By Mosarrap H Khan
How do we remember the demolition of the Babri Mosque 25 years after the event that literally changed the course of Indian society and politics? Like many other events in modern India – 1984 Sikh and 2002 Muslim pogroms, to cite just a couple of examples – the events on 6 December, 1992 have become a flashpoint of ideological battles between the liberals and the conservatives from the majority Hindu community.
There are claims and counter-claims by political parties, Hindu & Muslim religious organizations, and Hindu spiritual leaders. The court has deferred its final verdict to February, 2018.
As an Indian Muslim, I try to understand the demolition of Babri Mosque on two different registers: personal and public/communitarian.
In December, 1992, I was 17+ and was getting ready to write my +2 exams next year. I lived in Uttarpara, on the outskirts of Kolkata, and studied there. Since my school didn’t have a hostel, my father rented a room outside. My landlord was the son of a Bangladeshi Hindu refugee, who had migrated to India during the Partition (1947). After a long struggle, they had rebuilt their lives. My landlord had managed to find work in Hindustan Motors factory, which provided employment to hundreds of people in Uttarpara and Hindmotor. My landlord’s son was my age and we spent a lot of time together.
Like every other teenager, I was least politically inclined. Although my father had insisted I read an English newspaper, The Statesman, to improve my English while growing up, I had given up the habit when I went to live away from home (first, in Rahara and then, in Uttarpara) for schooling. Since I didn’t read the newspaper regularly, I have no distinct memory of the build-up to the day, when the mosque was pulled down. I don’t remember if we even discussed this among my friends, including Sanjay, my best friend during +2 days.
And then the day arrived. To be more precise, on 5 December, 1992, it hit home that something terrible was about to happen. I got to know from friends that our school would remain closed on 6 December. Even at this point, I had failed to grasp the enormity of the situation. I understood this only in the days following the demolition. The school remained closed indefinitely. My landlord and his son shared horror stories that unfolded in places such as Bally, Liluah, Howrah, apart from Kolkata. These places were 5-7 kilometres from Uttarpara and where we would go to watch films bunking classes. My most vivid memory was the graphic description of the heads being severed in Liluah during the riots following the demolition. I shivered and feared the worst. I stopped eating out, which I did everyday in a hotel, where my father had arranged food for me. My landlord’s wife fed me those days.
When things had cooled a bit, my father took me home to Kotulpur in Bankura district. Home and my small town remained untouched by violence. But I still remember my father’s exasperated voice, ‘These people won’t let us live in this country anymore.’ Coming from my father, I felt hopeless because I had never heard anything like this from him before. I knew something had changed irrevocably and life would never be the same again. It’s a cliché to say, ‘After 6 December, 1992, I became aware that I was a Muslim in India.’ I would say that the days following the demolition enhanced the birth of my political consciousness. From an angst-filled teenager least interested in politics, I became aware of my political responsibility after being marked as the ‘other’. I have carried the burden of being a ‘Muslim’ in India ever since.
How did the demolition of Babri Mosque play out in the public?
One obvious consequence has been a deepening sense of psychological insecurity among Muslims in India. Up until 1992, Indian Muslims have always occupied a liminal position in society and political discourse. They have suffered during numerous communal riots, too. And, yet, the vestiges of Nehruvian secularism allowed Muslims to engage with the state as a community, sometimes at the cost of individual liberty. As Rajiv Gandhi’s appeasement of Muslim clerics demonstrated in the Shah Bano case, the community identity allowed a collective bargaining power, despite being regressive at times. The demolition of the mosque and the attendant slogan of ‘pseudo-secularism’ by the right-wing effectively presided over the demise of this collective Muslim bargaining power with the state. A direct upshot is that even the Congress Party shies away from talking of Muslim economic/political interest in India.
Did that pave the way for Muslim individual liberty? Narendra Modi government’s support for the victims of triple talaq might appear to endorse Muslim individual rights, reinforcing the idea that it is the responsibility of a liberal/secular state to uphold individual rights. However, the demolition of Babri Mosque has also initiated a forked-tongue political discourse: the state is committed to protecting Muslim individual rights (unlike in the Shah Bano case) but, in majoritarian political discourse, Muslims are consistently depicted as the ‘other’, a collective force given to violence and backwardness. It’s in the interest of the Sangh Parivar and the BJP to maintain this schizophrenic perception about Muslims in India. By focusing on individual Muslim rights, the right-wing state pretends to uphold liberal values. But by depicting Muslims as the collective ‘other’ in political discourse, the BJP, along with the Sangh, consolidates majoritarian forces in India.
How have Muslims themselves coped with the aftermath of the demolition as a politically disenfranchised group? Following the riots after the demolition, not only have they physically moved to ghettoes to live with other Muslims for security (and sometimes when being denied home in Hindu localities in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata), it has made Muslims psychologically alienated. The years following the demolition coincided with economic liberalization in India, which triggered new hopes and aspirations among the middle class. Unfortunately for Muslims, India’s economic liberalization also ushered in chauvinistic Hindu nationalism, confining Muslims to physical and psychological ghettoes and shackling them with the burden of negotiating a ‘tainted’ identity. I wonder what if Muslims, like their Hindu counterparts, could partake of the opportunities offered by liberalization without being bogged down by a constant fear of violence. In a recent book on Muslims in Jamia Nagar, Delhi, my friend, Tabassum Ruhi Khan, writes how Muslim youth have been making the most of the opportunities thrown up by liberalization and globalization. However, we must also remember, they have been doing so from the constricted space of ghettoes, symbolic of their marginal space in the nation.
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the demolition of Babri Mosque, let me assert that the calamitous events on 6 December, 1992, have crippled Indian Muslims irreversibly just when many Muslims seemed ready to take off like their Hindu counterparts.
Mosarrap H Khan is a founding-editor at Cafe Dissensus. Twitter: @aberration007
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Remembering Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in Bicentenary Year (1817-2017)’, edited by Dr. Irfanullah Farooqi, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India.