The fact of the matter is that Indians in general, whether Hindu or Muslim, have had enough of this dispute.
On March 21, the Supreme Court, while responding to an urgent hearing on the Ayodhya dispute by Subramanian Swamy, said that the Ram Mandir matter is a “sensitive” and “sentimental” issue and should be settled amicably out-of-court by talks between all stakeholders. The court went on to say that it could arrange some principal mediator if so desired. When asked if he would like to mediate, Chief Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar said: “If you want me I can, but will not sit on the bench”, adding that the court will “come into the picture if you can’t resolve the issue”.
The dispute has had a long and acrimonious history, and there is little to be gained by recounting it. Quite obviously, the matter is neither about law nor about facts only. This is a case where law, fact and faith intersect, and, therefore, the learned SC was right in urging all concerned to try and resolve the matter through discussions outside the formal arena of exclusive juridical intervention.
The reasonable mainstream of India, cutting across religious lines, has for long maintained that the dispute should be resolved either by the court or through a mediated settlement between the stakeholders. Now that the SC has urged that a mediated solution should be given a try, should not all parties heed this call?
Zafaryab Jilani, convener of the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC) has welcomed the SC’s concern but rejected its advice out of hand. “Earlier also, out-of-court settlement efforts have been made at the highest level and failed,” he said. “The Muslims are not willing for an out-of-court settlement. None of the demands made by the other parties are acceptable to us.” On the other hand, the Central government, and the newly-appointed chief minister of UP, Adityanath Yogi, have welcomed the SC’s directive. “I welcome what the court has said. Both sides can sit down to find an amicable solution. The government is ready to extend any cooperation to facilitate dialogue.”
Between these two opposed reactions lies a gulf in perception that has identifiable reasons. Mr Jilani probably has the not unfounded perception that impartial and sincere talks cannot take place given the acrimonies generated over decades by this dispute, the fact that similar attempts in the past have failed, and the present milieu where loud voices in the Hindu right are proclaiming that the temple will be built come what may. The BJP leadership, both at the Centre and in UP, probably feels that this is the time to isolate those opposing the Ram temple, for which the out-of-court negotiations could provide a suitable platform.
The truth is that, thanks to the SC’s directive, a historic and game-changing opportunity has been presented to all concerned to make a genuine effort to find an amicable solution. For too long inter-religious relations have been held hostage to this festering dispute. Law and faith, facts and beliefs, passions and emotions, politics and politicians, and a whole range of vested interests, have clashed with each other. Riots have taken place; the Babri Masjid was demolished; mobs have ruled the roost; the Archaeological Survey of India has intervened; the Allahabad high court has pronounced judgment; and now, the SC has made its plea.
The challenge before India is whether all parties to the dispute can overcome the acrimonies and distrust of the past to find an amicably-resolved solution to this matter. If they can, it would be a victory for the maturity and good sense of our civilisation and for democracy. If they can’t it will only undermine further the existing challenges to the composite and plural fabric of our polity.
To succeed in the task suggested by the SC, the BJP would need to rein in its ultra right-wing hotheads. It would need to desist from threats or arbitrary deadlines. Browbeating and public posturing would need to be eschewed. The talks would need to be approached in a spirit of give and take, without absolutist positions, with a view to finding a solution, and not reducing the talks to a tokenistic exercise only to mobilise partisan political support.
The same advice would apply to Mr Jilani too. Muslim representatives would do well to remember that a majority of those whom they claim to represent would rather get this dispute behind them. They need to recognise that for a great many of their Hindu brethren this is a matter of faith, and cannot be confined only to an adjudication of a point of fact. The position that Muslim interlocutors take would need to be guided by the larger good of the country as a whole, and not only a strictly narrow and defensive interpretation of the law. Provided, of course, they are categorically assured that any “concessions” or “adjustments’ they may make in this matter are not seen as a capitulation by their Hindu interlocutors, or used as a precedent for raking up Mandir-Masjid disputes elsewhere in the country.
The fact of the matter is that Indians in general, whether Hindu or Muslim, have had enough of this dispute. Most of them now want to swim away from the islands of religious exclusivism and the clutches of mullahs and mahants to the secular dividends of a modern, democratic and developed nation. The highest court of the land has provided an opportunity to move ahead. That opportunity must be seized in good faith and with sincerity. Legality is one aspect of this matter, but ultimately, what is crucial is goodwill and maturity. Will the BJP walk the talk on PM Narendra Modi’s slogan of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”, or will it allow hardliners to queer the pitch? Will Adityanath Yogi confound his critics by taking a statesman-like approach in this matter, or will he tread the predictable line his track record indicates? And, above all, will the Muslims rise above their siege mentality and give a fresh chance to the possibility of opening a new chapter of inter-religious harmony?