Listen, Mister Muslim. You are rightly upset with the verdict of the Supreme Court on the Ayodhya land dispute as it puts faith above law. Not for the first time, secular India has let you down. But truth to tell, you too have let secular India down. In this zero sum game between the Indian state and you, it’s been advantage Hindutva all the way.
This is not to rub salt in your wound. But to point out that Muslims as a community are guilty of the very same thing they are accusing the Supreme Court of: Pitching Shariah law against the Indian Constitution, faith against the law of the land. The rigid, intransigent Islam that our ulema and political leadership continue to preach leaves us little space for manoeuvre or room to negotiate a respectable place for ourselves in a secular-democratic polity. Such inflexibility is bound to land us in the ditch, again and again, be it on the question of a masjid, triple talaq, Muslim Personal Law in general, or the issue of population control.
It’s time for some honest introspection. Was it not us who took to the streets in 1985, protested aggressively against the apex court’s judgment in the Shah Bano case, insisted that Shariah law took precedence over the secular law of the land?
The then Congress government under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi capitulated and the result was the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. Faith triumphed over a secular law (Section 125 of the CrPC) and Muslims were euphoric. The consequence: Secular-minded Indians were outraged, while Hindutva organisations grabbed the opportunity to up the ante. If the law can be changed in deference to Muslim religious sentiments, what about Hindu religious sentiments? In a balancing act, the Rajiv government engineered the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Could it be, Mister Muslim, that in setting a dangerous precedent, we lost the “plot”, not on November 9, 2019 but way back in 1986?
As the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi agitation snowballed, thanks to the ulema’s myopia, what should have remained a legal dispute over land turned into a dharam yudh between faiths, a conflict between Ram and Rahim. The militant “mandir wahin banayenge” war-cry of the “Ram Bhakts” was matched by the equally belligerent “once-a-mosque-always-a-mosque” posture of the Muslim leadership. It’s a position that the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) upholds even today. The leader of the All-India Majlis Ittehadul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), Asaduddin Owaisi, has recently reiterated: “A mosque belongs to Allah and no Muslim has any right to give or gift it away”. In Islamic Saudi Arabia any number of mosques have been demolished or relocated for road widening and other public purposes. But in secular India, it’s a different Islam.
The escalation of communal conflict well suited the designs of the Sangh Parivar in convincing more and more Hindus that “Babar ki aulad” are preventing the building of a temple at the birth place of Lord Ram. From two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984, the BJP’s tally shot up to 85 seats in 1989 and 120 seats in 1991. This should have been a wake-up call for Muslims. But as riot after riot claimed more and more Muslim lives, the leadership remained blind to the reality that a state which failed to protect lives was unlikely to save a mosque.
Does anyone recall the statement of the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee a year or two before the demolition: “The mosque is sacred to Muslims, the spot is sacred to us Hindus as the janamsthan of Bhagwan Ram. I appeal to my Muslim brothers. We Hindus will respectfully lift the Babri Masjid brick by brick and re-build it at another spot. You let us build our Ram Mandir there.” The Muslim response: A mosque does not mean four walls but the land on which it stands. In other words, it’s not a question of law but a matter of faith.
Five months before the Babri masjid was demolished (December 1992), in an article published in the now defunct weekly Sunday Observer, yours truly had argued why in the interest of the minority community and the national interest, Muslims should unilaterally hand over the Babri Masjid, either to the president of the Indian republic or the Supreme Court. Let the chief custodians of secular India decide whatever they thought to be in the best interests of national unity and communal amity. The article reminded Muslims that the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, offered statutory protection against any future agitations concerning all other mosques in the country. In response, I got a mouthful from even secular Hindu friends who asserted: “The Babri Masjid is not just a property of Muslims. It is a symbol of secular India. Who are you to gift it away?”
We, Mister Muslim, lost the opportunity for winning Hindu goodwill by our gesture, arresting if not reversing the rising tide of militant Hindutva and strengthening secular forces. The outcome: For Muslims, the loss of an estimated 3,000 lives since then in the recurring communal flare-ups; for Hindu nationalists, Ayodhya proved to be the chariot to ride to power.
Fast forward to November 9, 2019. Yes, the Supreme Court’s verdict is disturbing. More disturbing is the fact that it was unanimous; not one of the five judges voiced a dissenting note. Even more disturbing, consider how it is that well before judgment day the Sangh Parivar had not the least doubt that the impending judgment would be in favour of Ram Mandir. How else does one understand their overnight switch from mandir wahin banayenge vow to an appeal to all Indians to “wholeheartedly support” the verdict, irrespective of which way it goes? Also, consider this: Most self-proclaimed secular parties are content with having expressed their respect for the verdict.
It’s time we realised, Mister Muslim, that our clinging to the ulema’s brand of Islam gives every conflict a Hindu-Muslim complexion when the ongoing battle is, in fact, between secular India and Hindu Rashtra. We mustn’t become the convenient “other” for the Hindu nationalists to hide their real agenda.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 14, 2019 under the title 'Listen, Mister Muslim'. The writer is convener, Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy and co-editor, Sabrang India online.