NEW DELHI: In Naseem, director Saeed Mirza’s tender yet unsettling movie on the days leading to the Babri Masjid‘s demolition, a bedridden old man lives in a mansion of memory reciting Urdu couplets and cocooning himself from the turmoil. He dies the day the mosque is brought down. Mirza once said, the film “was an epitaph to the dream that India gave itself at the time of Independence.”
When hordes of karsevaks shouted, “Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid tod do,” and brought down the 16th century structure hoping to build a Ram Mandir in its place, many Indians also felt the same way wondering if the nature of national politics had altered forever. The masjid’s razing was the final outcome of the Ram Janambhoomi movement which had gathered steam since 1990. The movement was piloted by the Sangh parivar with top BJP and VHP leaders at its forefront.
Graffiti at the site a day after the Masjid was razed. (TOI file photo by Manoj Chhabra)
Twenty-five years on, the jury is still divided on the long-term impact of the controversial issue. Some believe it was a game-changing moment, others differ. BJP politician Chandan Mitra says that the masjid’s demolition marked “a decisive turn” in the nature of Indian politics whereby the idea of “cultural nationalism” overtook the existing “ideological nationalism” that India saw since Independence.
Till then, he says, identity politics was confined to caste and small groups. “This was a supra identity that sought to be established as a kind of majority nationalism. The idea has been gaining ground since then and has established itself as the dominant theme in Indian politics,” he says.
Political scientist Imtiaz Ahmed provides a counter. He says the demolition is “a peripheral issue” in Indian politics today, raised sporadically “to influence the electoral process.” Even the electoral relevance of Babri Masjid or building the Ram Mandir has declined, he says.
“The BJP recognises this. It is not interested in building the temple but in keeping the issue alive. BJP occasionally talks about it only to use it to polarise the votes and gain some advantage. Look how the Babri Masjid issue is irrelevant in the forthcoming Gujarat election. Even in the UP state election this year, it was not an issue,” says Ahmed.
A BJP-led Union government ruled between 1999 and 2004. The saffron party enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha since 2014. But the issue, as Ahmed says, has never been on the front-burner. Mitra points out that building the temple is “very much” a part of BJP’s agenda. However, he says that the Supreme Court order, which says that there can be no construction at the site, has “taken the sting out of the movement.” “It will be difficult to violate SC’s order unless the two communities are in agreement. That too does not seem likely,” he says.
The front page of The Times Of India’s editions across the country on December 7, 1992, a day after the Babri Masjid was brought down.
Dalit commentator Chandrabhan Prasad too feels the impact of the masjid’s demolition has been limited. “In UP, we’ve seen BSP and SP roar to power with absolute majority. If the politics had changed permanently, this wouldn’t have happened,” he says.
Prasad believes that liberalisation had a far greater impact on long-term national politics than the flattening of Babri Masjid. “Dalits have been the biggest beneficiaries of the Constitution and the market economy,” he says.
Social scientist and politician Yogendra Yadav provides the big picture saying that the demolition signals a shift in popular opinion. “The middle ground of public opinion decisively shifted towards majoritarianism thereafter. It taught us that secularism cannot be defended merely with instruments of law or arms of the state. We realised that when public opinion shifts, everything else – politics, state institutions, even judiciary, shifts,” he says.
“Therefore, the real lesson is that the battle to save secularism has to be fought in the minds of ordinary people. That sadly is a battle secular Indians have not seriously engaged with. This would mean a deeper engagement with our traditions, in Indian languages, and with the common sense of ordinary people. The longer we delay it, the weaker our republic becomes, and susceptible to the kind of thuggery we see today,” Yadav says.