Ayodhya: Pragmatism Sanctified?
The Ayodhya judgment was much awaited and its potential fall-out much feared. While it is too early to assert anything definitive, the initial response to it has been quite muted. The reaction of the Sunni Waqf Board and leaders like Owaisi has been one of disappointment, but the tone has been carefully non-confrontational. The leaders of the ruling party have also striven to keep their reactions restrained and even their support base has, within the limitations of their capability, not gone overboard in their celebrations. Both these reactions could change in the next few days, but for now the aftermath of the conclusion of what has been the most contentious and thorny dispute spanning centuries, has been surprisingly mild.
What does this speak to? Is it a sign that the Supreme Court has managed the impossible- to actually arrive at a solution, that within the constraints of the problem, is a fair and balanced one that doles out a reasonable outcome for the parties involved? Or is simply a reflection of the political realities of the day, which is in many ways what this judgment is really a validation of? For what the judgment has ended up doing is to give legal sanction to a political reality. It acknowledges the asymmetry in power that exists between the two sides and arrives at a solution that delivers justice in the proportion that is in consonance with the politics of the day.
In many ways, despite the many sophisticated arguments that the judgment grapples with and the fine distinctions that it draws, where it lands appears to be in line implicitly with a more rudimentary and pragmatic form of reasoning. Hindus have an asymmetric investment in the site itself for they contend it is the birthplace of none other than Ram and hence insist that the temple be built ‘there’. A deep sense of historical injustice combined with the headiness of political power makes this emotional need a pressing one. Politically, given today’s context, they cannot be denied.
The key Muslim need is to avoid displacement. The place itself has meaning, but not in the way as it does for the other side. But the act of forceful displacement in the name of correcting a historical wrong, is not only the fount of innumerable such demands but an explicit acknowledgement of their subordinate status in the country. The fact that Babri Masjid has been the subject of repeated acts of vandalism including the destruction of the structure itself is a sign that these fears are not misplaced. Under this government, it has become clear that Muslim options are limited, which makes them more predisposed than ever before to accept a solution they deem sub-optimal as long as they get some form of redress.
The judgment ends up catering to both these emotional needs in a proportion that is politically pragmatic. The Hindus get the site, which is the real prize at stake, because the Muslim case cannot prove that it was exclusively used as a mosque, something that the other side is not asked to do. The Muslims get the solace of words, particularly when the judgment deems both the 1949 and the 1992 acts of vandalism as illegal (but is silent on what action to take against those responsible), and the compensatory action of an alternative (and larger) piece of land at a ‘prominent site’ in Ayodhya. The politically dominant side gets the spoils, but the other side is not humiliated.
In some ways, the judgment ends up delivering a notion of justice that has a touch of the communitarian about it, one that is based on the acknowledgment of the larger matrix of power within which a form of solution is meted out. Here, justice must be done, but within the bounds of the existing power equations. While its arguments are couched in judicial exactitude, its delivered essence is politically pragmatic, which is what makes it more easily acceptable.
The larger context is that there is a new political consensus that has emerged which ensures that no serious challenge would be mounted to any solution that is aligned with the dominant political narrative of the day. We see this beginning with triple talaq, where there was still some debate, to the abrogation of Article 370, where there was virtually none, to this judgment where again other political parties seem to have all adopted the let’s-respect-the-judgment-and-move-on line. Media, barring a few outposts, is a hysterically enthusiastic cheerleader for this consensus.
The fact that the judgment is unanimous is an important sign. For it serves to offer a sense of finality to the process. Not only is there consensus outside, but even within the court. No door has been left ajar, no window through which any new current can seep in. It frames the decision as the definitive view of India’s highest court and forecloses any further discussion. Overall, the sense created, is that of a choreographed act of pragmatism.
Does this judgment quell the anxieties that have haunted a significant section of the majority community and have powered the rise of the ruling party? While the court has been clear in reiterating that the door to any further disputes of kind has been firmly shut, will this indeed be the end of the project to reverse history? The statements emerging from the top leadership and in particular Mr Modi have been temperate, but will the BJP continue with this restrained line once it is election time? Has the time come for the party to take its dominance for granted and move on beyond issues that are fuelled by resentment, or is it politically infeasible for it to even think about that?
A new political reality has now been cemented and an emergent cultural impulse has been enshrined, now by the highest court in the land. The new consensus is here to stay and this judgment, whatever else it achieves, ends up underlining the same.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.