issue 247 - September 1993
If you’re a fundamentalist in search of popular passion, you
could do worse than reshape history to suit your own ambitions.
Rehan Ansari analyzes the success of India’s Hindu
extremists in blotting out a more tolerant past.
In one short season of violence last year Babri Masjid, in the north Indian town of Ayodhya, became the most famous mosque in the world. Witnessing the violence of young Hindu men in their fashionable city clothes as they destroyed the mosque was remarkable enough. Yet even more remarkable was the brazen rewriting of the past which justified the destruction. The ideologues of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of India, and the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan for that matter, demonstrate a flair for myth-making that would make the most fashionable French deconstructionist proud.
Unfortunately the play of fundamentalist imaginations has tragically concrete consequences. The violence has spread to Bombay and Calcutta; in Bombay alone the official toll of deaths in only the first two months of this year came to 2,000. As news of the destruction spread so did incidents of temple burnings and physical violence in neighboring Pakistan, in the Gulf Emirates and in England. Wherever there are Hindu and Muslim communities there is unease and, worse, an entrenchment of particular views on the history of Hindu-Muslim relations.
The BJP champions a version of history that claims Indian Muslims to be interlopers, descendants of temple-destroying invaders, one of whom, the Mughal emperor Babar, built a mosque on the birthplace of Ram in Ayodhya. This interpretation breaks up on the rocks of a few inconvenient facts. First, most Muslim conversions occurred among the lower castes, conversions inspired by Sufi saints – an image more evocative of wandering minstrels gaining a following than of sword-wielding sultans intimidating the populace.
Second, Babar certainly did not build the mosque in Ayodhya, which is simply not that old. Nor is it clear that it was built by the deliberate ruin of a temple. No reputable historian would fix a birthdate for Ram, and most of the other temples in Ayodhya lay claim to the honour of being his birthplace.
When people think of the history of Hindu-Muslim relations in the subcontinent buzzwords like ‘ancient hatreds’ come easily to the lips. The demolition of a mosque by Hindu mobs is understood as a natural consequence of unrelenting, age-old enmity between the two groups. After all, British India broke up amid great slaughter into independent Hindu and Muslim majority states in 1947.
But there is more than one history of Hindu-Muslim relations. At Nizam-ud-din Auliya’s mazar in Delhi, crowds of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims pay homage to north India’s most famous saint – a great Sufi Muslim poet of the thirteenth century. Hang around in this festival space, and you will – like any other stranger – obtain free food and lodging for the asking. You will learn of a different Islam in the subcontinent, one of poetry and the music of love, sung by Sufi poets. Northern India is dotted with Sufi mazars like this one, frequented by people of every creed and caste. The world now knows that there was once a Babri Masjid at Ayodhya and that now there is a Ramjanmabhumi temple. But for most of the site’s history a mosque and a temple co-existed there.
The idea and history of Islam-as-music, as a call to love spread by Muslim poets who absorbed Hindu yogi practices, and whose convertees did not relinquish their pre-Islamic culture, could hardly be more contrary to the puritanical Islam spread by the swords of Turkish Sultans and Mughals from Central Asia. Historically both forms of Islam have occurred in the subcontinent. It is a matter of personal value which one cherishes.
Hinduism too has many conflicting histories. Only since the last century has there been Hinduism as such. ‘Hindu’ was a word used by outsiders to describe a place and people – not an institutionalized religion. The people who actually lived in this part of the world were followers of various saints, such as Shivites in Tamil Nadu and Vaishnavites in Gujarat and Bengal. The representations of Ram, hero of the Ramayana, used to vary greatly from region to region. But the many Ramayanas have now become one. In early 1987 an 18-month-long version of the Ramayana ran on prime-time TV. The most popular programs ever shown in India, they represented an important step towards standardizing Hinduism for national consumption.
A couple of months after the Ramayana mega-series the Vishnu Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) called on Hindus throughout India and the world to make holy bricks for the construction of a temple at Ayodhya. Bricks came from as far away as Vancouver, Canada and Durban, South Africa. Construction was deferred until after the national elections of 1989, in which the BJP captured 86 seats, compared with the two they had won in 1984.
Who does the BJP appeal to by its history-making? The young Hindus clambering over Ayodhya mosque are part of the educated urban unemployed, children of the established Hindu middle classes. In an India of rising expectations and rapid economic liberalization, social mobility is challenging a severely hierarchical society. The ‘Backward Castes’ have traditionally been tied to the land; enriched by the Green Revolution, their demands for affirmative action in the handing out of government jobs have increasing force. And middle-class Hindus, whose traditional literacy has let them virtually monopolize such jobs, stand to lose.
On top of this, since the mid-1970s many Indian Muslims have struck gold with jobs in the Middle East. By far the largest portion of India’s guest workers in the Middle East are Muslims. With the money they send back home their relatives can afford houses, mosques and business capital – not to mention conspicuous consumption. Traditionally found at the lower rungs of the social and economic ladder, Muslims’ new-found prosperity breeds resentment among the established classes.
The report of the Mandal Commission brought many of these tensions to a head. The Commission, which sought to increase lower-caste quotas in government jobs, drew a hysterical reaction from the young literates of the Hindu upper classes. VP Singh’s minority government drew support from parties of both the left and the right, including the BJP. Fearing Singh’s attractiveness to ‘Untouchables’, lower-caste Muslims and other minorities, the BJP leader, Lal Krishnan Advani, set out on a 10,000-kilometre yatra (pilgrimage) to arrive at Ayodhya for the proposed construction of a temple to Ram. Advani’s eventual arrest successfully shifted the ground from Mandal to mandir (temple); when the BJP withdrew support the Singh Government fell and violence intensified.
It is useful to compare the success of the BJP with the failure of its Muslim mirror- image, the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan. Both these visionary parties claim the high ground of change, of a future incorruptibility and progress. The leadership of both parties hails from the other side of the border and is thus rooted in the brutal experience of the 1947 Partition.
As Salman Rushdie says, refugees crossing borders don’t carry all their baggage in their bags. The Jamaat wishes Pakistanis to believe their country was created to be an Islamic state and not just a country in which the majority of citizens happen to be Muslim. The Jamaat advocates an Islamic agenda for everything from gender and culture to economics.
But the Pakistani state is only 45 years old so it is hard for the Jamaat to mythologize its origins in the mists of time. The Jamaat actually predates Pakistan by more than a decade and originally opposed the country’s formation. It is Pakistan’s oldest political party and yet it has under 10,000 members. The Jamaat has performed spectacularly badly in every Pakistani election to date – its fundamentalist ideals just do not appeal to Pakistan’s many caste and ethnic groups.
It is not only because India is older than Pakistan that the BJP’s retelling of old stories is more effective. The Jamaat loses because it does not dabble in either a caste-drenched mythology or even the slightly less pernicious politics of ethnicity. Yet if the BJP’s political manoeuvring succeeds, they will not have achieved some ancient destiny or vanquished old foes. Theirs is a modern politics with a highly modern agenda.
Rehan Ansari is a Pakistan-born journalist who now lives in New York.