By Ajaz Ashraf
Twenty years ago, on a crisp Sunday morning of December, I was in a deep and dreamless sleep typical of people below 30, until the persistent ring of the telephone woke me. At the other end was a friend, a Hindu. His voice trembled as he said, "It is happening in Ayodhya. They are demolishing the Babri Masjid."
At those words of his, my late morning grogginess sloughed off, as did the chrysalis of innocence in which I lived, from which emerged another man who was to discover a world tucked beyond the then existing limits of political imagination.
It was a world in which hatred was the language of politics and violence a legitimate, even righteous, expression of inexplicable indignation.
Wherever we were, and whatever our identity, whether we were political or apolitical, passionate or apathetic, the new imagination challenging credulity touched us all, transforming each of us to the degree he or she was affected. Such was the cataclysmic nature of 6 December, 1992, forever etched in the annals as the day on which a medieval mosque in Ayodhya was demolished to undo the wrong of history. For “that medieval structure”, it was claimed, was built on the spot where Bhagwan Rama was born. To commemorate the date as the day on which the Babri Masjid was destroyed is to render banal its significance.
It was the day on which a new fault emerged in Indian society, imaginary and therefore intangible, yet felt and deeply experienced. The word “they”, as my friend had used, acquired another meaning. Who constituted “they” and who was “we”? Religion was not always the factor determining membership to either of the two categories, into which you were clubbed without a process of initiation. You were “they” or “we” depending on your position on the Babri Masjid; whether you believed its destruction was a wedge driven into the very heart of India or, alternatively, an expression of Hindu resurgence, necessary as well as inevitable.
Across the fault “us” and “them” stood eyeball to eyeball, though not in Ayodhya – where on the rubble of the Babri Masjid a makeshift temple was erected, and the town ultimately placed under curfew – but in conversations conducted in drawing rooms, tea stalls and offices.
In the week following the demolition much of North India tittered on the brink of eruption, ultimately saved from violence because of prohibitory orders the administration imposed. “Them” and “us” wrote in the newspapers, openly making it known to which category they belonged.
The differences between the two groups were irreconcilable, triggering antipathy. It was thought pointless to engage members of the rival group in debate because it could have no closure. Soon suspicion seeped in; you avoided talking of the Babri Masjid, even politics, with those who you believed were on the other side. Such suspicion engendered possibilities of sundering friendships, for it was always a shock to discover a friend whom you had known for years really belonged to “them”.
I realised this in the months following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. An old college friend had come over home to spend an evening. Two days earlier, I had voted in the Delhi state assembly election, and the voter ink on my fingernail was still visible. My friend asked me who I had voted for, the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which along with the many affiliates of the parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had spearheaded the campaign against the Babri Masjid.
I skirted around his question, believing he had to be a political ignoramus to believe I, a Muslim, could have voted the BJP. He persisted, I stonewalled him. Exasperated, the friend muttered, “As long as you didn’t vote the BJP, it is fine with me.”
I was relieved and delighted as well. How could I vote the BJP, I countered. He smiled, and I understood what he had been trying to convey from the time he came over home – that he did not belong to “them”, that he did not wish to directly advertise his political affiliation lest I was to misconstrue it. He mentioned a few names from our shared past who had celebrated the demolition of the Babri Masjid. We wondered whether our college campus too had succumbed to the polarisation that the politics around the Babri Masjid had created all around us.
This polarisation became even sharper as Bal Thackeray commandeered his storm-troopers to attack the Muslim community in Bombay. They were emboldened to express their murderous intent because the city police was brazenly partisan. Then came the serial bomb blasts, undertaken as the Muslim underworld’s explosive riposte to the 1993 riots.
We understood the grim consequences of deepening and sharpening the divide between “us” and “them”.
It was heartening to note that religion was not the overarching canopy under which the “us” banded together. Yet certain complexities could not be ignored. Every Muslim was deemed to belong to “us”. It was impossible for him or her to belong to “them”, not because they were all devout and revered mosques but largely because the existence or destruction of the Babri Masjid symbolised their future status in India. The converse was therefore equally true: the category of “them” had to consist only of Hindus, obviously not all of them, for there were many who, like my two friends, were firmly in the camp of “us”.
Yet the patently lopsided distribution of religious communities in “us” and “them” underlined the sociological truism that an individual’s identity is thrust upon him or her. You are Muslim not because you necessarily believe in the tenets of Islam or embody its culture. You are Muslim because others consider you to be; because, to put it crudely, your name will be reason enough for you to be targeted. It is this fear which reinforced the tendency among Muslims to live in ghettoes, where they are relatively insulated from experiencing the dehumanizing feeling of fear. This discovery of “imposed identity” made the many deracinated youth acutely aware of their Muslimness, subsequently producing severe consequences.
The imposition of identity is precisely the reason that despite the existence of two rival camps of non-religious “us” and “them” (their formation preceded the destruction) the Muslim community, on 6 December, became the “other”. No doubt, the BJP sought to create the “other” for papering over the innumerable divides in the Hindu society, reflected in its hierarchical division of castes, further sharpened because of the politics over Mandal. Yet the party was unable to implement its agenda of making religion as the basis of nationhood, and to build a Hindu India.
The BJP failed to achieve its goal because it couldn’t muster a simple majority in Parliament on its own. But this wasn’t because it lost the ideological tussle between “us” and “them”; rather, its growth was arrested because subaltern castes preferred to pursue their own interests, and support parties representing them, than back the BJP, which is the preserve of the upper castes.
As we commemorate the destruction of the Babri Masjid, “us” and “them” are, once again, divided sharply over the suitability of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi becoming the prime minister of India. The battle rages on. So little has changed.
The author is a Delhi-based journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org