The Babri memory

Babri is a space for living with differences, and making sense of them. It is a kaleidoscope which cannot be treated simply as a lens.

Babri Masjid is today a photo-montage of images, with each image capturing one angle of a strange and kaleidoscopic event. Babri is also a failure of storytelling because each separate story demands a different sense of ending, and a different idea of consequences.

The scrapbook of photographs reveals the picture of kar sevaks standing on the site as if a battle had been won. Flip the page and we see Uma Bharti gloating over the victory. Shift to a newspaper and one reads that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao watched quietly as Babri happened.
Just think of the narrative. Do we think of Babri as folk legend or history? Do we say, “Once there was a temple and a mosque…” or do we say, “On so and so date, a structure was built”? History demands specific dates. History pins you like a butterfly in terms of proof. But myth and folklore are easy. In a fable the beginning “once there was...”, could be empirical, wishful, accurate and fantastic. Proof adds little to the veracity of the story. A story is what you lived out, told, enacted, but history was external; it existed outside you and coerced you. There is a difference between truth and facts. Facts have a cold existence. A truth is a warm shell you live inside. The idea of Babri as truth and Babri as fact leads to different consequences.
Babri is a wound that won’t heal if Babri is constructed as history and proof, because it is then contested as law, possession, property and fact. One then talks of priority and precedence. Babri then gets enacted and repeated elsewhere. Babri gets enacted at Charminar in Hyderabad. Next to the mosque is posited a temple. Temple and mosque can easily coexist, not just as structures but as part of the syncretism called India. The minute we talk of priority, precedence and proof, we go beyond belief to talk about belief. We summon the archaeological survey and the department of history to play “proof”. The real choice is elsewhere. It is a choice of frames; it is a choice of pluralism, of space versus place. Space is secular, often empty of memory. Place evokes meaning, emotion; space can be mapped differently. The question we should ask is whether Babri is place or space, myth or history, property or commons. The day Babri became either/or, we lost a bit of tradition, damaged a part of our memory. Instead of adjustment and syncretism, which seek solutions that demand demolishing a mosque.
Demolishment turns a wound into a scar, a stigma. It does not allow a society to heal or, worse, find its own ways of healing. Healing is therapeutic; it needs a different form of storytelling. Healing leads to a belief that recognises other beliefs and other forms of storytelling. Healing is a conversation, not a talking past each other. Healing is not a zero-sum game. Healing demands that both sides recover from the travails of history. Healing, as a wise man said, demands a mutuality of memory of shared legends and folk tales.
Babri is not just about belief and faith. Babri is cognitive space for handling different beliefs, differing stories. Babri is a space for living with differences, and making sense of them. It is a kaleidoscope which cannot be treated as a lens.
Let us not deny there are wounds and that the wounds were salted by politicians. I remember when Babri happened, a student at an IIT-Delhi meeting screamed, “At last 500 years of Mughal rule has ended.” Oddly, history itself acquires a vindictive quality, a pseudo-mythical power to it. When one watched L.K. Advani or Uma Bharti scream with victory, one realises that such a view of politics has burnt deep into our psyche. History demands victors and that is the sadness of history.
Babri is not a story of a temple and a mosque, of which came first, of whether Ram was a historical character. Babri is about a commons of pain and the faith of two communities, communities which have hurt each other and grown together. Babri thus gives us three options — create fences between religions by dividing the space; create priority or precedence between structures so that one dominates or displaces the other; or do what sociologist Richard Sennett called “the uses of disorder”. Sennett argued that confusion, chaos and debate can actually add to the richness of order.
Let us begin at the level of the locality. Does the problem of Babri exist at the local level? How has the society lived so amicably with controversy? The question is important for if a locality is at home with the controversy and sees difference as something liveable then whose Babri are we talking about? Is Babri then a projection beyond locality? Is it a Rorschach, a psychological projection of fears and fantasies, of a wider image of politics being forced on a locality? The question one is asking is whether a civilisation looks differently at Babri from the nation state. A civilisation is a more complex entity. Indian civilisation allowed for plurality. However, nation states need boundaries, territory, fences, history, but civilisations can do with other less constraining narratives. Localities can accommodate contradictions, use the sociological to trump the logical and exclusive.
Babri Masjid cannot deal only with feelings, communities and differences. I feel the local cannot be reconstructed through majoritarian histories of the nation state and electoralism. Folklore and memory can be better sources for solving Babri than the conflict resolution of social scientists. What we need is patience, the ability to listen, the art of living with ambiguity, the tradition of Indian syncretism, which does not deny that conflict might offer a better compost heap for democratic solutions than experts’ views of history, architecture and society.

The writer is a social science nomad

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