Tolerating the intolerant

Thursday, 21 Oct, 2010

The Ayodhya dispute is hardly a Hindu-Muslim issue and it would be more realistic to see it as a contrived stand-off fanned by a pseudo-secular state to keep its citizens off balance.

If anything, the tussle really is between Hindu-Muslim secularism versus Hindu-Muslim communalism. The Indian state perceives aggressive secularism as a greater challenge to its authority. It needs communalism as an ally.

By contrast, the ancient and mediaeval states in India were ahead of their times. The pre-Mughal state, for example, produced Kabir who could deliver a tongue-lashing to Muslim and Hindu priests with equal ferocity. Today the state sends an aging artist into exile for alleged blasphemy and hands over the reins of power to communal satraps in economic powerhouses like Gujarat and Maharashtra, not without a purpose.

Legends of Ram — and there were several — preceded the advent of the modern Indian state. However, the new state found the eclectic pantheism they spawned to be a problem for its purposes. It thus gleefully welcomed a high court verdict in which one of the judges had sought to legitimise one of several narratives about Ram. Semitic traditions never allowed rainbow beliefs as religions born in India did. But this may now be changing, and for the worse.

As far as Lord Ram’s story goes historian Ram Puniyani has discussed several versions of the Ramayana. Some of these, like Valmiki’s Ramayana and Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas, are more popular. A Buddhist Jataka version of Ram Katha shows Dashrath as the ruler not of Ayodhya but of Varanasi. This tale shows Ram to be the follower of Buddha.

Jain versions of the Ramayana show Ram as the propagator of anti-Brahminical Jain values, especially as a follower of non-violence. In both versions Ravana is not projected as a villain but a great soul dedicated to the quest of knowledge. He is a spiritual mystic with majestic command over his passions. He is a sage and a responsible ruler.

Popular and prevalent songs of Telugu Brahmin women keep the women’s concern as the central theme and present alternate perspectives. These songs present Sita as finally victorious over Ram and in these Surpanakha, the sister of Ravana, succeeds in taking revenge on Ram.

Then there is the Korean belief that puts the Ayodhya narrative in a completely different light. The Korean government has been sending delegations to Ayodhya for the last several years after they came to know that their Queen Ho was a native princess of the temple town.

According to the Korean legend, one of their most famous queens, Queen Ho, was a princess of Ayodhya. Around 2,000 years ago, when Buddhism was spreading its wings in India, the princess became a disciple of the religion and started preaching in Ayodhya. The prince of the Karak dynasty of Korea heard about her beauty and came to India to marry her.

A follower of Buddhism, Queen Ho is said to be instrumental in spreading Buddhism in Korea as she took 22 Buddhist monks along with her. As many as 75 per cent of South Koreans are Buddhist and almost all the top office bearers hail from the Karak dynasty into which Queen Ho was married.

Ayodhya itself was known by its Buddhist name Saket. Where is the room in all this for any serious judge to take a stand about who was born where in order to settle a contrived dispute? Indians were worshipping Ram in Ayodhya without any fuss about which square yard exactly he was born in.

To understand this perverse tangle, we must acknowledge that religious harmony is not about peace between different religions, which I think is the easier part. There is a greater threat to society from frictions within notionally similar religious units. Churchill and Hitler were both on the same side of the religious fence and in a way even shared a racist worldview. Godse and Gandhi could have been praying together on the fateful day when one Hindu killed the other.

Mordechai Vanunu blew the whistle on Israel’s nuclear secrets and Chomsky applauded. Both Jews are hated by the Jewish state. Bhutto and Zia committed their biggest blunders by trying to prove their Islamic credentials, often to disinterested Pakistanis.

In fact a little discussed irony about the so-called global war on terror, which President Obama has renamed as something less known, is that its trigger lay in a quarrel between two staunch Muslims of the same sect — the two being the king of Saudi Arabia and Osama bin Laden. To turn the struggle between the Saudi rivals into a Christian-Jew-Hindu alliance against Islam was the work of spin doctors, probably subsidised by the Saudi monarchy and India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Therefore, instead of uprooting the political arrangements in Afghanistan and Iraq, had the world intervened to accommodate its former Mujahideen ally, Osama, in the administration of Riyadh — as it is now nudging President Karzai to adjust with the Taliban — it could have saved everyone a catastrophic turbulence. But that would not be expedient for Aramco and similar powerful interest groups.

In India there are two dominant communal forces and both are patronised by the Indian state. The Ayodhya controversy is played out by its pliant media as a contest between Hindus and Muslims over a remote mosque in the backwaters of the country. The fact is that the issue has helped consolidate Hindu and Muslim identities that could perish without such disputes.

It was not a coincidence that the BJP, a religious revivalist party, went into top gear to stall a caste-based revival of Indian polity in 1990. By 1992 its supporters had demolished the Babri mosque. The real reason for the demolition was the Mandal Commission, which sought to virtually restructure an entire community into Ahir, Jat, Gujar, Yadav kind of caste formations that were older than the ancient Indian state.

The move threatened to decimate not just the BJP but also the Congress party, both leaning on upper caste leadership. The Muslim clergy was given legitimacy by Indira Gandhi’s decision to sanction the formation of the Muslim Personal Law Board. But its upper caste Muslim clerics too felt threatened by Mandal politics.

Both needed the Ayodhya dispute to preserve their fictitious identities. The state needs both to shepherd its flock of disparate citizens who more than religion are asking for healthcare, education, jobs and a right to conserve the environment. Ayodhya offers the most regressive sections of Hindus and Muslims a lifeline. It is expedient for the Indian state to tolerate the intolerant.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.