Ayodhya verdict: Ram Janmabhoomi movement is not a reclamation of agency for Hindus, but a distraction from dismal mediocrity
For many, the movement for Ram Janmabhoomi's significance lay not in the claim for birthplace of the historical Ram, but as a reclamation of civilisational agency. Shrikanth Krishnamachary, for example, has cast the movement as 'the cultural awakening of a long-repressed people'; one that will address 'deep civilisational wounds'.
For many, the movement for Ram Janmabhoomi's significance lay not in the claim for birthplace of the historical Ram, but as a reclamation of civilisational agency
Everything has a context, and the question that is key to understanding the Ram Janmabhoomi movement is to ask why is it that Hindus' historical injuries, real and imagined, still bleed?
There is an alternative possibility that at least merits reflection: that Hindu hurt isn't about the past, but the present
In some senses, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement is a gigantic evasion of responsibility, both personal and social, for the utter mediocrity of the Republic we have erected
In the Age of Kali, the Kākati family came to rule over the kingdom of Tilinga, jewel of Bhārata-varsha, cloaked in impenetrable forests and crowned by great mountains from where many holy rivers ran to the sea. The greatest of his line, Prataparudra, a medieval copper-plate hagiography records, ruled with "truth and justice so that such famous monarchs of yore, such as Yāyati, Nābhāga and Bhagirati were completely forgotten."
Then, the armies of the Delhi sultan, Alauddin Khilji, arrived at the gates of Tilinga's capital, Ekāśila. "To those despicable wretches, wine was the ordinary drink, beef the staple food, and the slaying of the Brahmanas the favourite pastime," the copper plate hagiography records.
In 1323 CE, Pratāparudra finally fell. "The Brāhmanas were compelled to abandon their religious practices; the images of the gods were overturned and broken; the agrahāras of the learned were confiscated; the cultivators were deprived of the fruits of their labour, and their families were despoiled and ruined."
"When the sun, that is Pratāparudra, set, the world was enveloped in Turushka darkness", the copper-plates lament.
Supreme Court's decision to allow a temple to be built at what many Hindus believe to be the Ram Janmabhoomi has been cast by some as a long-overdue restitution for medieval wrongs. The idea that this is an historical turning point that will allow a civilisation to reclaim its dignity and agency, though, needs careful examination. Indian history, to borrow the great historian AJP Taylor's words, has far too often "reached its turning point and failed to turn".
Ever since the publication of VS Naipaul's 1977 book, India: A Wounded Civilisation, the idea that Hinduism's historical trauma shapes its existence today has become widespread. "I think when you see so many Hindu temples of the tenth century or earlier disfigured, defaced, you realise that something terrible happened," Naipaul would say, decades later. "I feel that the civilisation of that closed world was mortally wounded by those invasions".
The more reflective advocates of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement have long invoked these tropes. The journalist PR Ramesh, for example, in the demolition of the Babri Masjid saw a "resurgence of Hindu India, a resolve to rise above centuries of failure to fight back and assert itself, even signs of an energetic and compelling creativity".
For many, the movement for Ram Janmabhoomi's significance lay not in the claim for birthplace of the historical Ram, but as a reclamation of civilisational agency. Shrikanth Krishnamachary, for example, has cast the movement as "the cultural awakening of a long-repressed people"; one that will address "deep civilisational wounds".
It's true, as Farrukh Dhondy once pointed out in a delightful essay, that the state nationalism cultivated in the decades after Independence censored out the deep roots of Hindu-Muslim antagonism in India. CA Bayly's thoughtful recounting of tensions that arose from the mid-1600s, after "pockets of purist Islamic practice (spread) both deeper and more widely across the face of Indian society" does not inform public history. Neither does Cynthia Talbot's magesterial work on how warfare in Andhra Pradesh fed the birth of Hindu consciousness.
Taught that communalism was an Imperialist invention, though, few Indians learn anything but the propagandist's version of its pre-colonial life-modern day versions of the Tilanga copper plates that are far from a full, nuanced telling of history.
Everything has a context — and the question that is key to understanding the Ram Janmabhoomi movement is to ask why is it that Hindus' historical injuries, real and imagined, still bleed? There is something more powerful than memory or temple ruins at work in the making of Hindu civilisational hurt. The answer is one almost too painful for dispassionate discussion: India's dismal mediocrity as an Independent nation-state.
Heading towards its first 100 years as a Republic, India is unable to ensure that four in ten children get enough to eat. In spite of progress in some states, the country has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. Indian children between the ages of five and 14 years are times more likely to die of pneumonia, tuberculosis and vaccine-preventable diseases than their counterparts in China: This stands at nearly 20 times higher than in China and 10 times higher than in Brazil and Mexico.
Take education for example — there is no university in India that ranks among the world's top hundred. In our schools, things are no better; just 15.4 percent of young adults tested in 2017 could do elementary simple interest calculations. Here is one authoritative survey to conclude that "most of our population is functionally illiterate".
For all its successes in certain enclaves, like the space programme, India isn't ranked among the 50 top countries for innovation — the countries that will be shaping tomorrow's world. The Martin Prosperity Index, which seeks to measure the potential of countries for long-term economic and social creativity, ranks India depressingly low, too.
In spite of its craving for global recognition, Independent India isn't recognised by the conventional markers of greatness. The Republic figures in no list of modern landmarks; indeed, the cladding for that icon of new India, the Sardar Patel statue, is Chinese-made. India's cities are, simply, unliveable.
There might be some meagre consolation to be had from India's acquisition of nuclear weapons, but then, even Pakistan, or puny North Korea, haven't done badly in that department, ruling this out as a reason for self-satisfaction.
Feelings are impossible to measure: the pain that some Hindus feel from historical injustice is, simply, what it is. There is, however, no inevitable relationship between historical wrongs and the restitution sought for them. No movements exist for reconstruction of sacred sites annihilated wholesale by the armies of classical Rome. In Latin America, movements of indigenous peoples subject to genocide by the conquistadors have centred on issues of civil rights and equity, not destroyed temples.
There is an alternative possibility that at least merits reflection: that Hindu hurt isn't about the past, but the present. In some senses, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement is a gigantic evasion of responsibility — personal and social — for the utter mediocrity of the Republic we have erected.
For Naipaul, Hinduism itself was the problem. "Hinduism hasn't been good enough for the millions," Naipaul, the improbable intellectual icon of so many on India's Hindu religious-right, wrote in 1997. "It has exposed us to a thousand years of defeat and stagnation."
"The crisis of India is not only political or economic" he explained. "The larger crisis is of a wounded civilisation that has at last become aware of its inadequacies and is without the intellectual means to move ahead".
This, then, is the revolution in Hinduism he hoped for, but India has been here before. Bengal's nationalist revolutionaries, having internalised colonial slurs casting them as people with "the intellect of a Greek and the grit of a rabbit", saw the cultivation of a genuinely Hindu masculinity as their salvation. Abanishchandra Ghosh may have succeeded in beating ten Punjabi and Pathan pahalwans in a row, as scholar John Rosselli records — but the Bengal that emerged isn't beating even Bangladesh on economic indices.
Indian secular-nationalism, too, was seduced only to disappoint. "The soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance," former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed on the eve of Independence. For all of Nehru's achievements, the great explosion of creativity and freedom he promised never occurred — in no small part because of the prime minister's own authoritarianism and failure to foster independent institutions.
Greatness involves looking forward, not back. The reconstruction of Japan and Germany after the Second World War; the ability of South Korea to transform a war-torn wasteland poorer than India into a global powerhouse; even Vietnam's ability to recover from near-annihilation to give its citizens healthcare and education superior to India: these were done on the back of hard work and intelligent public policy, not the pursuit of ideological unicorns.
There are no great movements in India marching on our universities to demand better libraries; guaranteeing Indians food and healthcare is not the primary, focussed project of a single Indian political party.
Instead, India chooses seduction by utopia: it is, perhaps, the fate of the truly wretched.