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Mosque, Temple and the 'Neutrality' of Indian Institutions: Reflections of an Ordinary Muslim

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This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.

Growing up in a Muslim family in Lucknow, I often heard accounts of the demolition of Babri mosque on December 6, 1992, which Hindutva leaders claimed as the birthplace of Lord Rama. Over the years, they had asserted that the Mughal king, Babar, had built a mosque after destroying a Rama temple. Even as a child, I could sense a deep discomfort and anxiety amongst my Muslim friends and family members on the mosque question. The demolition of the mosque had a profound impact on their social, political and cultural outlook. I inherited that anxiety as I grew up mostly surrounded by my Muslim family. The accounts and narratives of my family members made me feel a range of emotions. I vividly remember asking my father about the December 1992 incident and what he felt when the mob demolished the mosque. My childhood self was petrified and frustrated with the imagination of a group of Hindutva leaders leading a mob in broad daylight to demolishing the disputed structure, signifying a vulgar display of majoritarianism. In hindsight, I would read my question as an inquiry about the failure of the ideals on which this state was built by its makers – democracy, secularism and the rule of law.

My father’s response to my questions was based on developments at the time. He told me that in 1992, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Uttar Pradesh government had submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court pledging to safeguard the disputed structure – the Babri mosque. Like many ordinary Indians, he believed that the government would honour its commitment made before the highest court in the country. As a child, my father’s response satisfied my curiosity and generated an impression that a ‘neutral’, ‘impartial’ and ‘apolitical’ judiciary was tricked by a cunning and majoritarian government. Muslims, like my father, had no complaints with the judicial process but with how the promises made before the judiciary were broken by a ‘rogue’ government. If the ‘neutral’ judiciary had its day, it would have checked the Hindutva forces from creating mayhem. I grew up internalising this narrative of the judiciary as a saviour in the face of majoritarianism.

Of late, I have been thinking about the conversations I had with my father back then. I often wonder how I would respond if future generations posed a similar question in relation to the developments of the last few years. I have probably come to the realisation that when the conversation with the past fails to satisfy us, perhaps it’s best for our sanity to have a conversation with the future. That is where the revolutionary potential lies — or at least the hope for it. The developments over the last 10 years have reshaped my imagination in the light of the rise of aggressive Hindutva politics during BJP’s rule in India since 2014, especially given the Supreme Court’s judgment in November 2019 granting the land on which Babri mosque stood before December 1992 to the Hindu claimants, and more recently, the construction of a Rama temple on that land and the vulgar display of religious supremacy surrounding the Pran Pratishtha.

In present-day India, as I reflect on my father’s answers, the vision of the judiciary as a ‘saviour’ and a check to majoritarian oppression no longer holds merit. It is evident that the Supreme Court’s unanimous judgment allocating the land to those who had demolished the Babri Mosque ended up legitimising the destruction of the mosque. This judgment has emboldened Hindutva supremacist groups, fostering demands for the conversion of other mosques in India into temples, thereby leading to incidents reminiscent of the Babri demolition. The Babri judgement serves as a microcosm of institutional neglect of Muslims, including by the judiciary which has created the grounds for the continuous reproduction and strengthening of majoritarian politics.

Perhaps, we now will have a different answer to offer to our future generation. This articulation will differ from facile explanations of the current situation which look at the present times as an aberration to the state’s democratic history. Rather, we will perhaps better understand the postcolonial Indian state as a ‘majoritarian’ state.

In Minorities and the Making of Postcolonial States in International Law, Mohammad Shahabuddin has argued that the foundation of post-colonial nation states rests on the idea of a uniform national identity that assimilates all ethno-cultural distinctions. Despite the envisioned outcome of assimilation and homogenisation eradicating minority issues in the long term, the actual process tends to diminish meaningful ethno-cultural diversity. Instead, it reduces this diversity to a mere token representation, imposing the identity of the majority on the entire nation. In the name of nation-building and homogenization, the culture, belief system and cultural codes of the majority become synonymous with the ‘national’ identity. Contrary to the belief that the minority problem gets resolved in a liberal and developmental state, the postcolonial national state has effectively served as a tool to perpetuate the dominance of the majority group over the minority across political and cultural spheres, leaving the minority vulnerable to the majority’s influence on crucial political, social and economic matters. This phenomenon is not exclusive to India; similar patterns can be observed in other post-colonial states as well.

In India, the deliberations within the Constituent Assembly clearly demonstrate the ‘majoritarian’ nation making at play while addressing the concerns associated with minority communities. Dr. BR Ambedkar, chairperson of the drafting committee of the Constitution, advocated reservations to minorities, specifically in the cabinet in proportion to their population. This proposal was presented by Ambedkar in his memorandum titled ‘States and Minorities’ and submitted it to the Constituent Assembly in 1946. However, the assembly rejected this suggestion in the name of national unity. In post-partition India, the idea of minority representation was considered counterproductive, linked to the division of the country. Despite demands for robust and meaningful safeguards for minorities, nationalist elites rejected them, emphasizing the goal of building ‘One Nation’. Thus, the Advisory Committee abandoned reservations for religious minorities, leaving their protection to the majority’s goodwill.

When Hindu nationalists in the Constituent Assembly sought a constitutional ban on cow slaughter, linking it to Hindu religious sentiments, Muslim members highlighted the inconsistency within the prevailing liberal secular rhetoric in the assembly, which was unwilling to accommodate the concerns of religious minorities. In the end, the assembly included a directive principle prohibiting cow slaughter in the Constitution, blending religious sentiments with cultural and economic considerations.

The prevalence of majoritarian views in the constituent assembly on the issue of minority rights tells us that post-colonial India was ‘conceived’ as a majoritarian state. It should not surprise us that the judiciary too became an arena where these pro-majoritarian values got reinforced. In fact, judicial pronouncements signal an end to political discourse because the judiciary has the ability to speak the final word. By taking matters to the judiciary, we limit the scope and chances of political resolution.

At a time when India is witnessing brute Hindutva majoritarianism, the rhetoric of the ‘neutrality’ of institutions stands exposed. It is for everyone to see how putative ‘democratic’ and ‘neutral’ institutions have given way to power. The fact is that the terms of ‘neutrality’ were fixed at the time of the making of the constitution. In other words, our institutions are ‘neutral’, but what constitutes ‘neutrality’, ‘fairness’ and ‘non-arbitrariness’ was circumscribed by majoritarianism. The present times are no aberration. The exclusion of minorities was well-entrenched in the formation of the state.

The author is Assistant Professor, Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow. He thanks Haris Jamil and Priya Anuragini for their comments.

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