The year was 1992. The month was of December. On 6th December, the Babri masjid had been razed to the ground by Kar Sevaks. The destruction of the Babri masjid was being discussed on television and media as the death knell of secularism in India.
Late one afternoon as I was leaving for a candle light march for secularism, my father stopped me before leaving. He seemed upset and asked, “Do you remember our ancestral home was destroyed and converted into a mosque?”
“Baba,” I tried to explain, “that incident has no connection to the breaking of the mosque now. The breaking of the Ram temple was wrong as much as the breaking of the mosque in present times.”
“No, the two are different. They are not the same,” he said.
He didn’t want to talk any further with me on this issue after I came back from the rally. When I asked him why he told me to find it out for myself.
My father’s silence on this issue led me on a search. Were the two events, one a destruction of a temple carried out five hundred years ago and the razing down of a mosque now different in some way?
I was not a historian. I had no familiarity with doing historical research on past events. To me Ram janma bhoomi was a disputed structure whose fate was being decided in the court.
Ram Leela was a fun event from childhood but the birthplace of Lord Ram or a temple there had little relevance for me.
Where did the grief of my father come from? What was its origin and why did it exist even after five hundred years? If this grief was real and others had it too, why was a race still grieving over it after five hundred years?
As we know from grief psychology, collective grief and its aspirations are often responsible for the emergence of new identity for a race. Is the Hindu society heading towards a new identity too?
The following is my journey to answer that question.
Memory studies, a little known branch of philosophy, looks at how people convert their inner experiences into a memory and how memory is passed on from generation to generation often described as trans-generational trauma.
As J. Shawn Landers wrote, “Memory surrounds us and defines us. It is an essential dimension of religion and is inherent in the definition of religion itself.” He described two kinds of memory which he said are fraught with contest and conflict. One is in which a commemoration of violent confrontations of the past has taken place and the other of memorial acts through which the persecuted and the wronged groups in history reclaim their past.
Over the next two decades, I asked kar sevaks, religious heads, scholars and ordinary people about what they felt about the mandir – masjid dispute. The narratives I heard brought to fore an India where people have lived in traumatic memories hidden away in the corner of their heart far removed from the discourse of liberal intellectuals and scholars of religion. These people, the nameless Indians, coped and fought with a violence brought upon them that they had carried from generation to generation as a wound that never healed and one that included all faiths.
This violence meant different things to different people. While to some it was a religious dispute whether Ram was born at that spot or not, to many others it was a place imbued with absorbed memory of a distant past and to other groups it was a historical injustice, a wrong that had to be corrected.
When I visited the site some years ago what struck me about the site where the mosque once existed was that the place had almost a mythical character. Built in a temple town, on a high plateau surrounded by temples and ringing of bells, it was difficult to imagine a mosque could be built there in the first place. As I learnt there was no significant Muslim population who lived around that place. Then why did anyone ever think of building a mosque surrounded by temples and a people who didn’t follow that faith? It defied my imagination.
As I understood from talking to an elderly kar sevaks, the mosque when destroyed was an act of redemption for Hindus and when the temple is built over it again, it will become a ‘punya bhumi’ a sacred space again. Contrary to popular image I had, many a kar sevak had vivid imagination of their vision and talked of how those who broke the temple centuries ago wanted to break the will of Hindus. “But look at us. Have they succeeded?” he asked me showing the hundreds of volunteers around him.
As I understood, Hindu religion for many of us is linked to both memory and space of the Ayodhaya as a city and the two are intertwined and have never been separated. Once it is claimed back and the temple built over it, it will come to occupy a sacred space that will give Hindus their new identity. As a kar sevak told me, “Ayodhya is destiny for us.”
Another kar sevak said, “When this temple comes up, it will be a proof that even though another religion considered Hinduism as inferior to itself and thought it could erase the memory of the earlier one from people’s minds, they have failed so as this movement of ours show.”
“What will a sacred space do to Hindus in your opinion?” I had asked.
“The building of the temple will be a sign of social solidarity which will bring together the Hindus again as a race. The fragmentation that we Hindus went through because of iconoclasm and conversions will end. The town of Ayodhya will once again become the sacred space that it once was and give rise to a new identity for us.”
And he added, “It may not happen in our lifetime. But no kar sevak you will find who thinks so. We are ready to continue this battle for few more centuries.”
The Ram janma bhoomi – Babri masjid dispute is not like any other ordinary trial. Unlike other trials, its aim is not to prove guilt and exact punishment of any individual or even a group of people. This is a trial whose goal will be to teach a lesson for future generations on what is unique about nature of religion and how a faith cannot be destroyed by eliminating its symbols.
It brings to mind another trial of the twentieth century, one which is regarded as one of the most poignant trial of all times of the twentieth century.
In the trial of Adolf Eichman, the infamous Nazi criminal, who was secretly brought to Jerusalem from his hiding place in Argentina and put on trial for crimes against humanity. However certain key features came up midway during the trial. Though there were enough documents to prove his guilt and punish him, the Chief Attorney, General Gideon Hausner, realized that it should not be left as a trial based on documents alone but include the testimony of survivors to show what a destructive ideology and its followers can do to mankind. Documents would convict Eichman no doubt, he prophesied, but it would not shock the conscience of the world. He realized the trial based on documents will never heal the Jewish identity. He had a vision of the trial bringing the people of Israel closer together as a nation and the world to become compassionate to Israel. Hausner, therefore, demonstrated that the trial wasn’t just about totalitarianism only and based on Eichman’s actions alone as Hannah Arendt was trying to make it out to be in front of the whole world but about anti-Semitism and the Jewish victims of the holocaust. As a result of his efforts when the victims spoke during the trial what came out was that the camps were not just factories of death created by Nazis, but also were living proof of a certain ideology that believed that some races, their beliefs are sub-human and they believed they deserve to be eliminated.
Eichman, as it came out during the trial, wanted to finish the Jews as a race and destroy them from the face of earth. The world remained silent to that genocide. The Jews had realized that they alone had to bring him to trial to bring justice and their alienation was a feature they had accepted. But once the trial began they realized that it stood for something far greater than Eichman and their alienation was an enemy of their identity. The trial presented an opportunity to Jews to arouse the conscience of the world and it could be done by reclaiming what truly belonged to them in the first place they had lost centuries ago, a land and an identity.
The Ram janma bhoomi trial also shows a struggle for Hindus to reclaim their identity. Those who destroyed the temple did so believing that their religion is superior and other religions have no right to exist alongside their own. In the light of that whether Babur destroyed the temple or not and whether it was actually the birthplace of Ram becomes secondary. What becomes primary is that through destroying the holiest temple of the Hindus, Babur and his descendants tried many times to destroy a civilization, an entire way of life and the faith of a people that had existed before them for thousands of years. They thought that they had succeeded in doing so and eliminated it not realizing that human faith is stronger than any symbol.
The destruction of the Ram temple was in probability done by an army asked to do so by a king. Whatever may have been there earlier before the mosque, one thing begets a question. Such a prominent place couldn’t have been vacant prior to the building of the mosque. Today when archeological evidence shows that there existed a temple below it, where does it lead to? That it may have been razed to the ground with the belief that infidels don’t have the right to have temples of their own and do their prayers there. The destruction of the Babri masjid on the other hand was an act, an outburst. Did it also represent the latent grief of a people that had lay dormant for centuries and couldn’t be controlled anymore despite the building of a mosque? Only time will tell.
Is there a third issue here that has escaped attention apart from whether it was the birthplace of Ram or a temple was destroyed or not? Is it that the site has an absorbed memory whose traces couldn’t be erased by time or by the building of another structure on that site? Will that absorbed memory is bound to rise again if a temple is built there? The mosque and the prayers haven’t been able to erase the memory of people of a temple over five hundred years. Does it represent a memory different from an everyday one? Is it so fused with the identity of a race?
Will the temple, if built, lead to a re-generation of the faith of the Hindus and give them a new identity? Many kar sevaks I spoke to told me that this is the premise with which they carried out their mission for Ayodhya. They felt they will be leaving a legacy for the future through this act of their sacrifice. Many of them said that they might die in the course of the journey, that there might be firing upon them, yet that did not stop them.
As a scholar of religious studies not wishing to be named told me, “Other faiths in India haven’t gone through anything similar to what Hindus and Buddhists of India have gone through. The Muslims and Christians of India never had their religious structures destroyed or desecrated and will never know what it meant to go through it. Therefore, you see some groups opposing and being insensitive to this issue.” He had quoted Alexandar Solzhonetsyn, “A man who is warm can never understand the pain of a man who is cold.”
Is the fear of re-generation in Hindus as a race threatening for others? Is this what is leading some to dilute and oppose this movement by giving options including let’s build a hospital or an orphanage over that place? Or split this space into different structures or make a hospital and a school?
The site today is without any concrete structure but in the process has it become a symbol of a sacred space of what memory can accomplish for race? Does it lead us to the argument that religion and memory may have the same roots and cannot be separated from human identity? Does it show that this place is no longer a structure but has turned into a symbol?
Half a world away, almost at the same time when the movement was at its peak, the Red Indian Americans, AIM, began the assertion of their political rights by beginning the assertion of their religious power by converging and surrounding their sacred spaces from where they were evicted and where they had once prayed to their ancestors. They refused to leave that place till their political rights were restored. These were the very spaces that the white settlers had taken away from them by killing their ancestors following which they had built alternate structures defiling them. They were done to defile and erase forever their claim over those sacred spaces. It was believed by them that following this the Red Indians will forget and lose their attachment to what was a sacred space. The mass movement by them on the other hand showed that it not only became a collective memory that couldn’t be erased but identified for them that the loss of political rights and spiritual power for a race converge and starts simultaneously.
The struggle of the Red Indians was seen as legitimate and gained them the support of the world. Intellectuals and scholars alike said that political power and spiritual power cannot be separated, and are historically linked.
It begets a question then why in India the same is described in less glowing terms and not as a right of a people but a communal attempt to incite hatred for others. Why when the people assembled around the sites in Ayodhya, it was described not as legitimate aspirations of a people towards their political and spiritual rights but as a communal threat? Why no one tried to understand the grief of a people but condemned it without trying to understand?
Can a civilization, a religion, exist without reclaiming the places it had lost to desecration? What happens when the descendants come forward to bear witness to the atrocities that happened to their belief, their faith and ideology?
The psyche of many Indians today is going through a transition that it never faced before in its history. Rather than asking what happened or how to remember, the new Indian has begun to bear witness, to respond to a call from within, by identifying a place, space as sacred and his presence over there to mark his identity.
As we know bearing witness is not only an act in the present moment to bring a gift of testimony to the world, but that this testimony itself takes place at a threshold where the boundaries of the inside and outside, past and present, get blurred to create a new identity for a race. Rene Girard, the author of Violence and Sacred, once famously said, “Even though at a single blow, collective violence may have wiped out all memory of the past, but then they will emanate from without from human will and from somewhere what is external to man and yet within him. That men cannot confront the naked truth of their own violence without the risk of abandoning themselves to it.”
Some time ago I had gone and sat near the disputed structure in Ayodhya after many years. The sun had just set and hid behind the clouds leaving a red streak in the blue sky. There was a bird that flew over the spot and it seemed to me as if stopped for a moment. Watching it I had a feeling that whosoever builds any structure again in the days to come on that sacred spot, they might consider doing two things. One is to create a memorial, a plaque saying that all religions are equal and pathways to God and that whosoever tries to reach him through whichever path, they all lead to him. And the second is to create a memorial commemorating the deaths of the all the people who have died upholding their faith. I am sure Lord Ram will approve.