India's Babri Masjid: A verdict built on historical half-truths

Babri, we hardly knew ye

Last week’s ruling from India’s Allahabad High Court on the title ownership of the land where the Babri Masjid was located has left the Indian Muslim community dazed and confused. The ruling stated that the site of the Babri Masjid, torn down by Hindu extremists in 1992 and leaving more than 8,000 dead in the aftermath, should be equally divided among three parties: Muslims, Hindus and Nirmohi Akhara (a Hindu group).

A number of voices from within and outside the Indian Muslim community have offered opinions ranging from surrendering all claims in the name of creating goodwill to the stance that not even an inch of the site could be conceded. As these competing options battle it out it may be a good idea to probe if any lessons and generalizations can be gleaned from this entire saga.
First of all, there appears to be no such thing as a coordinated Muslim leadership on the national level. As Syed Shahabuddin of the All India Majlis-e-Mushawarat recently put it: ‘There is no such thing as a Muslim leadership.’ The problem has become acute in the light of the court decision as the masses now realise that they are now ‘leaderless.’

As such, the vacuum has allowed Hindutva forces to politicize this issue for electoral benefits. They might have been hampered in their attempts if what Muslim leadership that exists hadn’t succumbed to their machinations, allowing the issue to be further exploited nationally. There was also the parallel controversy over a Muslm woman, Shah Bano, who received, under court order, alimony prescribed by sharia rather than that prescribed by the state. Incensed Hindu groups on the right then lumped the issue with the Babri Masjid dispute.

Prof. Tahir Mahmood, in his memoirs, writes that he warned a veteran Muslim leader against accepting the existing narrative, but he was rebuked. He writes, “In my opinion the Babri mosque dispute was indeed a local issue which Muslim religious leaders later turned into a national – and Hindu politicians misusing Hinduism into an international issue.” Such wise counsel went unheeded and the community now has to bear the consequences.

There are also well meaning individuals who have called on Indian Muslims to give up their claims and pave the way for the construction of a grand temple. This course of action is tantamount to communal suicide, as this will further embolden the fascists in the country who now think that they are being rewarded for their actions.

In any case, giving up rights will not solve the issue. Now that the court has delivered its ruling, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a militant Hindu organization spearheading the construction of a new temple on the Babri Masjid site, has demanded that the Indian Muslims should give up two other sites where mosques stand on lands Hindus claim as their own, Kashi and Mathura, as well, without offering anything in return.

The best thing under these circumstances for the Muslim community will be to proceed with this case to the Supreme Court and accept the final verdict. Let there be no mass mobilization on the issue any more. But the real history of the Indian subcontinent, which is fairer to Muslims, needs to be uncovered, organized, and promoted.

Throughout the Babri Masjid saga the Muslim intelligentsia, scholars, and leaders did not adopt a pro-active approach in creating awareness about Muslim history. They remained content with the adequate research provided by scholars of repute like Romila Thapar, when further updated studies might have helped clarify things.

In direct contrast, the pro-temple movement utilized a large number of scholars to churn out tomes of their biased and grossly unscientific versions of history to support their claims. They carried this propaganda in the academia as well as in the public. As a result, we now have a situation where a significant number of people believe that Muslims were destroyers of temples and persecutors of Hindus.

This propaganda succeeded in creating the impression that this conflict is essentially about latent Hindu grievances, which have been nurtured for centuries. This half-truth and grossly inaccurate version of history neglects the fact that the Muslims have equally suffered in India since time immemorial. There is documentary evidence to show that Hindu rulers, Sikh soldiers, Parsis, and foreign colonists destroyed hundreds of mosques. Hundreds more have been destroyed, desecrated, or occupied since 1947.

Everyone associates ancient Mughal rulers such as Mahmood, Babur, and Aurangzeb with temple destruction. But no one seems to know that the Portuguese General Afonso De Albuquerque had destroyed scores of mosques in 1507. No one remembers that soldiers of the Kakatiya Dynasty indulged in destroying and desecrating mosques despite being in alliance with the dynasty of the Adil Shahis. No one remembers that in the thirteenth century the Parsis in the Cambay had instigated Hindus to demolish the minaret of a mosque and burn it to ground. No one remembers that Sikh soldiers had occupied Delhi’s Jame Masjid in the aftermath of 1857 and converted it into horse stables.

Such examples abound but Muslims took no serious interest in uncovering and publicising these instances. Doing so would have taken the winds out of the sails of the Hindutva movement’s attempts to stoke fires based on artificially constructed historical memories.

It is about time that Indian Muslims do their homework and correct the half-truth versions of history.

Ayub Khan is a researcher on South Asian affairs

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