A special court in India has acquitted all senior figures in the ruling party of their role in the Babri mosque demolition. While the world’s attention was fixated on the Trump / Biden debate, the judgment confirmed fears that Indian democracy is but a shell of its former self.
The case has been ongoing for decades, since Hindu rioters destroyed the mosque in Ayodhya, arguing that it was built on top of a temple which marked the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. On 30 September, all 32 of those accused of conspiracy to demolish the mosque in 1992 were acquitted. All are members of the ruling party, the BJP. They were accused of mobilising a mob of thousands, armed with axes, hammers and crowbars, on that fateful day in December, and are affiliated, through the party, with the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and the fascistic RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).
The RSS is a paramilitary, all male organisation, which was set up to promote Hindutva – a right-wing ideology which sees India as a primarily Hindu nation. Its leaders were admirers of Hitler and one of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for his ‘appeasement’ of Muslims. It spawned an entire ‘family’ of organisations which are embedded into the very fabric of Indian society. One of these organisations, the VHP – a leading force behind the mosque demolition – concerns itself with social welfare and reconversions of Hindus who have strayed from the faith. Advani, like Modi, is a member of the RSS and Bharti says she is supported by the RSS.
For almost 30 years, the dust has continued to swirl around the ruins of the mosque, choking already fraught Hindu-Muslim relations. In 2002, the notorious Gujarat massacre was sparked by the burning alive of 59 people on a train transporting mainly Hindu pilgrims returning from a religious ceremony held at the Babri Masjid. Between one and two thousand people were killed in the massacre.
While the Muslim community was accused of starting the fire, a report by the Concerned Citizens Tribunal could find no evidence of these allegations. Only one coach out of eleven coaches burnt down and there were no signs of fire damage on the bodywork of the coach below the window level, suggesting that the fire had started as the result of an accident inside the coach.
The Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time was none other than Narendra Modi, India’s current Prime Minister, and his handling of the incident inflamed passions and provoked Hindu activists to take vengeance on the ‘kaffirs’. The mobs that attacked Muslim businesses and households were led by members of the BJP and VHP – carrying electoral rolls, so precise was their targeting. On the whole, the law enforcement bodies did not intervene.
The destruction of the Babri Masjid is credited as a turning point for the BJP, leading to a boost in the party’s fortunes and to electoral victory in 2014 – the first time a single party had won an outright majority in India since 1984. The promotion of Hindutva – an ideology which emphasises the hegemony of Hindu identity, culture and religion and its centrality to India – has been a key element of BJP’s political strategy.
Two major legislative changes confirm the change of direction from a secular Indian constitution towards one contaminated by Hindutva ideology.
First, Article 370 was revoked, removing the special status of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which had guaranteed it a degree of autonomy over its internal affairs, most notably in relation to property ownership and residency rights. Many
The second was the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019: the first time that the secular principle of equality that underpins citizenship of India has been ditched in favour of religious affiliation. The law provides an amnesty to ‘illegal’ migrants such as Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists from Muslim-majority neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It has been justified as a way of providing refuge to discriminated-against minorities.
A noble motive, you might think, except that it also provides a ‘legal’ route to deporting ‘illegal’ immigrants, such as Muslims, from places like Bangladesh or even longstanding poor Muslims of India who do not have the paperwork to prove citizenship. The National Population Register will identify those who qualify to be citizens. This will allow the government to send vast numbers of Muslims to detention camps, but the Act will protect those who are non-Muslims who can argue that they have sought refuge from Muslim countries.
Given such barefaced attacks on the Muslim population, it might have seemed like a foregone conclusion that the perpetrators of the Babri Masjid demolition were unlikely to be brought to justice, especially so long after the event. But there were some grounds for hope. In December 2019, the Supreme Court described the demolition as an “egregious violation of the rule of law”, even as it ‘enshrined’ the original injustice by handing over the Babri Masjid site to those who wanted to build a temple there.
However, the hope was misplaced. Apparently, the court could find no evidence of a pre-planned conspiracy. Yet a commission of inquiry into the events led by Justice Liberhan, which took 17 years to report on the incident, found plenty of evidence of planning, including huge transfers of money to facilitate the event, audio and video recordings, the presence of demolition tools and materials for the construction of a makeshift temple on the site. But the commission’s inquiry, which reported in 2009, was not legally binding and it appears that the court did not even take its findings into account.
It is heartening to see that the judgment has been greeted with howls of outrage by the liberal intelligentsia in India. There are calls for the case to go to appeal. However, justice will not be served, and communal harmony will suffer even further, if it takes another 20 years for these appeals to be heard. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Modi’s attempts to refashion the Supreme Court, much like US President Trump’s, may prove successful and further frustrate the situation.
India’s secular democracy faces unprecedented challenges from the Modi government. Let us hope that civil society, in the absence of a coherent political opposition, will find the courage and determination to fight back.
This article first appeared on newhumanist.org.uk