The acquittal of 32 people means the destruction of the mosque will go unpunished, and to add insult to injury, a temple will likely be built in its place.

India’s seemingly intractable high-profile dispute that changed the country’s political destiny – featuring a mosque and a temple – is done and dusted. 

On Wednesday, a special court acquitted all 32 people, including former federal ministers, accused of conspiring to demolish the Babri mosque 25 years ago. This comes on the heels of a Supreme Court judgment in November last year allowing the construction of a Ram temple on the site of the Masjid.

The implications of the mass acquittal are simple: No one has been punished for the destruction of the 16th-century heritage mosque built by Mughal Emperor Babur. 

Social media went berserk with sardonic comments like “No one demolished the Babri Masjid”, “The mosque fell on its own” and “Was it magic?”. The Kolkata-based Telegraph newspaper had the picture of a donkey on page 1, accompanying the story, with a comment ending in the phrase “...and now we are braying in despair.” 

The demolition of the mosque, on December 6, 1992, was by a Hindu right-wing mob which had come prepared with pickaxes and other equipment to break down the structure. The destruction unfolded in broad daylight from around noon for several uninterrupted hours.   

Watching this in close proximity were top leaders of the Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) who initially gave rousing speeches in favour of a temple and then watched without intervening as the mosque came down. 

The federal Congress government at the time inexplicably did nothing to either pre-empt the demolition or use security forces to stop the mob in its tracks. Once the structure was razed to the ground, the government in Delhi under the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao dismissed the state government of Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is located, and filed cases in court against the BJP leaders who were present in the vicinity of the demolition on that day. 

For the BJP, which is in power today in Delhi, the Ayodhya dispute is arguably the singular issue that has jockeyed it into the dominant position it finds itself in. Until 1985, the BJP along with its ideological fountainhead and mentor, the self-styled social service organisation, RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), never managed to make the cut among India’s voters. 

From the time of India’s independence in 1947 and the first general elections in 1950 the BJP’s predecessor, the Jan Sangh remained a marginal player in electoral politics. A major stain for the outfit was the assassination of India’s father-figure and leader of the freedom movement Mahatma Gandhi. The assassin Nathuram Godse was linked to the Hindu right-wing and by extension, the RSS. 

In the decades after the assassination, the RSS which was also banned briefly for it found it near-impossible to play down the mass aversion people had for it due to the killing of Gandhi. Except for minor wins here and there, the Hindu right-wing could hardly match up to the Congress party that strode India’s political landscape. 

After the suspension of fundamental rights and the declaration of Internal Emergency from June 1975 to March 1977 by the then Congress government under prime minister Indira Gandhi, the Jan Sangh merged with a broad coalition of political formations to form the Janata Party. 

This proved successful and the Congress was defeated in 1977. The Janata Party that came to power broke up in a couple of years as there were too many disparate ideological strains within it. The erstwhile Jan Sangh re-emerged as the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980. 

Again, try as it might, the BJP could not get an electoral break. In the first elections it faced four years after its formation in the new avatar, it managed to win just two seats out of a total of 543 in India’s lower house of Parliament or the Lok Sabha. 

The rise of the right

The leaders of the party at the time, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishan Advani, desperately tried to figure out the winning formula. Vajpayee, the more liberal of the two, viewed economic strategy as a possible way forward. But it was Advani who managed to grab the magical nerve of India’s electoral pituitary, by opting to rake up the dormant demand for the construction of a Ram temple on the disputed Babri Masjid site at Ayodhya. 

Under pressure from the BJP, in an attempt to win Hindu support, Rajiv Gandhi did not challenge the order of a local court that ordered the opening of the Babri Masjid complex that had been sealed since 1949. 

Advani, a shrewd politician with roots in Pakistan’s Sind province, went for the kill. Backed by the RSS, Advani organised a nationwide movement to reclaim the site of the Babri mosque to build a temple in that exact same spot for the Hindu deity Rama – where the mythological king Rama was believed to be born, by some accounts, 7000 years ago. Rama, a popular deity has been worshipped by all Hindus, from ancient times. 

The Ayodhya movement turned out to be the spark that lit India ablaze electorally. The dispute aggravated dormant social prejudices against the minority Muslim community, including blaming it for India’s partition. 

To add grist, the right-wing accused the Mughal Empire in pre-colonial times of subjugating Hindus. Ayodhya’s Babri mosque was touted as an example of this oppression. The BJP alleged that the Babri mosque was actually built on the site of a Ram temple that had been destroyed by Emperor Babur. 

From a mere two seats in 1984, the BJP’s electoral tally in the 1989 elections jumped to 85. 

Not losing momentum, Advani who was a federal minister in the 1989 coalition government, set out on a nationwide rally to seek support to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya. He encountered opposition in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Violence ensured and several activists of the umbrella Hindu formation, the Sangh Parivar, were shot down by police. This worked to the advantage of the BJP in the elections that followed. In the 1991 federal election, the party won 121 seats. It also swept to power India’s Uttar Pradesh state. 

Other states too landed in the BJP’s kitty, particularly in northern India. Once the Babri complex was opened, the BJP and affiliated organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) kept the pressure on by conducting rituals on the Babri site.   

In parallel, the dispute was under litigation right from the 1950s, with Muslim and Hindu groups fighting for a court-mediated settlement. 

In December 1992, when the Hindu groups asked the court’s permission to conduct rituals, they were legally asked to promise the safety of the Babri structure. It was only then they were then permitted to go ahead. On December 6 as the leaders of the BJP, including Advani who had promised the court, watched the mosque was brought down. Riots between Hindus and Muslims broke out across the country. 

The BJP, by then, had used the collateral benefits of the issue to emerge as a party that projected itself as the saviour of Hindus and one that fought for their rights and privileges. And, to the surprise of the nation’s secular and left of centre groups, the BJP’s Hindu-centric posturing attracted a wide following that has only grown exponentially since then. 

The BJP came to power briefly for the first time in 1996 for 16 days in the immediate aftermath of the Babri demolition. This was followed by a 19-month rule in 1998 and for a full five-year term from 1999. Though it lost power in 2004 and in 2009, the party returned in 2014 under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was re-elected in 2019 with a bigger majority, and a more pronounced pro-Hindu tilt. 

As for the Congress, and the country’s secular credentials, the Ayodhya issue has caused a massive setback to the point where there are concerns over the survival of pluralism and inclusiveness, considered a hallmark of free India.   

Moreover, notions of Hindu victimhood, perceived Muslim appeasement and belligerent nationalism have managed to encroach on India’s democratic space that has steered the nation on an uncharted path, towards a destination that can only be described as uncertain and foreboding.   

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