Anatomy of a Confrontation: The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhumi Issue
The future of India may have been prefigured in early 1990 in a riot between Hindus and Muslims which took place in the town of Mathura, two dusty hours drive from New Delhi. The violence broke out after a procession of Hindus carried a statue of Ganesha, a Hindu god, to the wall of the seventeenth-century mosque in the town’s center, and proceeded to install it in a niche previously cut into the wall. Local Muslims, enraged by this insult to their sacred precincts, ran to the mosque, and soon stones started flying. For two days mobs surged through the streets, leaving perhaps three hundred people injured and forty houses and shops gutted. Not long afterward, the Hindu leader who had organized the Ganesha procession was arrested.
I went to Mathura to see for myself how the rioting had started, and I had tea with a senior police officer, who told me that the Hindu ringleader had knowingly incited the riot, and deserved harsh punishment. Later I talked to a recently elected municipal representative, a member of the Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party (BJP), who saw the case differently. The arrest was a miscarriage of justice, he said, because all the man had done was “assert his Hindu identity.” On Mathura’s walls one could read the same resentment, in hundreds of graffiti: “Say it with pride, I am a Hindu.”
The Mathura riot was a scuffle compared to subsequent Hindu-Muslim clashes in which hundreds have died, but the diametrically opposed views of the policeman and the politician captured the heart of the political conflict that is sweeping India today. The challenge comes from the Hindu nationalists, a movement nearly as old as the ruling Congress Party itself, but until recently unable to win converts to its message of Hindu chauvinism and its claim that secularism amounts to suppressing the authentic Hindu heritage of the subcontinent.
During the past three years Hindu nationalists have shaken the country with a poisonous and divisive campaign to claim a dilapidated mosque, which they say marks the birthplace of the god Rama, the avatar hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana. That movement has set off dozens of riots, while the BJP, the movement’s political party, has steadily improved its electoral position, rising from 7.4 percent of the vote and 2 seats in the 1984 elections to the 545-seat lower house, to 11.4 percent and 88 seats in 1989, and then to 23.2 percent and 119 seats in the 1991 elections.
The Hindu nationalists want to sweep away the concept of secular nationalism that Nehru, and to some extent Mahatma Gandhi, made into India’s founding political credo. Nehru had a socialist’s disdain for religion, and he believed that India’s survival depended on purging its politics and national identity of all sectarian impulses. Understandably, the deaths of perhaps a million people in riots at the time of partition only reinforced his thinking. Nehru insisted on a strictly secular discourse in politics—appeals on religious lines are expressly…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.