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6. Communalists and their communities

6.1 Hindu Society

In many press reports, it has been said that the Ayodhya conflict is a conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims. Upon closer inspection, that may not be entirely accurate.

JNU historian Bipan Chandra has often stated that the religious community is really a fictional entity which in people’s consciousness only blurs the real-life categories like socio-economical class. The sense of being a member of a religious community such as the Hindus or the Muslims is merely false consciousness, fostered by leaders who want to use the masses for their own social and political ambitions. While I do not subscribe to this Marxist view, I do recognize that in many cases the claim of communal leaders of being their entire community’s mouthpiece, is false.

Thus, it is very doubtful that the agitation against the 1985 Supreme Court ruling in the Shah Bano case, i.e. against a Muslim divorcee’s right to alimony, was an expression of the wishes of the 50% women in the Muslim community. And the Congress government’s decision to give in to this agitation was reprehensible not only for being a case of minority appeasement, but also for treating the vocal group of fanatical Muslims as the real representatives of the Muslim community , and ignoring the countercurrent of women’s organizations and intellectuals (including cabinet minister Mohammed Arif Khan).

So in the Ayodhya case, to what extent can we say that the agitation on both sides is supported by the communities concerned?

On the Hindu side, I find it striking how almost every person I questioned, has shed all shame of expressing his support for the Ram Janmabhoomi cause. Many people who in 1989, when questioned by this foreigner, still took care not to sound too involved (by calling it a false problem, a creation of the politicians, or by adding to their basic support to the cause a criticism of the VHP people etc.), now simply say : “Well, I am a Hindu. Of course I think the Mandir should be built.” The shooting of several hundreds of Kar Sevaks on November 2 has of course radicalized many half-hearted supporters.

Most of the people who panic about secularism in danger and write grim articles against the Janmabhoomi campaign, are only Hindus in name. Many of them are practicing communists, and most of them belong to the Western-educated elite who are convinced that Hinduism is India’s biggest problem. They are still a rather small minority among the Hindus. What is harder to assess, is how many “Backward” Hindus, who have supported V.P. Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav in their championing of the Backward Caste cause and the Mandal Report implementation, at heart supported these leaders on the Ayodhya issue. Most of my contacts with Indians have been in an urban setting, so my impression about the rural public opinion is not first-hand. But for what it is worth, I share the opinion of some journalists that many rural people who support the Mandir, would vote for Mulayam or V.P. Singh anyway, because of their stand on Mandal; which conversely means that the electoral support by Backward Hindus for the Janata Dal should by no means be taken as a head count of anti-Mandir opinion.

If both the Janata Dal (S) and Congress were so afraid of elections after V.P. Singh’s fall, it was because they knew that this time many people were going to vote for the Mandir party, and against the undecided and Masjid parties. Even after some papers reported that many villagers who declared they would vote for either Janata Dal because they wanted the Mandal recommendations to be implemented, eventhough they were just as much in favour of the building of the Mandir, the secularist parties did not want to take chances.

The support base for the Mandir is larger than the BJP electorate. It is a fact that Advani’s Rathyatra brought out far more people than Mulayam’s rallies for secularism, even when all the communist and Muslim fundamentalist organizations systematically attended the latter, and even while the state machinery had been used to mobilize for them. There is simply no honest doubt that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement had become a genuine mass movement, the biggest in Indian history, and not just an artificial creation for the BJP’s political gain.

The reason why most of the common Hindus could be mobilized for the Ram Janmabhoomi cause, is not that the Hindus have become so fanatical. On the contrary, it is because they perceive that the building of the Mandir and the relocating of the existing structure is a very reasonable and justifiable project. They all know that Muslim rulers have brought immense suffering over the Hindu population for destroyed, no fanatic needs to tell them that. And they have heard that the disputed place is in use as a temple since 1949, that it is functionally not a mosque at all, so the rule that any other community’s place of worship should be respected just doesn’t apply. They do not see why anyone should object to their replacing the existing structure with proper Hindu temple architecture. They consider it an entirely internal affair of the Hindu community, and they perceive the attempts to stop them as yet another aggression against Hinduism by its enemies.

6.2 The Muslim community

On the Muslim side, the picture is less solid. And it is less solid, because it does indeed take fanaticism to uphold the Babri Masjid cause. The Muslim leaders’ position is, in effect, that Hindus cannot take back any of the thousands of places of worship that have been stolen from them, but that they themselves can take possession of a flourishing Hindu temple, standing on a spot which the Hindus consider sacred, simply because it has been a mosque more than fifty years ago. The common Muslim, even if not informed about all the details of the matter, senses that this position is not equitable. That is why many ordinary people in the Muslim community are quite ready to leave the disputed site entirely to the Hindus, in exchange for more communal peace and a guarantee that no functioning mosques will be demanded for take-over by the Hindus.

The most outspoken defender of Muslim agreement to the building of a new Mandir on the disputed site and shifting of the Babri structure, has been Indian Muslim Youth Conference president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. He declared : “It is the duty of every nationalist Indian to protect the birthplace of Lord Rama to save India’s honour, prestige and cultural heritage.... Anti-national and communal activities of Muslim fundamentalists are a blot on the entire community… It is the duty of all nationalist Muslims to expose such designs and accept the truth.”1

He led a number of his organization’s members into participation in the kar Seva, and some of them even into Mulayam’s jails. It is also reported that two journalists, S.A. Naqvi and Tanveer Haider Usmani, president and vice-president of the Kanpur Press Club, “were arrested here today, together with some other Muslims, when they were going to Ayodhya for the proposed Kar Seva”.2 In this category are also the numerous Muslims belonging to the BJP and even to the Shiv Sena, including mr. Advani’s chauffeur during the Rathyatra, and BJP-leader Sikander Bakht, who flagged off the Rathyatra at the Somnath temple.

But there are also many anonymous Muslims, some of whom I talked to in teastalls or on trains, who are, in different degrees, willing to make the asked-for concession to the Hindu attachment to the disputed site. And some Muslims write to the papers to express what they think of it. Mr. M.N.H. Siddiqui from Lucknow proposes that “Muslims themselves should shift the mosque… Ram temple should be constructed in that place and Muslims should volunteer to contribute something to it as a gesture of goodwill… Amendment be made in the Constitution to the effect that the status quo of 1947 be maintained…”3

Abdul Moin from Lucknow writes :“All Muslims agree that namaz cannot be offered if the mosque is built on disputed land or by demolishing the temple… What is the harm if the mosque is shifted brick by brick to some other place? For a building can be shifted but not a birth place… We should agree to shift the mosque to some other place and thereby maintain peace and brotherhood in our country and show the world our secular credentials.”4

Ahmed Zakaria is quoted by Farzana Versey as saying : “There is absolutely no question of our identity being submerged. The Babri Masjid committee does not represent all Muslims. How can two or three people decide ?” And Farzana Versey, apparently summing up mr. Zakaria’s opinion, adds : “The issue is not the mosque. Most Muslims would not mind giving it away, but what after that ?”5 There is some apprehension that a concession will be a sign of weakness and will make the Hindus more aggressive. But the acceptance of the Hindu character of the disputed site is in itself not deemed unreasonable.

Replying to another letter-writer, mr. Azhar Ahmed Ansari from Meerut writes : “He is mistaken in believing that the Muslim minority values the existing structure in Ayodhya. The fact is that the Muslim masses set no store by this dilapidated edifice since its utility as a mosque is extremely doubtful with the presence of numerous idols… Although most of the icons are mutilated, they nevertheless remain what they are : an anathema to Islamic theology, ruling out namaz in their presence. The Muslim masses have begun to understand this situation as also the fact that no namaz has been offered here in the memory of any living person. As many as 18 Muslims hailing from Ayodhya and Faizabad have submitted an affidavit before the High Court bench hearing the Ram Janmabhoomi case, that the Babri Masjid is of no use to the followers of Islam since it contains icons.”6

Mr. Rafat Sayeed does not like to be pressured into handing over mosques, but “as the mosque has been made out to be a symbol of an unpleasant past and humiliation, as Abu Nadeem suggests, let an exception be made and the masjid shifted and rebuilt in an orderly manner under expert guidance.”7

Mr. Shad Kidwai advises his fellow Muslim : “I Invite all thinking Muslims to gift the Ayodhya mosque to the Hindus… Our magnanimity at this critical juncture will usher in an era of understanding and will, I am convinced, evoke an equally warm response from all thinking Hindus. But Muslims should justifiably demand a constitutional guarantee that the nature of all religious places as on August 15, 1947, will not be allowed to be altered.”8 A similar proposal has been made by Rasheed Talib9, which seems to have earned him the wrath of some Muslim leaders.10

And finally, there is none other than Asghar Ali Engineer, who has written : “The Muslims, in my opinion, should show magnanimity and [make] a noble gesture of gifting away the mosque…”11

The proposals made by these Muslims are not far removed from the one made by L.K. Advani on 13 August 1990.12 He suggested that Muslims leave the site to the Hindus, and promised that in return he would persuade the VHP leadership to even renounce its demand for the hand-over of the disputed sites in Mathura and Varanasi. Advani’s own supporters were not too happy with his proposals. One of them said : “You are saying to the Muslims: give us Ayodhya and then you can take the rest of India.” The VHP later declared that it could not agree to this give away of two sacred places, and BJP leader Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia said that mr. Advani had no authority to make such concessions on behalf of the Hindus. While the demand for the return of all the thousands of places of worship forcibly taken by Muslims is voiced only by an extremist fringe in the VHP and Bajrang Dal, the attachment to the three places specially dedicated to Shiva (the Kashi Vishvanath in Varanasi), Krishna (his Janmasthan in Mathura) and Rama is non-negotiable for most activist Hindus.

Even so, while Advani offered to renounce all claims, no matter how justified, to any disputed place beyond this one Ram Janmabhoomi, his offer was spurned by Syed Shahabuddin. He said that first raising the demand to three temple hand-over as a compromise was just an old merchant’s trick. As if the demand for the return of these sacred places is new and just a bargaining chip : the Hindus have rebuilt and reclaimed the Krishna and Shiva temples (as well as other demolished temples) many times, until Aurangzeb imposed the structures standing there till today. After independence, the demand for the handover of these three places was made in Parliament on September 1, 1961 by the Jan Sangh leader Balraj Madhok (who was to reiterate it in the same forum in 1968), even before the VHP came into existence.13 The demand for three temples was itself already very modest compared to the thousands of temples-turned-mosque which the Hindus could claim (it was, moreover, coupled with an offer to pay for the building of three fine mosques nearby). So, Shahabuddin’s reply had in reality nothing to do with bargaining chips and merchants’ tricks.

The real reason for refusing any deal on the disputed temple sites was more probably this. Since the Quran does not say that Muslims should make compromise with the Kafirs, Shahabuddin and other Muslim leaders who have a “Muslim India” in mind, could not but refuse every concession. It reminded the Hindus of that scene in the Mahabharat : the Pandavas offer the Kauravas the whole country except for five villages, whereupon the Kauravas declare they would not grant them even a speck of land the size of a pinhead. Of course, as Krishna pointed out to the Pandavas, with such self-righteous and intransigent fanatics, no compromise is possible. They have to be defeated.

This boundless self-righteousness on the part of certain Muslim leaders is bound to confirm the negative image that Islam has in the Hindu mind. The continued Muslim intransigence represented by a Shahabuddin genuinely angers many Hindus. And when the confrontation, which communalist leaders keep preferring to any kind of compromise, materializes into riots, it is the common Muslim, not the communalist leader, who is bearing the consequences. If only for his own safety, if only for some peace with his neighbours, the common Muslim is not averse to compromise. He is willing and able (with the open-mindedness which is a remarkably strong trait in the common people in India) to see the Hindu side of the controversy.

But these conciliating voices in the Muslim community have not been heard at all. Not by the V.P. Singh government, which has treated BMAC leader Abdullah Bukhari as a high-powered cabinet minister (the “Sarkari Imam”). Not by the government of Chandra Shekhar, who is closely linked with BMMCC leader Syed Shahabuddin. Certainly not by Mulayam’s Uttar Pradesh Ministry, counting among its members BMAC co-founder Mohammed Azam Khan. Nor even by Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress Party, whose spokesman M.J. Akbar uses the secularism plank as just another forum for the anti-Mandir and anti-Hindu campaign.14

What is far worse is that the secularist intelligentsia have joined the politicians’ effort to black out the conciliatory current within Muslim opinion, and have broadcast that very perception which is basic to the fanatic leaders’ stand, viz. that “Islam is in danger” and that absolutely no concession to “Hindu communalism” can be tolerated. The whole jeremiad of Muslims being a poor and persecuted community, of communal peace (i.e., for the ordinary Muslim, his own safety) standing or falling with the Babri Masjid, of Advani being a fascist out to destroy the Muslims, all this press hysteria was exactly what the Muslim communal leaders wanted the common Muslim to hear and believe. The opinion of some Hindu authors15, that secularist rhetoric is effectively a some screen behind which the Muslim communalists can steal a march, stands vindicated.

Fortunately, human nature is stronger than even Islamic fanaticism. When Chandra Shekhar formed his Cabinet, he kept several portfolios to himself, intending to give them to somewhat controversial friends. Who would be among the lucky ones ? The answer came in the form of a letter by Syed Shahabuddin, published in Indian Express on December 13, 1990. He wrote: “The law protects the Babri Masjid even if it was constructed on the site of a temple after demolishing it, but in the interest of communal amity, as a one-time exception, the Muslim community is ready to make the offer as a moral gesture, in accordance with the Shariat.”16 Here also, the question is legitimate whether he can really speak for “the Muslim community”. Nonetheless, it is fortunate that Syed Shahabuddin seems to prefer a ministerial post to the lost cause of Babri Masjid.

However, one Muslim’s temporary human weakness could not suffice for bringing the entire Muslim side to accepting the Hindu rights to the Janmabhoomi spot. With two rivaling Masjid Committees around, any concession would only be branded as a betrayal by the other committee. So, actually making a concession was very difficult, but even if made, it would not bring conciliation, since the other committee would not endorse it and continue threatening agitation if the Babri structure were touched.

So, even when after 2 November 1990 nobody in his right mind presisted in denying the Hindus the right to their sacred place, a decisive fraction in the Muslim leadership (supported by a decisive fraction in the secularist intelligentsia) continued to insist on confrontation. The arrangement which had seemed to be in the making, was forgotten and Syed Shahabuddin resumed his more familiar hard-line tirades. As with the Kauravas, no compromise with the Muslim fundamentalists.


  1. Quoted in Indian Express, 21/9/1990. And afterwards often quoted by Hindus, perhaps too often for his credibility among communally mobilized Muslims. 

  2. Hindustan Times, 31/10/1990. 

  3. Letter to the Pioneer, 28/11/1990. 

  4. Letter to the Pioneer, 28/11/1990. 

  5. Sunday Observer, 4/11/1990 ; emphasis mine. 

  6. Letter to Indian Express, 23/11/1990. Since this is much to many Hindus’ liking, some in the anti-Hindu camp might suspect that this letter was not written by a real Muslim : as if the phenomenon of pro-Babri Hindus cannot have its Muslim counterpart. Nonetheless, about a letter of similar content by one R. Naqvi (IE 29/11) Syed Shahabuddin wrote back that he had contacted the address mentioned but saw his letter undelivered, and concluded that it must have been a psuedo-Naqvi. Maybe that similarly those anti-Hindu Hindus are really pseudonmous Shahabuddins ? 

  7. Letter to Indian Express, 9/11/1990. 

  8. Letter to the Statesman, 12/11/1990, and to Indian Express, 13/11/1990. 

  9. Letter to the Hindustan Times, 6/11/90. 

  10. Letter by K.N. Seth, who quotes him, in Hindustan Times, 26/11/1990. 

  11. Communalism and Communal Violence in India (Ajanta Publ., Delhi 1989), p.320. 

  12. This was at a function in Himachal Bhavan, presided over by Girilal Jain, where two books were presented to the public and the press : Hindu Temples : What Happened to Them, by Arun Shourie and others; and the present writer’s book Ram Janmabhoomi vs. babri Masjid, a Case Study in Hindu-Muslim Conflict. 

  13. His two speeches, in Hindi, have been published as a booklet: Sri Rama Janma Mandir ke Navanirman ka Prashna, by the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. 

  14. The point that politicians should not marginalize the moderates within their own community by treating the hardliners as its true representative, is made compellingly by Arun Shourie in his Religion in Politics, Roli Books, Delhi 1989 (1987). 

  15. Especially Sita Ram Goel : Perversion of India’s Political Parlance, Voice of India, Delhi 1983. 

  16. Indian Express, 13/12/1990. Emphasis added.