It is one of the ironies of the country’s muddled march into the 21st Century that it has a technologically-inspired vision of the future and yet appears shackled to the dogmas of the past.
“I’LL tell you what your problem is in India,” the American businessman said. “You have too much history. Far more than you can use peacefully. So you end up wielding history like a battleaxe, against each other.”
The American businessman doesn’t exist; he is a fictional character in my recent novel Riot, about a Hindu-Muslim riot that erupts in the course of the Ram Sila Poojan campaign, the forerunner of the agitation to construct a Ram Janmabhoomi temple on the site occupied for four and a half centuries by the Babri Masjid. As headlines in recent days have spoken of a renewed cycle of killings and mob violence over the same issue, I have received dozens of comments on the eerie similarity between art and life.
Some callers point to the Afterword to my novel, in which I alert readers to the threat by Hindu extremists to commence construction of their temple in mid-March this year, in defiance of court orders. I seek no credit for prescience. The tragedy in India is that even those who know history seem condemned to repeat it.
It is one of the ironies of India’s muddled march into the 21st Century that it has a technologically-inspired vision of the future and yet appears shackled to the dogmas of the past. The temple town of Ayodhya has no computer software labs; it is devoted to religion and old-fashioned industry. In 1992, a howling mob of Hindu extremists tore down the Babri Masjid, a disused 16th Century mosque which occupied a prominent spot in a town otherwise overflowing with temples. The mosque had been built in the 1520s by India’s first Mughal emperor, Babur; the Hindu zealots vowed to replace it with a temple to Lord Ram, which they say had stood on the spot for millennia before the Mughal invader tore it down to make room for his mosque. In other words, they want to avenge history, to undo the shame of half a millennium ago with a reassertion of their glory today.
India is a land where history, myth and legend often overlap; sometimes Indians cannot tell the difference. Some Hindus claim, with more zeal than evidence, that the Babri Masjid stood on the exact spot of Lord Ram’s birth, and had been placed there by the Mughal emperor as a reminder to a conquered people of their own subjugation. Historians — most of them Hindus — reply that there is no proof that Lord Ram ever existed in human form, let alone that he was born where the believers claim he was. More to the point, there is no proof that Babur actually demolished a Ram temple to build his mosque. To destroy the mosque and replace it with a temple would not, they say, be righting an old wrong but perpetrating a new one.
Of course it does not matter what is historically verifiable when it comes to matters of faith. It is enough that millions of Hindus actually believe the masjid had occupied the site of a mandir, and indeed there is evidence of mosques having being built elsewhere in India on the ruins of demolished temples. And yet, when to act on that belief causes deep hurt to innocents who had nothing to do with the original wrong — if there was one — do we not have a greater responsibility to the present than to the past?
To most Indian Muslims, the dispute is not about a specific mosque — which had in fact lain disused for half a century before its destruction, most of Ayodhya’s Muslim minority having emigrated to Pakistan upon the partition of the country in 1947 — but about their place in Indian society. For decades after Independence, successive Indian governments had guaranteed their security in a secular state, permitting the retention of Muslim Personal Law separate from the country’s civil code and even financing Haj pilgrimages to Mecca. Two of India’s first five Presidents were Muslims, as were innumerable cabinet ministers, ambassadors, generals, and Supreme Court justices. Until the mid-1990s India’s Muslim population exceeded Pakistan’s. The destruction of the mosque seemed an appalling betrayal of the compact that had sustained the Muslim community as a vital part of India’s pluralist democracy.
The Hindu fanatics who attacked the mosque had little faith in the institutions of Indian democracy. They saw the State as soft, pandering to minorities out of a misplaced and Westernised secularism. To them, an independent India, freed after nearly a thousand years of alien rule (first Muslim, then British), and rid of a sizeable portion of its Muslim population by Partition, had an obligation to assert its own identity, one that would be triumphantly and indigenously Hindu. They are not fundamentalists in any meaningful sense of the term, since Hinduism is uniquely a religion without fundamentals: there is no Hindu Pope, no Hindu Sunday, no single Hindu holy book, and indeed no such thing as a Hindu heresy. They are, instead, chauvinists, who root their Hinduism not in any of its soaring philosophical or spiritual underpinnings — and, unlike their Islamic counterparts, not in the theology of their faith — but rather in its role as a source of identity. They seek revenge in the name of Hinduism-as-badge, rather than of Hinduism-as-doctrine.
In doing so, they are profoundly disloyal to the religion they claim to espouse, which stands out not only as an eclectic embodiment of tolerance, but which is also the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. All ways of worship, Hinduism asserts, are equally valid, and religion is an intensely personal matter related to the individual’s self-realisation in relation to God. Such a faith understands that belief is a matter of hearts and minds, not of bricks and stone. The true Hindu seeks no revenge upon history, for he understands that history is its own revenge.
The Hindu zealots who chanted insultingly triumphalist slogans helped incite the worst elements on the Muslim side, who criminally set fire to a railway carriage carrying temple campaigners; in turn, Hindu mobs have torched Muslim homes and killed innocents. As the courts deliberate on a solution to the dispute, the cycle of violence goes on, spawning new hostages to history, generating new victims on both sides, ensuring that future generations will be taught new wrongs to set right. We live, Octavio Paz once wrote, between oblivion and memory. Memory and oblivion: how one leads to the other, and back again, has been the concern of much of my fiction. As I pointed out in the last words of Riot, history is not a web woven with innocent hands.