In India, a Long-Running Religious Fight Nears a Crucial Day in Court

5 MINS READOct 18, 2019 | 09:00 GMT
A Dec. 9, 2018, rally in New Delhi calling for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of the demolished Babri Mosque.

A Dec. 9, 2018, rally in New Delhi calling for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of the demolished Babri Mosque.

  • India's ruling party will use its political dominance following its recent landslide reelection to advance the core objectives of the Hindu nationalist movement, which include building a temple on the site of a mosque demolished in 1992.
  • The government will seek to strike a balance between advancing its ideological objectives with minimizing societal fissures and avoiding denting its image abroad or harming its economy.
  • Still, the Indian Supreme Court's verdict on the contentious Babri Mosque dispute could trigger violence given the issue's religiously charged nature.

A landmark Indian Supreme Court decision due by Nov. 17 could advance a core goal of the Hindu nationalist movement at the cost of exacerbating Hindu-Muslim tensions. The case traces its origins to 1992, when thousands of Hindu activists razed the historic Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, touching off nationwide riots that killed more than 2,000 people. The Hindu nationalist movement has long demanded the construction of a temple venerating the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram on the site of the former mosque.

The Big Picture

Following its landslide reelection victory, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party will advance the objectives of the Hindu nationalist movement to demonstrate progress in the face of a cooling economy. This will boost the party's prospects in future elections, even as it tries to minimize the fissures emerging from these strategies.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main political arm of the Hindu nationalist movement, which also includes an ideological arm focused on the reform of society under the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a religious arm focused on the reform of Hinduism under the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), has long championed building such a temple. A final ruling in favor of the party will enable it to demonstrate progress in delivering on key Hindu nationalist issues. But the BJP will work to avoid polarizing relations among the country's two main religious groups or hurting the country's image abroad, and will try not to drive off supporters more interested in jobs and the economy. The Indian economy experienced its lowest quarterly growth rate in six years in June. Meanwhile, investments and consumption remain stagnant.

The Fall of the Babri Mosque and the Rise of the BJP

On Dec. 6, 1992, thousands of VHP activists gathered for a rally in Ayodhya that soon turned violent as they descended upon the mosque, demolishing it in a matter of hours. The ensuing legal dispute over control of the property continued for the next two and a half decades. In 2010, the Allahabad high court divided the 2.77-acre plot of land between two Hindu groups and one Muslim group. All three continued to claim the whole plot, and appeals eventually reached India's Supreme Court.

The Babri Mosque dispute played a seminal role in the rise of the BJP as a force in Indian politics. In the 1980s, the BJP and the VHP portrayed the issue as a means of redressing a historical grievance wrought by the Islamic empire of the Mughals — the Babri Mosque was named after Babur, the first Mughal emperor — which ruled India before the British. The BJP strategy reaped a rich dividend in Parliament, where it went from two seats in 1984 to 120 seats by 1991.

Approval or disapproval of the construction of a Hindu temple on the site could ignite new communal clashes.

The BJP completed its first full term at the helm of a national government in 2004, all the while arguing that strengthening India's political and territorial unity requires defining the country as a Hindu nation, as opposed to a secular one. Hindu nationalists see the secular nationalism pursued under many decades of Indian National Congress governments as having led to special privileges for minorities, in particular for adherents of Islam — India's second-largest religion at 14 percent of the population versus 80 percent for Hindus — undermining the nation's unity.

The same reasoning led the BJP to conclude that any autonomy for Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state posed a clear threat to Indian territorial unity. Following its landslide reelection in May, Modi's government stripped the disputed territory of its autonomy in August. Now, the BJP's ideological base, including the RSS, wants Modi to build the Ram temple, a topic the BJP addressed in its election manifesto, which stated, "we reiterate our stand to explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate the construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya."

Security Concerns

The Babri Mosque verdict has major security implications even though the issue lacks the resonance among Muslims that it has with many Hindus. Some prominent Muslim intellectuals have even argued in favor of Hindu control over the disputed tract to promote harmony among the two religions. The Muslim party to the dispute has now also offered to renounce its claim to the land, though it's unclear if the two Hindu parties have accepted. Even so, approval or disapproval of the construction of a Hindu temple on the site could ignite new communal clashes.

The high-profile decision increases the possibility of demonstrations and protests, some of which could cause significant disruptions and violence. In anticipation of the verdict, authorities in Ayodhya have already enacted an emergency law outlawing public gatherings until Dec. 10, while Al-Jazeera reported that "drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, unknown flying objects or anything that can be weaponized are banned without prior permission from district authorities." In addition to the measures already taken in Ayodhya, authorities could expand the security restrictions elsewhere in India as the decision approaches. Measures taken by authorities, whether preemptive or reactive, to curtail unrest could including internet cutoffs in hotspots of unrest. Indian authorities have frequently used this tactic, most recently during the 2019 national elections.

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