June 26, 2016

Revisiting Ayodhya (Dileep Padgaonkar)

The Times of India

Revisiting Ayodhya: A new book challenges all entrenched views on the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhumi dispute

June 25, 2016, 2:00 am IST in Talking Terms | Edit Page, India | TOI

The top brass of BJP has repeatedly asserted that its campaign in the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh would focus on development. But, if recent speeches and actions of its local minions are any indication, such an assertion needs to be taken with more than a pinch of salt. One is therefore well within one’s right to fear that they might again rake up the unresolved Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhumi dispute to polarise the electorate.
Should this come to pass, opponents of the Sangh Parivar can be trusted to challenge every textual, historical and archaeological evidence that seeks to prove that the Muslim invader Babur had ordered the destruction of a temple dedicated to Lord Ram in Ayodhya and built a mosque in its place. They will continue, as in the past, to also contest the antiquity of such a temple and indeed to argue that the birthplace of Lord Ram – who isn’t a historical figure in their eyes – is a question of a communally-driven conjecture.
In other words, a renewed controversy will once again pit the claims of ‘faith’ against the claims of reason, the law and the Constitution. On September 30, 2010, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court pronounced its detailed judgment – but it was largely confined to questions of ownership of land. The parties involved went on to appeal to the Supreme Court. And that is where the case remains.
The controversy could well take a curious turn now. Earlier this year, Kishore Kunal, a former IPS officer who was closely associated with the Ayodhya issue during his stint in the home ministry, published a monumental work that contests the stated positions of both the Sangh Parivar and its critics. Most of the content in the book is based on the vast amount of material he collected, collated and analysed as part of his official responsibilities. A Sanskrit scholar with a lively interest in historical research, he explored ancient, medieval and texts nearer our times from a wide variety of Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian and European sources and examined every available archaeological finding.
Kunal then submitted the material for scrutiny and verification to the directors general of the Indian Council of Historical Research, Archaeological Survey of India and the National Archives. By and large they concurred with his assessment though a group of historians of the ICHR were deeply sceptical of his opinions. Successive governments paid scant heed to them and, despite repeated reminders, the Liberhan Ayodhya Commission of Inquiry did not hear him as a designated government witness.
There are two major theses in Kunal’s book. One is that Babur had nothing to do whatsoever with the destruction of a temple and the construction of a mosque in its place. Both happened not in 1528 AD, as is widely supposed, but in 1660 AD. This was the handiwork of Fedai Khan, the governor of Ayodhya during Aurangzeb’s reign. All Mughal emperors from Babur to Shah Jehan were respectful of the sentiments of Hindus as were the first four Nawabs of Awadh. Aurangzeb put a brutal end to this liberal and magnanimous tradition. Until the British takeover of Awadh in 1858, Kunal states, Hindus performed puja and Muslims offered namaz at the site.
The second thesis is that there was indeed a temple dedicated to Lord Ram underneath the mosque – the very temple described in great detail in ancient and medieval texts and in the travelogues of foreign visitors to India. One clinching evidence, according to Kunal, is a stone inscription that was found in the debris of the disputed structure in December 1992. The inscription, consisting of 30 brief verses in Sanskrit, establishes that a temple did exist in the 12th century, if not earlier.
While the Sangh Parivar rejoiced at this finding, Syed Shahbuddin, convenor of the Babri Masjid Coordination Committee, charged that karsevaks had smuggled the ‘fake tablet’ into the debris. Is there substance in Kunal’s theses? The matter cannot be convincingly settled until excavation work is carried out in and around the demolished structure by a group of renowned archaeologists. If all parties to the dispute agree to abide by its conclusions, the author’s painstaking labours will not have been in vain. Until then, reviving the controversy for electoral ends can only have the most debilitating consequences for the country.