On 23 April 1985, the Supreme Court of India pronounced one of its most landmark decisions in its history, in the case of Mohd Ahmed Khan v Shah Bano Begum. Through the operation of the verdict, the Supreme Court made it mandatory for a Muslim man to give maintenance to his divorced wife, under the provisions of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), even when it was not allowed by the Muslim Personal Law.
The verdict was certainly very progressive in terms of women's rights jurisprudence, which had just started taking shape in the country. However, the then Rajiv Gandhi-led government gave into the pressure of Muslim orthodoxy and enacted Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. This law was misleading by its title as it did nothing in terms of ‘protection of rights on divorce’ for a Muslim woman. On the contrary, it reversed the effect of the Shah Bano verdict.
The sequence of events above is the start of communal politics in contemporary India. When Rajiv Gandhi had opted to appease the Muslim orthodoxy, the population at the other end of the spectrum was naturally not very happy about it. Instead of correcting his wrongs in a socially coherent way, Rajiv Gandhi chose to do it the political way.
Rajiv Gandhi, ill-advised or otherwise, in 1986, persuaded the then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Bir Bahadur Singh to open the locks of Babri Masjid and allowed religious rites inside the disputed structure.
It is pertinent to point out that he did this in furtherance of the kind of communal politics he had initiated, but found himself trapped inside. He also lacked the political acumen to resolve it.
Subsequently, the series of events which unfolded is for everyone to see. The unfair part of this whole incident is that there is hardly a narrative which fixes the responsibility on the Rajiv Gandhi government of that time.
We can, and we should, trust the conscience of the people of the country, that the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute could have been resolved by dialogue between Hindus and Muslims, if not for Rajiv Gandhi.
If not dialogue, then certainly through courts. Parties on both the sides have agreed that they will accept the verdict of the Supreme Court in the present case. Almost certainly, this would have happened back then too, had this option been there.
It is important to note that the initial demands of even the Vishwa Hindu Parishad included building a temple near the disputed structure and not over it. In fact, the first foundation stone was laid for a future temple adjacent to the claimed Ram Janmabhoomi site.
A fact less known is that at the time of laying of the foundation stone, in 1989, two senior Congress leaders — Buta Singh, the then Home Minister of India and ND Tiwari, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh — were also present at the site, to ‘grace’ the occasion. The Congress leadership explicitly endorsed the cause of a future Ram temple.
Congress was in power in both the Centre and in UP, such endorsement was more important and catastrophic, at the same time, as is seen by the series of events that unfolded. It was for acts of these kind by the Congress that an image of a future Ram temple started to seem realistic in the collective imagination of a huge section of Hindu population. The voice of VHP and even the BJP would not have mattered much because of the sheer fact that they were not in power and had almost no possibility of attaining it in the near future. It was only Congress’ patronage of the cause which proved to be decisive.
It is indeed ironic that today, there is no accountability for the Congress and the whole responsibility is fixed on the BJP-RSS ecosystem. The BJP, and Jana Sangh as its predecessor, had always advocated the cause of cultural nationalism and resurgence of India’s cultural history, in that context. It was only natural for the BJP to support the movement.
However, keeping in mind the kind of politics which the Congress supposedly professed and practised since its heydays of Nehru, it was unimaginable that it espoused and endorsed the politics of post-Shah Bano era and pre-Babri Masjid demolition period.
Communalism as a phenomenon is something which, when it goes out of control, can’t be restrained by anyone. The Janmabhoomi movement was already brewing and it will be unfair to say that it started by the ill-fated decisions of Rajiv Gandhi. However, his decisions did give the impetus to the movement, and it gathered the requisite steam to become a huge one, where it transgressed the manageable limits.
As Atal Bihari Vajpayee remarked in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri Masjid, whatever happened was unfortunate and unintended. It is safe to say that whatever happened was not envisioned by even the leadership of the BJP at that time. Probably no politician would have imagined it, but the responsibility for it is surely shared.
Raghav Pandey is a Research Fellow with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay, Mumbai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @raghavwrong
Updated Date: Dec 08, 2017 08:59 AM