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( Mid-Day, July 13, 2003)

Poet and Lyricist Javed Akhtar covers holy ground and discovers that
India's religious extremists are nothing but mirror-images of each other.

I don't think the Ram Janmabhoomi or the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya is a problem. It is a manifestation of a problem. You can solve problems. You cannot solve manifestations.

Nobody can deny that Ayodhya is historically and mythologically Ram's abode. Nobody in his or her right mind can say that a Ram Temple should not be built there. The bone of the contention is not Ayodhya, but a particular plot. Not even a particular plot but an area of a mere 80/40 square feet. Not even that. If the 80/40 square feet 'sanctum sanctorum' of the proposed Ram Temple could be located a mere 30 feet away the dispute could be resolved. The problem is that while no one is sure of the exact millennium of the Ram's birth, the Sangh Parivar is absolutely certain about the precise spot of his birth. Leave alone 30 feet, they will not agree to move even by three inches to solve the problem plaguing all of Indian society.

On the other hand, the 'once a mosque, always a mosque' claim of Maulvis and Mullahs is nothing but a lie. They cannot deny that in many Muslim Countries mosques have often been shifted even to broaden highways. So the insistence that a mosque must be rebuilt in the exact spot is anything but religious.

That a solution is the last thing on the mind of the contestants on either side is obvious. The moment newspapers reported that the Shankaracharya of Kanchi Peeth is in touch with All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) for a mutually acceptable solution, some Urdu papers published unsubstantiated news that some members among the AIMPLB had been paid Rs. 20 crore by the Government. On the other hand, the VHP leader Giriraj Kishore wasted no time in declaring that being a Shaivite, the Shankarachrya had no locus standi on the Ayodhya issue. (The VHP regained its reverence for the Shankaracharya the moment it became known that his proposed formula was no different from what the Sangh Parivar wants.) So much for these leaders 'desire for solution and their claims for religious unity!

Since nothing in the world is done on such scale and with such consistency without a grand plan, the question that arises is, why are fundamentalists from both sides doing this? The controversy cannot be understood in isolation for it is just a bit act of a marathon drama that is being played in the sub-continent for around 150 years. It all began in the 1850s, when on the one hand nationalist forces were awakening to the growing power of the British Colonialists and had started coming together to resist it. On the other hand the British realized that they would not be able to control the 'natives' without creating a schism between them along communal lines. (I wonder if it is a coincidence that the Ayodhya controversy, too, surfaced for the first time in 1853).

For the British, the mutiny of 1857 was their worst fears come true. From the record of correspondence available with India office (London), it is clear that the British conjured up, preached and propagated the two-nation theory in a deliberate and consistent manner. In 1859, the British colonial administration erected a fence to separate the Babri Masjid and Ram Chabutra in Ayaodhya, allowing the inner court to be used by Muslims and the outer court by Hindus. Perhaps another coincidence!

All those who helped the British in promoting and propagating the notion that Hindus and Muslims are two separate nations and cannot live together, cannot be called anything but collaborators. And there is no doubt that the Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS belong to this category. Some people may be shocked and outraged at the RSS being called collaborators of colonial power. But I would like to ask why from its birth from 1925 till the country's Independence in 1947, the RSS did not issue a single statement, did not organize a single rally and did not court a single arrest protesting colonial rule. The same is true for the Muslim League. Not a single member of these organizations that succeeded in dividing this nation and creating Pakistan, went to jail even for a day at the peak of the freedom movement. There is an unbelievable similarity in the political stands of the Muslim League and the RSS. The Muslim League asked its followers to boycott the Quit India Movement, the RSS did the same. M.S Golwalkar, called guruji by RSS followers, said such movements create chaos and law and order problems, so they should be avoided and ignored. Ultimately, one set of British collaborators, the Muslim League, was rewarded with Pakistan, a Muslim state. But the Hindu proponents of the two-nation theory were deprived of their dream because of genuine nationalists who fought for the independence, filled the jails, went to the gallows, gave the country a Constitution based not on the two-nation theory but the vision of composite India.

At this point we need to ask ourselves who a fundamentalist is? The fundamentalist has his own version of history, his own definition of culture, his own interpretation of religion and his own brand of nationalism. Behind all the impassioned sloganeering and pretensions of defending culture, religion and nation, the real agenda is to legitimize an unjust and an exploitative system where it exists, or to create one where it does not.

Gujrat is called the laboratory of Hindutva but in my view its biggest laboratory is Pakistan, which was founded on those very principles on which the Sangh Parivar wants to rebuild this country. In Pakistan, Islamic fundamentalism is but a convenient cover for an exploitative economic system. And the 'parivar's' ultimate fantasy is a Hindu Pakistan. In Pakistan whose population is around 15 crore, nearly 75 percent, that is around 11 crore, are directly or indirectly engaged in agriculture. Some 200 families own most of the agricultural land. Even assuming each of these extended families comprise 1,000 members, some 2,00,000 people control all the agricultural property. What is the status of remaining 10 crore and 98 Lakh people dependent on agriculture for their livelihood? The fact is that they are landless and even bonded labourers living in abysmal conditions. These people are at the total mercy of these landlords. In many places no schools are permitted; the police dare not enter these areas.

To make such a system viable, it is necessary that all civil liberties be denied to the people. To deny civil liberties, you need an undemocratic system. And to justify and legitimize an undemocratic system, you need religious fundamentalism and majoritarianism pretending to be nationalism. This use of fundamentalism is also evident in those Muslim countries where a few control all national wealth. Though the elite holds out crumbs to the ordinary citizen in these countries, no civil rights exist.

Incidentally, fascism and fundamentalism (theocracy) have one thing in common: both believe in the total usurpation of the basic rights and civil liberties of citizens. Nazi Germany and Talibani Afghanistan are eloquent testimonies of this. Interestingly the Sangh Parivar has from the very beginning been enamoured by Nazi ideology as is evident from the writings of the stalwarts of Hindutva. Given half a chance, like the Taliban, the Sangh Parivar will start putting women in their place. This gives us an insight into their mindset and their agenda of total control over society.

It is not that every fundamentalist sees his worldview as a mere political instrument. On the contrary, the large majority of those who subscribe to such views are sincerely committed to them. But these are mere pawns and minions who have been brainwashed. And among them, those from the economically weaker sections are often used as cannon fodder. But for those who are pulling the invisible strings, fundamentalism remains a political strategy. To think that it was reverence for Ram that made L.K.Advani launch his Rath Yatra is like believing that actually Jinnah wanted to save Islam in the sub-continent. The fact is that Jinnah was a cold-blooded, calculating, unscrupulous, over ambitious, manipulative, power hungry politician who hardly had any religious beliefs. The same can be said of L.K. Advani.

What should not be forgotten is that when Advani and is party picked up the Ayodhya gauntlet Muslim fundamentalists provided a perfect foil to him. We also need to understand the Muslim fundamentalist agenda. In post-partition India, the Muslim fundamentalist can no longer aspire to gain control of the State; but his political ambition intact he does seek to be a state within a state. He is interested in Democracy and secularism only to the extent that in the name of these principles his fundamentalism is tolerated. He wants tolerance and democracy in the country because that serves his interest, but he is not prepared to tolerate any freedom or democracy within his own community. He wants total control over the country's largest minority the same way as the Sangh Parivar wants total control over the entire country. To be able to exert pressure on the state, the Muslim fundamentalist would like to be seen as the sole representative of his community. He wants to use Muslims as bargaining chips to do as he pleases. I hang my head in shame every time I recall how at the time of Shah Bano, the Muslim fundamentalists were allowed to force secular India to bend to their diktats.

He who speaks out against the Muslim fundamentalists is anti-Islam, he who speaks against the Sangh Parivar is anti-national. Both of them have no tolerance for any opinion other than their own.

So, the choice is not between fundamentalists of two communities, for they are the mirror images of each other. The choice is not even between a temple and a mosque. The choice is between democracy and a totalitarian regime. Liberal and restrictive society. Freedom of expression and repression.

Let us make all fundamentalist organizations defunct and irrelevant by telling them in no uncertain terms that it is not Ayodhya, but they are the problem.

As told to Mayank Shekhar.