Some Indian myths destroyed in a few moments of madness ONCE again, India has turned its darkest face to the world. Images of frenzy and bigotry are beamed across the globe; all is bloodiness and despair.
This is a self-image which educated Indians loathe. They are ingrained with a notion of their country as steeped in the non-violence of Gandhi. Hinduism, they constantly say, is all about tolerance: it has no orthodoxy, no limits and no extremes.
What happened in Ayodhya on Sunday with the destruction of the Babri Mosque was, to such people, much more than a wanton act; it was an abomination.
The distress was reflected in some of the most thunderous page-one editorials ever seen, even in a newspaper culture much given to front-page pontification.
“The nation must hang its head in shame,” wrote editor H. K. Dua on the front page of the Hindustan Times.
“The Republic Besmirched” lamented the headline in the Times of India. “The death of a dream” was the response of the Statesman. And, a shade surprisingly for a paper closely associated with the Ram temple movement, the Indian Express began its comment thus: “The outrage Ayodhya witnessed on Sunday is an affront to our national honour”.
The agonising over Ayodhya is certainly not confined to the urban English-reading elite.
All over this huge country there are perfectly decent people whose daily lives demonstrate tolerance and good neighbourliness. And yet what happened at Ayodhya cannot simply be explained away as the moronic act of a hoodlum fringe. It was much more sinister than that.
Ayodhya has been an issue for more than a hundred years, a hot issue for 45 years and an explosion waiting to happen for the past six years.
The first stirrings of Hindu resentment about the mosque were not, it seems, taken too seriously by the former colonial masters, except as an interesting case study of oriental folly.
Independence in 1947 changed all that. Within 30 months, the mouldering, barely used Babri Masjid (the mosque of Babar) had been violated by a Hindu mob who installed idols in what they insisted was the birthplace of their hero, Lord Ram. Thereafter the building was locked and put under guard, while Muslim and Hindu groups engaged in endless litigation about ownership.
In 1986, in a quintessential act of political expediency, Rajiv Gandhi ordered the temple to be reopened, as a sop to the Hindus in exchange for an earlier concession of special divorce to reopen the Babri Mosque and other personal legislation for Muslims.
India mourns for its Gandhi-inspired society of non-violence, says Derek Brown in New Delhi.
This cynical, silly manoeuvre was the signal for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Council of Hindus, to step up its 20-year campaign for a Ram temple to replace the mosque.
In 1988 the fast growing Bharatiya Janata Party added the temple to its list of right-wing, nationalist causes.
It worked like a dream, catapulting the party from two parliamentary seats to 88, in the elections of 1989.
Those elections brought Vishwanath Pratap Singh to power. But within a year, his minority
government crumbled after BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani led a noisy and violent motorised procession across India in support of the temple.
In the elections of 1991, the BJP again prospered, advancing to 119 seats. It might even have won power, had it not been for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the consequent sympathy wave for the Congress Party.
As a consolation prize, the BJP won an overwhelming majority in the state legislature of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Ayodhya was now in the party’s back yard.
In October last year, kar sevaks, or temple volunteers, made another at-tempt to take over the building.
In July this year there was yet another descent on Ayodhya. Each time, the frenzy of the kar sevaks was countered by wheeler-dealing, court orders and horse-trading between the central government and the BJP state bosses in Lucknow.
Four months ago, the BJP-VHP alliance announced a kar seva (temple construction meeting) on December 6.
The Government stalled, manoeuvred and finally appeared to hand over the whole matter to the Supreme Court. The outrage witnessed at Ayodhya an affront to the national honour of India, to decide the critical matter of ownership. Mr Advani sensed that he had been wrong footed again, and recreate his triumphal, bloody, procession of 1990.
At the 11th hour, with India on the brink, the main players managed one more time to move the abyss.
Mr Advani and his Hindu zealot partners announced that the kar seva would once again be a symbolic affair, comprising at the insistence of the Supreme Court prayers and hymn-singing at the site.
But it was, finally, too late. At least 100,000 kar sevaks had assembled at Ayodhya. They were emotionally fired up by religious zeal, physically perished by the north Indian winter and thoroughly fed up with their leaders’ tempo rising. Half an hour before the official ceremony on Sunday, the mob went hysterical.
It seems that the first rush to the mosque was only by a few hundred young men; the sort of impassioned yobs who in another culture would be looking for a good punch-up at a football match.
But the mob mentality quickly took over. Hundreds became thousands; thousands became a human tide.
In the face of such numbers, the police guard on the mosque was unable — and more to the point, unwilling — to resist. The handful of central-government-controlled paramilitary troops had no orders, it seems, to open fire.
The more numerous contingent of Uttar Pradesh-controlled Provincial Armed Constabulary had made no secret of their sympathy for the temple movement. They simply stood aside and watched the mosque being torn apart.
In a few moments of madness, important myths were destroyed along with the ancient masjid.
One, that the Government of Uttar Pradesh really meant to protect the building.
Two, that the VHP and its associate extremist groups had the discipline necessary to control the mob.
Three, that the BJP was committed, as a mainstream political movement, to strict observance of the Constitution and the maintenance of order.
Four, that the sagacious, low-profile Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, was the wily old fox of Indian politics, always able to outwit his rivals.
Mr Advani and the BJP have already paid the price. The Uttar Pradesh Government has been dismissed, Mr Advani has seen his dream of national leadership dissolve and the party itself, in the view of more than one observer, has committed political suicide by its association with fanatics.
For the Prime Minister, the reckoning has yet to come. The non-BJP opposition is baying for his political blood.
There are muted signals of a bid for the Prime Minister’s seat by senior ministers, including most powerfully Arjun Singh.
The Prime Minister’s worst enemies, however, are not in the Parliament or his own party.
They are on the streets of India, killing and destroying and turning the land of ahimsa, non-violence, into a place of terror.
If the communal violence does not subside soon, it is unlikely that the Prime Minister can survive.
(This is the article first published in The Guardian & later reproduced in the Canberra Times after the Babri Mosque demolition)