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How the Babri mosque demolition reshaped Indian politics

How the Babri mosque demolition reshaped Indian politics
9 min read
13 December, 2022
In-depth: The historic Babri mosque was torn down by a mob of Hindu extremists thirty years ago, marking a major shift in Indian politics.

It's all the rage to call for the destruction of a mosque or a church in India today. Every few weeks, it seems like another place of worship is in the crosshairs, with Hindu activists filing petitions in courts or staging protests alleging that it was built on a Hindu temple, which must be rebuilt on the same site.

Such calls are part of a series of attacks against India’s minority communities, often incited by Hindu nationalist groups – including the national government – across the country.

"Hindu nationalism or Hindutva is a political ideology that advocates Hindu supremacy, specifically over Muslims who comprise around fourteen percent of modern India’s population," wrote Audrey Truscke, a historian of South Asia and an associate professor at Rutgers University, in a 2020 article for the South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal.

"The similarity in name notwithstanding, Hindutva is distinct from Hinduism, a broad-based religious tradition, although Hindutva ideologues seek to constrict and flatten Hindu traditions."

This dangerous political ideology has overseen the othering of Muslims over the past few years and can be traced back to perhaps the Hindutva movement’s first major success story - the illegal destruction of a mosque thirty years ago.

What happened

It was the late 1980s. India had been ruled by the Congress Party since 15 August 1947, when the country gained independence from the British Empire. National politics were about whether you supported the Congress Party or not, and Hindu nationalism was a fringe ideology.

It was amid this backdrop that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, a campaign to 'reclaim' the site of the birthplace of the Hindu deity Lord Ram, picked up steam. Hindu activists claimed that the Babri Masjid – a 16th-century mosque built during the reign of the first Mughal king Babur in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, had been built on the ruins of an erstwhile Hindu temple that marked the spot where Lord Ram had been born.

This crusade was pushed by the nascent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Organisation), which called for the construction of a Ram Temple in place of the mosque.

The movement peaked on 6 December 1992.

On that fateful Saturday, a 150,000-strong mob armed with pickaxes and rods gathered outside the Babri Masjid, chanting provocative slogans and proclaiming that the Babri Masjid must be replaced by the Ram Temple.

Eventually, some broke through the police cordon, and, quickly followed by the rest of the mob, proceeded to demolish the building.

This moment led to widespread riots across India, where bands of Hindu extremists targeted Muslims across the country. Around 2,000 people died in what was the worst communal violence since the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

The resulting court cases dragged on for years, and two key judgements were finally pronounced more than 25 years later. 

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In 2019, India’s Supreme Court awarded the disputed piece of land upon which the Babri Masjid once stood to the Hindu side, who were allowed to build a Ram Temple on the site. Muslims were awarded five acres of land elsewhere in Ayodhya to build a mosque.

The following year, a special court acquitted all those who had been involved in the mosque’s destruction, even though it is illegal to demolish a historic place of worship in India.

The Supreme Court judgement especially, argued many political pundits, was less of a legal decision and more of a political statement, one that seemed to have already accepted that India was a Hindu state – regardless of secular principles being enshrined in India’s Constitution. While the judgements were widely accepted across the political spectrum, they were seized on by Hindutva forces who used them to legitimise their violence.

"[Hindu nationalists] would like to construct a narrative as if the court has accepted their claim that the Hindu faith is supreme and there is no need to have history or archaeology in order to support it," Hilal Ahmed, Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, told The New Arab.

Hindu youths clamour atop the 16th century Muslim Babri Mosque five hours before the structure was completely demolished by hundreds supporting Hindu fundamentalist activists on 6 December 1992. [Getty]

Changing the landscape of India's politics

The demolition of the Babri Masjid was "the most significant triumph for Hindu nationalism since independence and the gravest setback to secularism," wrote Mark Tully, the BBC’s former chief correspondent in India who witnessed the mob tearing down the building.

His words appear to ring true today.

India’s political landscape until 1992 could be described as centred around the Congress Party, which had been in power since India’s independence in 1947. That would change once the iconic domes of the mosque came crashing down.

“The demolition of the Babri Masjid was the turning point that led to the new binary of Indian politics – secularism and communalism,” said Hilal Ahmed. 

The destruction entirely altered the conversation in Indian politics, and parties were forced to choose which side of the secular-communal divide they lay on.

The BJP was and remains virulently communal, and seeks to turn India into a Hindu state.

The events of 1992 propelled the party and their Hindutva ideology into the national consciousness, but, looking back thirty years later, it is unclear how far their political significance reaches.

The BJP did not win any immediate elections after the mosque’s destruction – they even lost local elections in Uttar Pradesh in 1993 – and the issue slowly fell by the wayside.

It has rarely been used as a campaign plank by major political parties, including those that opposed its demolition, and has become a symbol of the power of Hindu nationalist violence that is occasionally brought up to make a point.

"Gradually, the entire issue lost its electoral value, and precisely for that reason it became a symbolic issue," said Ahmed.  

Impact on Hindu-Muslim relations

It is difficult to gauge the impact of the destruction of the mosque and the imminent construction of the Ram Temple on Hindu-Muslim relations in India, as it is only one moment in several conflicts that have erupted between the two communities.

What is clear, however, is that the events of 1992 are essential to contemporary Hindutva ideology.

First, they are crucial to the idea of Hindu victimhood.

The idea of victimhood is key to justifying the existence of many ethnic and religious nationalist movements. In this case, Hindu nationalists claim that the erstwhile Muslim or Mughal kings – a powerful Muslim dynasty that ruled India for 300 years – destroyed ‘thousands’ of temples and replaced them with mosques – with little or no archaeological evidence.

The destruction of the Babri Masjid - a Mughal-era mosque claimed to be built on the site of a temple - is therefore viewed as a great success story to symbolise Hindus taking back the land that they claim rightfully belongs to them.

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"Hindu victimhood would entirely be meaningless if [Hindu nationalists] do not evoke the memories of Hindu subjugation during the Mughal times, or even before that," said Hilal Ahmed.

"Therefore, there is a need to have some kind of concrete evidence – and Babri Masjid and the desecration of Hindu temples during medieval times is something which they always evoke in order to legitimise their claim."

Secondly, both the destruction of the mosque and the Ram Temple are also important symbols of Hindutva today.

For Hindu nationalists, the existence of the Babri Masjid itself is no longer relevant; it is the Ram Temple that has become of utmost importance, according to Ahmed.

"The BJP […] worked very systematically to erase the memory of destruction, and [replace it] with a temple, and say the destruction of the mosque was basically a reaction of the Hindus, so that some kind of historical justice can be achieved," he said.

The construction of the Ram Temple on the same spot would be "concrete evidence to show that the process of Hindutva-isation - or a process by which India will become genuinely Hindu in the true sense of the term - is complete," he added.

Hindu fundamentalists attack the wall of the 16th century Babri Masjid Mosque with iron rods at a disputed holy site in the city of Ayodhya on 6 December 1992. [Getty]

The Ram Temple’s foundation stone was laid on 5 August 2020 by Prime Minister Modi – an appropriate symbol of his government leaving behind the trappings of secular India by inaugurating this contentious temple.

"The new Ram Mandir [Temple] in Ayodhya celebrates this violent exercise of Hindu supremacy, in which a modern myth about the past can justify the mass slaughter of Muslims," wrote Audrey Truschke.

"Appropriately, if horrifyingly, Narendra Modi showed up for the Ram Mandir groundbreaking ceremony appearing as an incarnation of a martial Ram, complete with a crown."

Interestingly, the issue has largely been ignored by Muslims, especially since the early 2000s, according to Hilal Ahmed, and bears little consequence on Muslim politics today.

"In the 2000s, when we asked the question 'do you think Babri Masjid is an important issue to you?' during our surveys, roughly 30-40% of Muslims said it was an important issue – but to the rest of the Muslims, it was a non-issue," said Ahmed.

"Because there was virtually nothing there, it was not at all a Muslim issue for the entire Muslim community of India."

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The demolition of the Babri Masjid was a crucial moment in modern Indian history. However, it retains little significance beyond symbolism and is largely kept alive by Hindutva idealogues to hold up as a major success story in ‘reconquering’ land that was stolen from them.

Several events since then – such as Narendra Modi’s election as Prime Minister in 2014 - are deemed more significant by political pundits in explaining the modern rise of Hindutva hegemony.

Secular parties and Indian Muslims have largely moved on, forced to engage with the dominance of Hindutva on its own terms. The fact that the mosque, a heritage structure, was illegally destroyed is now forgotten.

As Truschke tweeted in July 2020, "The Babri Masjid’s premodern story is, well, very premodern. It does not serve modern political interests, and that’s why we hear about it less."

But the acquittal of those involved in the mosque’s destruction has been viewed as a success by Hindu extremists, and they aim to replicate this achievement to destroy more mosques and ‘reclaim’ ancient Hindu sites – most notably the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Eidgah in Mathura.

Recent calls for the destruction of Muslim and Christian religious structures "are certainly linked to the desecration of Hindu temples narrative," argued Hilal Ahmed. "They have found a new resonance and political significance precisely because for Hindutva, the Babri Masjid issue is a success story."

This is how the Babri Masjid’s example is largely being used today – not as a social issue or a political plank, but as a template to follow to further Hindutva’s violent goals.

"So the afterlife of Babri masjid from a sociological point of view is this," Ahmed said, "that for Muslims it is a non-entity, but for the radical Hindu and Hindutva type, there is a need to keep that memory alive."