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Book Excerpt: From John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan’s ‘The Life of Hinduism’

By John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan

Twenty Four years ago, the darkest moment in Indian secularism was the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. The unabashed communalism was at its height with the Central Government complicit in the assault on India’s medieval past. The face of this divisive politics was LK Advani, who is today living in complete oblivion with no significant position at a time when the political dispensation that he represents is both at the Centre and occupying majority legislative seats. While he lives a life of political obscurity, Hindutva has a new face in Narendra Modi. The face has certainly changed but the politics remain the same – politics of confrontation. 

In the edited volume, Life of Hinduism (2017), John Stratton Hawley in his republished article ‘Militant Hinduism: Ayodhya and the Momentum of Hindu Nationalism’ [that was first published in 1993 post-demolition] writes about this confrontation that is not limited to Hindus and Muslims but goes beyond the social constructs into the political and the divine spaces. Here is an excerpt from his essay:

So the confrontation at Ayodhya was not just Hindus versus Muslims, but Hindus versus secularists as well. As one man put it, using an English word in a Hindi sentence, it was the “unqualifieds” standing up against the English-educated “qualifieds” who get all the good jobs, especially in government. Self-made men like himself (he owned his own taxi) were pulling down the massive rubble of a bureaucratized, colonial past. A vivid wall painting showed Prime Minister Narasimha Rao sweating bullets and crying, in Hindi, “Save my government!” My government — not just “my” of the Congress Party, but of all those complacent, self-interested “qualifieds”.

Marx is surely turning over in his grave to find that religion provides the language of anticolonial struggle in much of the world today. Some opiate! But as the temple of postcolonial secularism is attacked, so also are real temples—or, in this case, mosques and tombs. On the outskirts of Ayodhya stands the tomb of a Muslim saint that has served as a focus of worship for centuries. On December 6, 1992, after the Babri Mosque came down, one part of the great visiting mob set upon this tomb too, destroying the saint’s grave and dislodging many bricks from the walls. “Most of the people who worship here are Hindus,” reported an immaculate, soft-spoken local Muslim leader whom I encountered there. “We have always lived together in peace. Whatever happened downtown, we never thought it would come here. Yet. . . . ”

Here is rubble of another kind – neither the rubble of the imperialist incursion that the Babri Mosque represented to many Hindus nor the simple product of age old Hindu-Muslim rivalries, as secularists sometimes like to think. This is rubble created by a newly streamlined brand of Hinduism. One can perhaps sympathize with the desire to remove a mosque built by a religious culture aggressive enough to raze many Hindu temples, possibly including one that stood on the site of the Babri Mosque itself, as alleged. But here the crowds were erasing from memory a symbol of the fact that Hindus and Muslims have so often prayed together. This unruly mix is one of the glories of India, giving the lie to all those airtight textbook chapters on Hinduism, then Islam. Such a tradition is more than tolerance: its life together, unbrokered by secularism or any other mediating ideology. Ayodhya is being reshaped by a new kind of Hinduism: a syndicated, textbook Hinduism that offers a new sense of political agency to many in the majority who have so far felt left out. As this new Hinduism takes hold, the tomb of Sisle Hazrat Islam and all it stands for is in danger. So is the intricate network of arrangements symbolized in the ashrams and temples of the old Ayodhya, as a great road is bulldozed from the edge of town to the as-yet unbuilt Temple of Rama’s Birthplace.

….. For years Hindu enthusiasts have spoken as if the image of the child Rama that was discovered in the Babri Mosque on the morning of December 23, 1949, got there as a result of divine intervention in the affairs of this world. After all, some of the most important images in Hindu temples throughout India are said to be svayambhu – self-manifested. For the child Rama of Ayodhya, that may still be so in a symbolic sense, but we now know that it is not true in a literal one. Recently, after decades of public silence, an ascetic living in Ayodhya has confessed that he and several comrades were responsible for placing the image inside the mosque during that night in 1949. The man says it was easier to let people surmise that this was a miracle than to explain the facts, because if they had done so, they would have been prosecuted. They saw their mission as above the courts, whose actions would only have confused matters. In their eyes, that mosque was a temple, since the place on which it was built was Rama’s birthplace. It deserved to be restored to its intrinsic glory – and to its proper owner, Rama.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from the book The Life of Hinduism by John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Dalmia.

Extracted by Adil Bhat.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Narrating Care: Disability and Interdependence in the Indian Context’, edited by Nandini Ghosh, IDSK, Kolkata, India and Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad, India.

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