60 years. Thus unfolded the latest pointless political squabble, like a scene from Gogol’s famous tale of the dispute between Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich. And for a similar reason.
A similarly tragi-comic situation, with an emphasis on the tragic, can be seen in the “state building” process in Ukraine, which is under the influence of other countries’ foreign policy interests and a primitive process of mythmaking sponsored by its own corrupt political class. Which itself is entirely controlled by dishonest foreign politicians.
As for the problem set out in the headline to this article, let us be so bold as to suggest a possible solution. Everyone (or almost everyone) in India would be quite satisfied if a thoroughly new temple to Rama were to be built on a different hill in Ayodhya.
And the architects of the new temple would not be hampered by a lot of questions about what happened there 500 (let alone 900 000) years ago.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”