Triumphalism of Ayodhya coverage masked pain of India’s largest minority, but hope persists that secularism will outlast hate

In the run-up to the grand ceremony, there was no acknowledgement of the destruction of lives of fellow citizens, neither by the constitutional Head of State, nor by the ruling party, nor the Opposition, not even by the media

It was on 6 August, 1998 that the Justice BN Srikrishna Commission Report of Inquiry into Mumbai’s 1992-1993 riots was tabled. That too, like August 5, 2020, was a long-awaited day.

The ruling Shiv Sena had tried its best not to table the report, sensing that the sitting high court judge would indict them for the violence that had erupted following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Forced to table it by the high court, the party waited till the very last day of the Assembly session to do so, and then printed only as many copies as were needed by the MLAs.

The report was tabled and rejected within an hour by then chief minister Manohar Joshi. In a corridor of the Assembly, when I asked the then Leader of the Opposition Chhagan Bhujbal if his party (the Congress) would lead an agitation for its implementation, he retorted, “What? And lose the Hindu vote?” The current paeans to Lord Ram by Priyanka Gandhi and some of her party leaders therefore come as no surprise to those who witnessed the Ayodhya campaign.

For Mumbaikars, Ayodhya has been a tangible presence since 6 December, 1992. The riots here started within hours of the Babri Masjid being demolished. The commission documented that the first stone of the riots was thrown at a masjid by a “victory” cycle rally taken out by the Shiv Sena in Dharavi at around 4 pm.

In fact, the entire report was a documentation of the savagery that took over this city after the demolition. The violent hate that characterised the campaign for building a Ram Mandir at the very spot where stood the Babri Masjid was perhaps felt most in Mumbai. That was why Mumbaikars were so restless about the Srikrishna Commission Report being tabled. While the Sena naturally didn’t want its role exposed, there were many ordinary citizens who were loath to relive the darkness that had engulfed the city a mere six years ago.

But there was also a substantial number who were eager to read what the judge had concluded. Having been disbelieved by every authority till then, they wanted desperately to know whether their testimonies, made in open court in front of their tormentors, had been taken seriously.

Indeed they had.

It is this section that has been completely blacked out in the run-up to 5 August this year. Blacked out by the ruling party of course, who saw them as nothing but obstacles to be removed in its mission to destroy the Babri Masjid and build the Ram Temple in its place. Even the Police Commissioner of Bombay during the riots (it had not become Mumbai then), Shrikant Bapat, told the Srikrishna Commission that it was not LK Advani’s rath yatra that had been the cause of communal riots. It was the Muslims who opposed the rath yatra by “unconstitutional” means, ie on the streets, who had created the tension.

Well, those obstacles were constitutionally removed by the Supreme Court last year. So the triumphalist tone of Wednesday’s Ayodhya celebrations was only to be expected. Relishing the victory, every speaker at Ayodhya, including the prime minister, referred to the “balidaan aur sangharsh’” that had led up to it. But whose balidaan? Only those who were shot in Ayodhya in the 1990s? Do we need to count the number of Hindu and Muslim lives lost in the Ayodhya campaign to conclude that the balidaan was unfairly borne, in fact extracted, from one community?

The prime minister compared this balidaan aur sangharsh to the sacrifices made during the freedom struggle. There is no comparison. In no way was every section of society united in the movement for the Ram Mandir and against the Babri Masjid — unless he meant every section of Hindu society alone.

From the Sangh Parivar — on Wednesday, the family relationship was on national television — a lens that wipes out Muslims from view is only to be expected. But what of the electronic media? Many popular channels had banner headings saying Jai Siyaram, sadiyon ka khatm intezaar, Prabhu Sri Ram ka khatm vanvaas, sapna ho raha saakaar, with bhajans as background music. Whose sapna and whose intezaar?

Isn’t it the responsibility of the media to acknowledge both sides of a dispute that has finally been resolved? The shilas their cameras zoomed in on were bricks that had been carried throughout the country, from Mumbai’s suburbs to villages hitherto untouched by communal violence, amid slogans directed against “Babar ki aulaad’” and those “traitorous” Hindus who objected to the destruction of the Babri Masjid.

The Srikrishna Commission Report was never implemented, but a Hindu judge’s acknowledgement of State apathy and police prejudice against Muslims, and his clear indictment of top police officers as well as the powerful Bal Thackeray at a time when he controlled Maharashtra, went a long way in restoring Muslims’ lost faith in the system. Among the few who struggled with the riot victims to get the report implemented, were Hindus as well as Muslims. Maybe these two factors helped to some extent in Mumbai’s riot victims — both Hindu and Muslim — retaining their personal bonds with the ‘other’ community, howsoever terrible their personal loss.

But in the run-up to Ayodhya’s grand bhumi pujan, there is no acknowledgement of the destruction of lives of fellow citizens, neither by the constitutional Head of State, nor by the ruling party, nor the Opposition, not even by the media. The apex court had acknowledged this destruction, but its order nullified it and in fact, led to yesterday’s spectacle.

What will this lead to? One has little hope from a State that blacks out the suffering of its largest minority. One does however, have immense hope from the ordinary people who make up the majority. You don’t have to go far back. Only look at the way people have helped one another during the pandemic, even after Muslims as a community were demonised for spreading it.

Our version of secularism has survived despite the State, in the everyday dealings of people.

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