Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Tough Victory

A polarised Venezuela delivers a close verdict in elections to the national assembly.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” is intact, but the opposition has made gains. This is the message from the 26 September elections to the national assembly. The ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), and its allies have won 99 of the 165 seats in the national assembly and 5 of the 12 seats for the Latin American parliament, while the opposition led by the coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) has managed 64 and 5 seats, respectively. In terms of voter support, the MUD has managed to garner support from nearly half the electorate.

Read more here. (An EPW Editorial)

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Ayodhya judgment by the Allahabad High Court - A Blot on secularism

Without mincing words, let me say it clearly that the verdict of the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court was an act that was as worse as the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid. Except the latter was an event that featured hooligans criminally bringing down a structure that for them represented Indian secularism, while the former was handed out by a set of learned judges who ultimately misread the tenets of secularism in working their basis for their atrocious final judgement.

Why do I feel so strongly? After all, despite the profound disappointment in large sections of India's minorities, among some sections of India's liberal intelligentsia and large sections of leftist supporters and adherers to the "left's" notion of secularism - there has been the maintenance of a serene calm and peace among the Indian population who seem to be tired of violence and posturing by political actors on this issue. Some see a utilitarian value in the idea espoused by the court of dividing the disputed property into three portions, which could possibly be an intriguing and workable compromise solution as they have argued.

But for me, the so called solution can only be a viable one, if it is based on a rational, civic and constitutional basis. Which is obviously and unfortunately not the case with this judgement. We know that in 1949, idols were installed in the mosque. We know that in the mid- and late 1980s, there was a frenzy created because of the opening of the locks of the Masjid - an act of pandering to the Hindu Right by the Congress government after they did a similar pandering to Islamic fundamentalists vis-a-vis the Shah Bano case. We also know that the standing structure of the Babri Masjid was destroyed in front of our eyes - riveted on newspapers and news channels - by frenzied hooligans mobilised by the Hindutva brigade of the Sangh Parivar. Implicated in the wanton destruction was nearly the entire leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the act in itself shifted India's politics and society to a new and dangerous ground. Scores of riots followed, thousands of people were affected - many were killed, a degree of polarisation was managed to be achieved by the Hindutva brigade and fundamentalism took root in some sections of the population. Indian governance and administration also got affected and tainted and incidents such as the Gujarat riots were orchestrated. Suffice to say, the "Mandir" issue was the most deleterious of the three M issues - the other were Market (reforms) and Mandal (recommendations) that shifted Indian polity to new ground in the early 1990s.

With this reality and fact in front of us, we expected the Indian court adjudicating on the vexed Babri Masjid-Ranjanmabhoomi issue to do justice. And justice in this sense was to be wrought out by relying on facts and the secular Constitution. Based on this, the judges could in no way have outrightly dismissed the claims of the minority community. They could in no way have given legitimacy to dubious claims of the disputed area being the birthplace of a mythical god of the Hindus. Instead the court did the virtual opposite. It was almost that the court took no necessary cognisance of realities in Ayodhya in independent and constitutional India. Two of the three member bench of the judges, actually gave credence to the myth that Ram was indeed born in the disputed area. One even said that the Babri Masjid was not even a mosque, in many ways removing the moral illegitimacy of the heinous act on 6th December 1992.

The learned judges should have relied on the wisdom imparted in the secular Constitution to adjudicate on the theological matter. But the secularism in this case was surely the Congress version of it. Secularism as defined and understood by progressives and even among certain liberals has always been the arm's length distance between the state and faith. Matters of the state were to be strictly on the basis of civic law, with no intermingling of faith and civic governance. The Congress form of secularism, on the other hand, has mostly always, the active engagement of the state in faith - at times leading to pandering - sometimes to majoritarian fundamentalism and sometimes to minority fundamentalism. This distorted form of secularism is what is evident in the judgement.

Look at the initial lines of the gist of the judgement by one of the judges, Justice DV Sharma -

"The disputed site is the birth place of Lord Ram."

or that of Justice Sudhir Agarwal, in answering Issue No. 4 of Suit 1 -

"The place in suit to the extent it has been held by this Court to be the birthplace of Lord Rama"

Can these “leaps into faith”, as termed by many and what I would more accurately call, “leaps into irrationality”, hold true under rational and factual scrutiny? As this statement by eminent historians (Romila Thapar, Sarvepalli Gopal, Bipan Chandra et al) in Jan-Feb 1990 in the Social Scientist says,

Is Ayodhya the birth place of Rama? This question raises a related one: Is present day Ayodhya the Ayodhya of Ramayana?...

According to Valmiki Ramayana, Rama, the King of Ayodhya, was born in the Treta Yuga, that is thousands of years before the Kali Yuga which is supposed to begin in 3102 BC.

i) There is no archaeological evidence to show that at this early time the region around present day Ayodhya was inhabited. The earliest possible date for settlements at the site are of about the eighth century BC. The archaeological remains indicate a fairly simple material life, more primitive than what is described in the Valmiki Ramayana.

ii) In the Ramayana, there are frequent references to palaces and buildings on a large scale in an urban setting. Such descriptions of an urban complex are not sustained by the archaeological evidence of the eighth century BC.

iii) There is also a controversy over the location of Ayodhya. Early Buddhist texts refer to Shravasti and Saketa, not Ayodhya, as the major cities of Koshala. Jaina texts also refer to Saketa as the capital of Koshala. There are very few references to an Ayodhya, but this is said to be located on the Ganges, not on river Saryu which is the site of present day Ayodhya.

It is amply clear that the “leaps into irrationality” by the said judges of the bench, clearly don’t hold true under scrutiny. How on earth, can this be accepted then?

What of the judges’ (all three of them have accepted that there indeed was a temple over the ruins of which the mosque was built) invocation of the findings of the Archaeological Survey of India’s excavation of the site in 2003? Justice Sharma states emphatically (in the gist of his judgement) that “The Archaeological Survey of India has proved that the structure was a massive Hindu religious structure.” Justice Agarwal, in his gist, says “The building in dispute was constructed after demolition of Non-Islamic religious structure, i.e., a Hindu temple.” Justice Khan says, “Mosque was constructed over the ruins of temples which were lying in utter ruins since a very long time before the construction of mosque and some material thereof was used in
construction of the mosque.”

These statements are also major leaps into “faith” - faith in an ASI “summary of findings” and procedures that have been dismissed by acclaimed historians for various inconsistencies and abnormalities in work. Take this excerpts of the interview of historian Irfan Habib in the Frontline for example, -

The ASI report says that a temple existed beneath the ruins of the Babri Masjid. Is this borne out by the excavations?

I think I have already shown that the evidence found against the existence of such a temple is overwhelming. The ASI has made an appeal to a very small number of stones and objects coming from either early levels or obviously brought in from other sites during the mosque's construction. They are of Buddhist, Jain and Shaivite provenances. How can these be used together to prove the existence of a temple? Can the ASI produce any such combined Buddhist-Jain-Shaivite-Rama temple from anywhere in India?

As for the so-called "pillar-bases", Dr. Ashok Datta has adequately explained them as brickbats and stones used to fill holes and hollows on the ground and ruined floors. This is why these are found at so many levels and in connection with all the four mosque floors.

What sort of structure then existed beneath the Masjid?

I think it is now clear that the Babri Masjid was built at the ruined site of an open mosque (qanati or idgah), and Floor No.4 belonged to such a mosque. A mihrab(arched recess) was found in its foundation wall on the west (significantly enough, not mentioned in the report). This also explains the large amount of evidence of Muslim habitation at the site both below and above the levels of Floor 4.

In other words, two of the three judges have relied on a questionable ASI exercise and dubious findings, which have been widely questioned and have been dismissed as well.

It is the “belief” that there existed a temple over which the “disputed structure” was constructed and that the disputed area was indeed the “birthplace of Ram” that governs the judgement on the location of the idols below the previously existing central dome is to be handed over to Hindus for worship. From our limited observations from secondary sources, the dubitable nature of the basis of the claims makes the judgement untenable.

What of the utilitarian order to divide the property in disputed area to three claimants - the Hindus, the Muslims and the Nirmohi Akhara? For some, this verdict is a workable compromise that could represent a “move on” from the vexed issue that has bedevilled Indian polity and society. But justice served by a court that is supposed to rationally act on factual evidence is not supposed to be utilitarian but conforming to reason and law. This judgement of division of property is also based on the fact that both Hindus and Muslims prayed in the premises of the disputed area. Yet, relevant facts suggest that it has always been one party that has illegally placed idols within the structure, performed shilanyas and ultimately destroyed the structure. Reason cannot treat the plaintiffs therefore on the same pedestal after a purview of these facts. In that sense, this verdict is not acceptable even if it is workable and could perhaps be worked upon by stakeholders outside court.

Even the utilitarian nature of the judgement is more than problematic. The message behind this utilitarianism is that a majoritarian bias in the judgement has to be accepted by the aggrieved party and a “compromise” worked out. The message is flawed and only builds residual angst among the minority community, who are forced to accept the majoritarian bias in the judgement and are asked to accept that this is the workable form of justice.

In jurisprudence, the Allahabad High Court judgement sets, in this writer’s opinion, a bad precedent. It is incumbent on the Supreme Court to reverse the harm that is wrought out by the judgement - one that legitimises the incorrect reading of Indian secularism and one that legitimises irrational beliefs, letting them trump reason and justice. It is hoped that the Supreme Court follows civic rules and legal procedures to establish the property claims rather than arriving at conclusions from theological, mythological and irrational readings.

It is therefore welcome that some plaintiffs have pledged to approach the Supreme Court to undo the damage done.