A legal dispute dating back to the late 19th century, a question of faith going back even longer, and a political issue that has shaped Indian politics for three decades were all addressed by the Supreme Court on Saturday, when it ruled on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue.
The court ruled in favour of a temple at Ayodhya, where many people believe Hindu God Ram was born, but also sought to address what it describes as a wrong committed against Muslims (especially during the 1992 demolition of a mosque that stood at the disputed site) by giving the Sunni Waqf Board five acres elsewhere in Ayodhya for a mosque.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has had the building of a Ram temple at Ayodhya as one of the fixtures in its manifesto, described the verdict as neither a victory nor a defeat, eschewing triumphalism, as indeed he has asked his colleagues to. Mohan Bhagwat, the supremo of the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has, directly, and through its affiliates, been at the forefront of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, echoed that sentiment.
While there’s been some talk (but no confirmation) of the Muslim parties seeking a review, most analysts are of the opinion that the court’s ruling marks the effective closure of the movement to build a temple. As such, it is a decision that has national, social, and political impact.
At the political level, the resolution of the temple issue means that 2019 has seen the end of both Mandal and mandir (temple) issues. The first refers to the 1990 implementation of the Mandal Commission’s report, reserving 27% of government jobs and college seats for Other Backward Classes. For at least three decades after that, the country’s political landscape was largely shaped by Mandal’s biggest beneficiaries. It was only the parliamentary elections of 2019 that finally seemed to put the ghost of Mandal to rest .
If Mandal gave India’s political landscape a clutch of parties that would dominate at least regional politics for three decades, the mandir movement gave it the BJP. The temple was the singular issue that helped revive the party’s fortunes after it slipped to two Lok Sabha seats in the 1984 parliamentary elections. Still, it was only after Narendra Modi and Amit Shah figured out a way to also consolidate the non-dominant OBC groupings that it really emerged the pole of Indian politics.
The verdict delivered by the Supreme Court is the beginning of the end of the mandir issue. Sure, its effects will be felt perhaps even in 2024 (it is likely that it will take a few years to build the temple, which is perfect timing for the next Lok Sabha polls), but not beyond. Which means 2019 has been a milestone year for the two significant political issues that have pretty much shaped Indian politics over the past three decades. It is the year one became irrelevant, and the other neared (if not achieved) closure.
At the national level, the overwhelming feeling seems to be one of relief. The movement to build a temple has had violent turns in the past, including the demolition of the mosque, and the nationwide riots that followed. India has many pressing issues and can’t afford to be held back by such conflicts. Much, though, will depend on whether the court’s decision encourages the RSS and its affiliates to seek similar resolution of other disputes involving places of worship. The organisation has said that it will not. Much also will depend on how the Muslim parties to the dispute react to the judgment. Seeking a review of the decision is within their rights, although they must respect the verdict — and they have said that they will. A compromise formula agreed to by some of the Muslim parties to the dispute has some commonalities with the verdict, which means that at least some of them do want to move on.
At the social level, there are two alternative ways to view the verdict. One is to see it as a deeply polarising judgment that alienates the country’s Muslims, some of whom already see themselves being targeted by a State they perceive to be majoritarian. The other is to see it as a unifying one, which addresses one of the most sticky issues in the country, and attempts to strike a balance. With that out of the way, Hindus and Muslims could well aspire to arrive at a new equilibrium, one that puts the country first.
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