Winning The Land, Losing The Country

Supreme courtofIndia

There are many  dreadful things we all know about human societies and institutions, which are absolutely true and yet we like to think otherwise, lest we come across as being too cynical. Even more so we live in the hope that, some of our wishful thinking about how things really are, will rub off on reality and magically produce a better world.

Many of us realize for example that, while it has been fashionable to claim democracy as a system ‘of, for and by the people’,  the sad truth is that these faceless people – unless they are organised or armed – count for nothing.  Modern constitutional democracies, even the best of them,   are not really meant to protect the rights of ordinary citizens, but only those of elites or warlords – in order to maintain their privileges or prevent them from quarreling endlessly and plunging entire nations into chaos.

We also look up eagerly to the courts for justice but judicial systems – while sworn to apply the same laws fairly to all citizens – are usually more deferential to those who wield power than those who don’t. Not just the courts, but the entire machinery of modern nation-states works only to assure every warlord, that as ‘platinum card’ members of the exclusive club called the ‘country’ – their rights will take precedence over that of the general population.

And yet for all this dose of realism in our thinking, when the supposedly learned judges of the Indian Supreme Court pronounced their final verdict, in the century and a half old Ayodhya case, there was deep disappointment. By applying two different criteria to judge the claims of Hindus and Muslims to the disputed land, the highest court in the land officially announced it can no longer be expected to uphold the Indian Constitution equally for all citizens and groups. And by doing so, the highest court in India has today quietly exited from,  not just the ‘inner’ or ‘outer’  courtyards, but the entire temple of justice itself.

The five-judge bench unanimously handed over the 2.7 acres of land, where a 500 year old mosque once stood and believed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram – to the Hindu claimants. The judgment refers to many secular principles and also chastises the Hindu organisations for pursuing their cause using criminal means – such as forcibly placing an idol of Ram inside the mosque in 1949 or even worse using huge mobs to destroy the mosque altogether in 1992.

Despite this and after a series of homilies about the need for impartiality, the Court decided to reward the Hindus  – giving them possession of the disputed land – by placing their belief and faith above the fundamental rights of the Muslim litigants. Worse still, the Government of India, run by the same political forces that mobilised the mobs which demolished the mosque, has been asked to set up a ‘Trust’ to carry out the construction of a temple at the site.

There is no hiding the fact the supposedly learned judges have attempted a political settlement of the long-running dispute, without caring whether their interpretation of laws and evidence served the purpose of justice to all sides involved or not. One can only speculate why exactly they did this- whether due to pressure from the ruling government or out of some well-intentioned attempt to help with the ‘maintenance of peace’.

By deciding the case the way they did though – whimsically giving 5 acres of land to the Muslim litigants as compensation for example –  the learned judges have not behaved as a modern, national court of law but more like a khap panchayat deciding a village squabble. They have done this perhaps because the country’s politicians have not just failed to resolve but have been the reason for the dispute all these decades. But then does it mean that from now on, while Indian political organisations take law into their own hands, the judiciary will take on the role of political leadership?

While many, including the country’s leading political parties have hailed the verdict as ‘pragmatic’ and ‘balanced’, from a slightly longer historical perspective, it would not be wrong to compare their decision  to the vandalism, that brought down the Babri Masjid, nearly three decades ago.This is because the judgment has the potential to demolish, apart from rule of law in general, also the  foundations of the modern Indian nation-state itself.

Using flawed logic and considerations extraneous to what legal principles demand, to reward political forces that have utilised mob violence, threats and intimidation against all pillars of the Indian state  – the Supreme Court has essentially surrendered to extra-Constitutional forces.  More disturbingly, the 1048 page judgment has openly affirmed the RSS vision of India as a country where Hindus will be more equal than other religious communities, in the same way as in the caste system – some are more ‘Hindu’ than others.

The verdict will have serious consequences for the future of not just relations between Hindus and Muslims in the country, but also the various linguistic, regional and linguistic groups that have collectively come together to make up the Republic of India.

An clear message that has been sent out to all the different power centers around this vast and diverse nation, is that if you are willing to use wanton violence persistently to achieve your cause you will be proved right in the end by the courts themselves. Which raises the question, what was so specially different about the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, led by the RSS and BJP, compared to the Khalistani movement or the Naga militancy or even Maoist violence? Would the Indian judiciary ever imagine calling a petition for restoring forest rights to millions of displaced Adivasis or against the oppression of Dalits by upper caste Hindus – the ‘most important case in the world’?

There is an answer to that last question, which is that if your agitation happens to involve the demands of the upper-caste Hindus of the Indian cow-belt, it will be dealt with very differently than those emanating from other parts of India. After all, if the birthplace of Lord Ram had been in Manipur or Kerala instead of Uttar Pradesh would it have got so much attention and importance from the Supreme Court – even assuming there were to be an equally big agitation involved?

It is not just Muslims who have been ‘shown their place’ in modern India now but everyone who does not come from a certain part of the country or a certain section of Hindu society has been turned into a second class citizen. After such a biased judgment, designed to please those in power, why should anyone – not just religious minorities – but anybody without any clout or influence, approach this court anymore for justice in future?

As for the parties that benefited from the Ayodhya verdict, now preparing to build a grand temple to Lord Ram – on the ‘very spot’ where he was supposed to have been born – what they need to fear  most is that this moment of their seeming victory, may also be the hour of their greatest defeat.

One of the grand lessons of the Ramayana as well as the Mahabharata, the two great Hindu epics, has been about the immense tragedies that lie in store, when humans fight over dead property. A subtler theme emerging from both these epics is about how – after many penances and even war – those who think they have ‘won’ their kingdom, also face inevitable misery and decline.

The pseudo-Ram Bhakts, who are celebrating the Supreme Court judgment in their favour, should realize that while they have gained their petty 2.7 acres in the heart of Uttar Pradesh–this also the time they may well have lost the rest of India forever.

Satya Sagar is a public health activist and journalist who can be reached at [email protected]




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