Other dimensions of Ayodhya
by Neera Chandhoke
Even if the remains of a temple are found, or not found, will this negate the fact that the region of Avadh has been associated with a plural and richly textured culture?
There is a vital difference, argued the English political theorist, John Locke, in his "A Letter Concerning Toleration" (1667) between knowledge that flows from propositions that relate to experiences and to the concrete, and knowledge that is based upon faith. The former can be verified through scientific experiments and rational arguments. The latter cannot be verified since it rests on revelation and belief. Speculative activity belonging to the realm of faith, argued Locke, was an intensely personal transaction, a transaction that strictly involved only the human being and his or her god. It can neither be refuted nor established through empirical evidence. There is something in this because faith is composed of various elements, many of which defy rationalisation, and many of which are not based upon empirical proof. Nor does faith demand such proof.
The Special Bench of the High Court in Allahabad has ordered the excavation of the disputed site at Ayodhya within one week to find out whether a temple existed on the precise site on which the Babri Masjid had been built. The judges have issued directions to the Archaeological Survey of India to excavate part of the land around the `disputed area, in order to discover whether the mosque had been built on the rubble of a temple.
We can predict right away what will happen after one week. Either the team that will be sent to excavate the site will not find the remnants of a temple, or it will. If it does not find any evidence that a temple existed on that exact site, will the Hindus stop believing that Ayodhya is the place where their god was born?
Perhaps not, for as Locke had reminded us faith does not rest on or demand the sanction of empirical evidence. Generations of Hindus have been brought up to believe that their god had been born in Ayodhya. Non-evidence is not likely to diminish this faith, or their belief that the city of Ayodhya is sacred. For, even though faith may not need empirical evidence, it does need geographical signposts - Mecca, Bethlehem, Amritsar or Ayodhya - which can direct religious sentiments and imaginations. Therefore, even if scientific evidence were to prove the contrary, Hindus are not going to be persuaded that their god was not born in Ayodhya; and that for this reason alone the place is sacred.
And if scientific evidence does manage to prove that a temple to Lord Ram existed on the definite site at which the Babri mosque had stood before December 1992, December 1992 being the moment when the kar sevaks had demolished it in a fit of frenzy, what then? What will it prove? For, millions of people will still continue to believe that it is not only the site where the Babri Masjid used to stand but the whole of Ayodhya that has been seen by the tirthashastras, and by pilgrims, as the Ramjanmasthan or the birthplace of Ram. For long many people have held firmly to the belief that at least two other sites in Ayodhya, the platform or the Ramchabutra outside the Babri masjid, and another temple in the town were the birthplace of Lord Ram. Therefore, despite a discovery that a temple did exist prior to the mosque, devout Hindus may well continue to worship at other sites in Ayodhya, or indeed hold the whole of Ayodhya sacred as the birthplace of their god. Why is this belief less valuable or less valid than the belief that Lord Ram was born on that precise place where the mosque had stood?
The courts motive in trying to establish that a temple did or did not stand at point x may be disinterested. It is after all a part of the courts mandate to resolve the imbroglio. But there is nothing disinterested in the entire Hindutva movement, which tries to establish that a mosque had been erected on the ruins of a temple. For, this effort is part of a larger plan to galvanise communal sentiments, it is part of an electoral ploy to gather power in the name of a god. It is not surprising that every time an election is round the corner, the Ayodhya issue is taken out of the cupboard, dusted, given a fresh coat of varnish, and brandished as a vote-catching device.
There is, however, a larger plan afoot: a plan to narrow down histories and to pin down precisely those plural memories, which may tell us that for decades Ayodhya has also been a place where people belonging to different denominations had learnt to live together in some harmony.
Even if the remains of a temple are found, or not found, will this negate the fact that the region of Avadh has been associated with a plural and richly textured culture? Recollect for instance the memorable scene in Satyajit Rays film, `Shatranj ke Khilari, when on the eve of the British invasion of Avadh in the mid-19th century, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah takes on the role of Krishna and dances with the Gopis.
Will the results of the excavation be able to disprove the fact that Ayodhya has historically been a holy site not only for Hinduism, but for Buddhism, Jainism and Islam as well? Will the results invalidate the empirical fact of inter-faith harmony that had existed for decades?
Temples in the town after all used to be open to all, all festivals used to be celebrated by all the inhabitants, several well-known mazars (tombs) were visited both by Hindus and Muslims believing in the same peer or sant, and Hindus used to participate in the urs at the mazar of Syed Salaar Masud with great devotion.
There are other memories of Ayodhya that inhabit the popular mind. That the temple of Hanumangarhi was built with the help of a land grant given by Nawab Safdar Jang (1739-54) to the mahant of the Nirvani Akhada, Abhayramdas. The Khaki Akhada was built on the basis of another land grant by Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah.
All these beliefs have also formed the stuff of collective memory, which has held popular sway for years. Can these memories be put aside if the excavations prove something or do not prove something?
This is the tragedy of Ayodhya. For, a number of narratives can be historically constructed out of Ayodhya - narratives of toleration, narratives of inter-religious faith, narratives of how people belonging to diverse religious persuasions had managed to carve out regions of belonging. The narrative of the Sangh Parivar, however, has deliberately marginalised all this.
By focalising the victimhood of the Hindu community, the narrative has set in motion a gigantic process of mass mobilisation that leaves a trail of communal tension, rioting and bloodshed; which has left wrecks of communities that had learnt to live together in its wake.
More than ten years have passed since the demolition of the Babri mosque. People could have, if left alone, licked their wounds and learnt once again to live together. But the Sangh Parivar just does not let us be. It is determined to destroy the country once again even as it pursues its ignoble plans of partitioning collective memories.
The only way to negotiate these plans is to remind ourselves that there are other dimensions to Ayodhya. But these dimensions cannot be proved or disproved by archaeological findings.
They can only inhabit our collective memories; those memories that resist flattening out by reactionary movements that are determined to deny us these memories.
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