September 30 was a tense day for the whole nation. Anxiety and excitement across India far exceeded what I've seen even with some of the most watched sporting events here, like India vs. Pakistan cricket finals or this year’s World Cup final.
Why so tense? It was the day when the Allahabad bench of the Lucknow High Court made a key decision on the future of a 2.7-acre holy site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims. And it seemed as though the entire country had literally come to a standstill, as people eagerly waited to see whether the court would decide in favour of a temple or mosque for the much-contested plot of land located in Ayodhya city in Uttar Pradesh.
From early in the morning, there was enormous curiosity and speculation surrounding even the time at which the three-judge bench would pronounce their verdict on the 60-year-old case, which was centred around a nearly 500-year-old religious dispute. Indeed, the build-up was so tense that most of the offices in Delhi (and in many other cities) declared a holiday after 3pm.In some less populated areas lacking continuous power supply, the masses fell back on older (and more reliable) sources for information—radios.
Excitement intensified when the court deferred the decision to 4 pm, and at 4 pm sharp, I received a call from one of my banker friends wanting to know about the decision. He assumed that as a journalist I'd have access to news sooner than other people. In fact he wasn't the only one—minutes later, I got a second call from a friend who was driving home. Within 10 minutes I'd had at least 15 more calls, all inquiring about the judgment. However, I was as clueless as anybody else, despite having been monitoring three TV channels in the office.
And even after the verdict was released, the whole nation remained in a state of confusion for about half an hour. A victory sign by lawyers representing the Hindu side gave the first indication of the ruling. Then suddenly, Ravi Shankar Prasad, a leader of the Hindu rightist Bhartiya Janata Party who was representing one of the Hindu groups as a lawyer in the case, appeared on TV. His face beaming, he summarized the verdict as favouring the Hindus. Then, assuming the role of politician, Prasad went on to ask the Muslims to accept the verdict with dignity and cooperate in the construction of a temple at the disputed site.
Many in the ‘audience,’ like me, felt after the verdict was announced that the team that had played foul, which didn’t follow the rules of the game throughout the whole match and had appeared to have only a slender chance of winning, had prevailed.
The Sunni Waqf Board, which represented the Muslim side in the case, has since decided to challenge the ruling in the Supreme Court. But setting aside the idea of showing good grace, the ruling undoubtedly surprised the nation, as the judges seemed to cast aside legal precedent to decide the case on the basis of faith. That the decisionmakers expect the party that had, on paper, a stronger claim over the title to accept the verdict with magnanimity suggests its own peculiar sense of faith.
There’s been much disbelief among the minority Muslim community and their secular supporters over the ruling, which in a sense has declared the vandals of the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya as the victors.
So, should we just accept the verdict as it stands? Doing so would lend legitimacy to those who don’t believe in the rule of law—it would mean bowing to fanatical elements that have been responsible for tearing apart the secular fabric of the nation.
In effect, the court has ended up upholding the contentions of Hindu fundamentalists who ironically, despite their best efforts at rabble rousing, managed to secure the support of less than 20 percent of Hindus in the last general election, despite this group making up around 80 percent of the population. The Hindu rightists have lost two consecutive general elections and today are struggling to stay relevant in the new India.
Sadly, many analysts believe that the verdict will have given a new lease on life to Hindu fundamentalist groups who had been pushed to the political margins in the post-liberalization era.To give them credit, the three judges may have been thinking in terms of trying to reconcile the differences between the two contending parties. But to me, and many others I've spoken with, the ruling clearly suggests an effort to appease Hindu fringe elements.