India progresses but haunted by Mosque's destruction
Wednesday, 05 December 2012, 14:41
INTERNATIONAL NEWS - The 16th-century Babri Mosque in northern India collapsed in a haze of red smoke in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, pulled down by mobs of Hindu fanatics in one of the country's most traumatic and polarizing events since independence.
The incident led to deadly rioting and continues to provoke tensions between majority Hindus and Muslims, who account for 13 per cent of India's 1.2 billion people.
But the real threat of the demolition was to secularism itself, a fundamental principle of Indian nationhood, said journalist Sanjay Kaw, who infiltrated the karsevaks, or Hindu religious workers, in Ayodhya before the mosque's destruction.
"December 6 was an assault on the idea of India as a secular nation, a day that threatened to destabilize the country," he said.
Hindu leaders said they razed the mosque because it was built by Mughal emperor Babar on the site of a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.
The issue still rouses passions among hardliners. Jai Bhagwan Goel, part of the demolition mobs as a leader of the Hindu right-wing Shiv Sena, said he would mark the 20th anniversary as Vijay Diwas, or Day of Victory.
"I am proud of what I did and went to jail for this," said Goel, who has since set up another hardline party. "... We will build a grand temple there. We will not allow construction of a mosque there. If it happens, we will go there and pull it down again."
The mosque's destruction sparked riots, in which more than 2,000 people died. Ten years later, in 2002, another 2,000 died in sectarian clashes in Gujarat state after a train carrying Hindu activists from Ayodhya, located in Uttar Pradesh state, was attacked near the town of Godhra, and 54 were killed.
In recent years, Islamic militant groups such as the Indian Mujahideen have carried out bombings they said are to avenge the mosque.
Although some analysts said Ayodhya is no longer relevant to national politics, the horrors spawned by the violence have been permanently etched in the Indian public consciousness.
"People have left it behind as far as public life is concerned or their electoral preferences go, but the long-term effect can be found if you look at the way the gulf between two communities have sharpened over the last few years," political analyst Ashis Nandy told broadcaster NDTV.
"That was the major contribution of the Babri episode - this hurt, pain or anguish has gone deep into their personal lives and the riots have helped this," Nandy said.
Sectarian tensions flared in Ayodhya in 1986 when then-premier Rajiv Gandhi opened the gates of the mosque to Hindu worshippers, in a move some said was to counter charges from within his Indian National Congress party that he was appeasing Muslims.
The stage was set for the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), now India's main opposition party, which campaigned for a Ram temple on the site and promoted the divisive policy of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism.
But the dispute dates from much further back and has been the subject of a court case since 1949.
After a protracted legal battle spanning six decades, the Allahabad High Court in 2010 ruled that the site should be split into three parts with one portion going to Muslims and the others to Hindus. That verdict was later suspended by the Supreme Court, which is now deciding the matter.
Priorities for India, now an emerging economic giant, have changed in the past 20 years. Its people are focussing more on economic and governance issues such as electricity, roads and jobs rather than religious divides. This change was widely reflected in the restrained and peaceful response to the 2010 verdict.
A member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, Kamal Farooqui, said Muslims would abide by the Supreme Court's final verdict.
"We as Muslims are now marching forward, concerned more about issues like education and progressing ahead in life. Indians by and large have rejected the communal hatred and propaganda," he said, referring to BJP policies.
But in Ayodhya, tensions still appear near the surface as large numbers of police patrol the streets and erect barricades ahead of Thursday's anniversary.
"The two communities stopped trusting each other [after 1992]," Waliullah, a tailor who lives near the destroyed mosque told NDTV. "No one will say it openly, but when people start avoiding you, it can mean only one thing.
"The politicians created such a deep divide between Hindus and Muslims that we became distant from each other."