There is a growing demand for a final resolution of the Ayodhya issue. In the backdrop of Vishwa Hindu Parishad rally, and growing mobilisation around it, it is timely to revisit the significance of the Ayodhya movement
Numerous Hindu temples were destroyed over the many centuries of Islamic invasions and domination of regions of India, as is detailed in both Islamic and Hindu records and can be observed in the destruction and defacement of Hindu sacred sites all over the country. We can still see the temple walls behind the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi that was built over the famous Kashi Vishvanath Shiva temple by Aurangzeb, or the Shahi Eidgah that Aurangzeb built after destroying built over Krishna Janmabhoomi in Mathura. Somnath was destroyed rebuilt many times. These are but a few examples that can go into the thousands.
We note a strange paucity of Ram temples in North India, which seems quite odd given the prominence of the worship of Sri Ram in India throughout the centuries. Most notably, though there are hundreds of sacred sites relative to the Ramayana in Ayodhya today, no ancient grand temples to Sri Ram have survived, as would have likely been there.
Either no Ram temples were built, which is illogical, or the temples that were constructed were destroyed, and new Ram temples were not allowed – all of which are known to be the case. That Sri Ram was not only a spiritual figure but the ideal king and emperor of India made destroying his temples necessary to justify state control and domination for foreign rulers who wanted to establish the legitimacy of their rule that was not based upon the principles of Dharma or the Ram Rajya long embedded in the psyche of India as representing the country and its enduring civilization.
Babri Masjid was built upon one of the most prominent sites in Ayodhya, on land fit for a temple and seems quite out of place in the middle of so many ancient Hindu sacred sites. Archaeologists led by Prof. BB Lal and KK Mohammed of the Archaeological Survey of India excavated the remains of a grand Vishnu temple nearby. India’s Congress Party supported Marxist thinkers who challenged this data, not so much on archaeological grounds in which they were not trained but on political grounds, as it could promote a Hindu revival in India that was dangerous for them electorally.
The facts are clear. Ayodhya is historically the most famous Hindu sacred city and the place of Sri Ram and his birth. The Babri Masjid was constructed over what was the temple birthplace of Sri Ram after its destruction. While that was nearly five hundred years ago, ancient traditions in India are still very much alive, and the expropriation of the site was never accepted by the Hindus. Hindu sentiments on the issue have continued if not increased through the years and the various outside efforts to keep the Ayodhya site out of their control.
Since 1992, when the Babri Masjid structure was torn down by Hindu activists, the Ram Janmabhoomi site has functioned a Hindu pilgrimage site where a murti of Rama is worshipped by a regular stream of Hindu pilgrims. The site is de facto a Hindu place of worship and should be recognised as such. While the courts have not given the site back to the Hindus, they have allowed Hindu worship to go on, and no Islamic worship, a de facto ruling in favour of the Hindu possession of the site. They have stopped short from resolving the case in favour of the Hindus, a suspension of responsibility for which Hindus mainly suffer.
Meanwhile, the Nehruvian and Leftist media of image used the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992 to portray Hindus as intolerant destroyers of legitimate mosques, again denying and mispresenting Hindu sentiment further. Little was said of the real history of the Islamic destruction of Hindu temples or the priority of Ayodhya as a Hindu sacred region.
The Legal Issue of Ownership
Hindu groups have long tried to reclaim Ram Janmabhoomi over the centuries and never gave up the idea it was theirs. Many battles were fought over it. Hindus continued to worship at Babri Masjid and its environs as Rama’s birthplace. Disputes continued under British colonial rule. The British ruled that the site originally belonged to the Hindus but was forcefully taken over by the Muslims, but noted that it was too old an event to give it back to them. In 1934 another agitation occurred. Babri Masjid was hardly ever used by the Muslims, and many more Hindus went there for a pilgrimage to honour Ram Janmabhoomi.
Hindus felt that the site should naturally go back to them after independence and the partition of the country in 1947, particularly since they lost so many of their temples and sacred sites in Pakistan, whose Islamic government did not hesitate to remove them.
After independence, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had little regard for traditional Hindu practices, opposed the popular movement to reclaim Ram Janmabhoomi, fearing it would lead to a Hindu revival in the country that might go against him politically. His disregard was quite odd as Mahatma Gandhi was a Ram devotee and also spoke of Ram Rajya, the dharmic governance epitomised by Sri Ram. By then, the Mahatma was no more, and the Ram Rajya of the Independence Movement was not allowed to manifest in any Ram temple in Ayodhya.
The pursuit of Ram Rajya, we should note, was one of the great inspirations of India’s Independence Movement and its leaders from the beginning, as is well documented. Illustrations from the Ramayana can be found on the original versions of India’s constitution. Independent India was regarded as a continuation of Ram Rajya, not as a new modern nation or an entirely new political rule.
In 1949 murtis of Rama and Sita were found at Ayodhya and Hindus reclaimed it again. Instead, the case was consigned to the courts, with the site locked up where it lingered with little action, fearing that any decision would cause a political backlash. The murtis (idols) were not removed and were allowed to stay, though Nehru tried to get them removed.
Because of Nehru and his followers, there was no reclamation of Ram Janmabhoomi after India’s independence. There was no real reclamation of any major older Hindu sacred sites, except Somnath, which Nehru also opposed.
Nehru promoted a movement away from the Ram Rajya inspiration of the Independence Movement and its leaders. He replaced India’s intellectual leaders with those of the left, extending to dedicated communists for whom Ram was anathema and any Hindu revival a great political and intellectual threat to their power or their ideology. Later Congress leaders followed Nehru’s lead in opposing the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.
This means the Ram Mandir issue is not merely a struggle between Hindus and Muslims, but a struggle between Hindus/Bharatiyas and so-called modern secular Indians, many of which are Hindus by birth. It is a struggle in the Indian psyche between a modern leftist/Marxist view of India and India’s ancient dharmic identity as the land of Bharat and Ram Rajya.
Meanwhile many countries that became independent in modern times removed monuments and even churches or mosques that had been built by foreign rulers over those of the native people. This included countries like Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia that had become free of Turkish rule.
India as a vast country with an ancient history should be granted this right to reclaim important ancient sacred sites as well, particularly for its Hindu community. Pakistan meanwhile has removed numerous Hindu, Jain and Sikh shrines. The Nehruvian betrayed the Hindus and their concerns, perpetuating the shadows of Islamic and British rule over them.
While Muslims partitioned India in favour of Pakistan to honour their religion, Hindus weren’t even given Ram Janmabhoomi back, their most sacred site. It was as if the independence of India was built on further suppression of the Hindus and was a new form of alien rule. Naturally, this has only made the Hindus feel unjustly treated and seeking vindication for their grievances.
Such an ancient historical site as Ayodhya is not a matter of modern property rights but enduring cultural values and community sentiments, including faith and tradition. India has long been a spiritual country defined by dharma. This is its unique civilisational value. It cannot be judged by modern political standards, particularly of one group only. Hindus deserved more after independence and continued to look forward to the reclamation of Ayodhya as a sign of their true religious and cultural freedom and renaissance.
Ayodhya was never an area where many Muslims resided. We don’t find any great display of Islamic devotion or concern for the site or any other important Muslim places of worship in the environs of Ayodhya. Babri Masjid was never a major pilgrimage site in India for the Muslims comparable to their main sacred sites like Ajmer Sharif. Muslims outside of India never heard of Ayodhya nor was it ever subject to the types of Islamic pilgrimage we find to Muslim sacred sites in the Middle East.
Many Shia Muslim groups are willing to give up the Ayodhya site today, which they claim was originally a Shia mosque, and so would have the rights over. Note that Saudi Arabia itself as a strictly orthodox Islamic country has destroyed most of the mosques in the country asunder Wahhabi law, Muslims should not worship any monuments.
However, some Muslim groups in India, mainly certain Sunni groups, have taken up the case and asked for the Ayodhya site to be given back to them. They continue to litigate and contest the case. However, the weight of sentiments in the case belongs to the Hindus for whom Ayodhya is their most important sacred site and Rama their great avatar, while for the Muslims it is at most a minor site mainly of political value, not of religious devotion.
Ayodhya is not an issue of a Hindu-Muslim dispute over a site of great sanctity to both Hindus and Muslims but certain Islamic groups, with leftist support, wanting to prevent Hindus from rising again, which they fear a Ram Temple in Ayodhya would encourage.
Today worldwide people are asked to respect the sentiments of Islam, in spite of numerous Islamic terrorist attacks in many countries. Peaceful Hindus do not find that their religious sentiments are respected, even by those who are now willing to respect Islam. This makes Hindus feel that their religious and spiritual views are not honoured or given equality with those of other religions, particularly those seeking to convert them. Similarly, other indigenous people throughout the world like the Native Americans are also asking for their sacred lands back and in some cases meeting with more sympathy than the Hindus.
Hindus continue to witness their sentiments disregarded, even though they are a majority in India, while the sentiments of minority religions, even in matters of sacred sites continue to receive more respect from forces both from inside and outside the country. This is particularly true for the young Hindus today who commonly take up temple pilgrimage and wonder how their sacred sites could be so neglected. Even today Ram Janmabhoomi appears like a war zone with fences, military and towers, though it is the site of the avatar of Dharma. Such disrespect weighs heavily on the hearts and minds of devotees who find it unacceptable and adharmic, particularly for the birthplace of the avatar of dharma.
(The writer is the director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies and an expert on yogic and Vedic traditions)