Monday, December 7, 2009

Better to demolish prejudice and terminate violence

ANNIVERSARIES generally have a numbing effect on me. Two in 10 days can be really bad if the right lessons from past mistakes have not been learnt by those concerned.
By coincidence, the first anniversary of the most daring terror strike India ever witnessed, in Mumbai on Nov 26 last year, and the leak and subsequent publication of an inquiry report that probed the demolition of Babri Masjid 17 years ago, happened in the same week. The catharsis was difficult.

On the face of it, comparing the two would seem outrageous. But they have a symbiotic relationship. While last year's attacks on the financial capital was the most brazen incidence of Islamic terrorism with international footprints, the Dec 6, 1992 act -- whose anniversary fell yesterday -- was the worst example of Hindu fundamentalism in the modern age.

Babri was a 16th-century mosque built in Ayodhya, the holy town where Lord Ram is supposed to have been born and ruled. Some Hindu bodies, citing past records, allege that the mosque was built on the ruins of a demolished temple that depicted Ram's birthplace. It is a dispute with a history of litigation that goes back a century-and-a-half.

The demolition took place despite an assurance to the Supreme Court that the structure would not be harmed. The mosque was destroyed stone-by-stone over several hours with an estimated 200,000 people raising frenzied slogans, in the presence of top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, its ideological allies and the umbrella organisation Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh.

The Mumbai terror attack and Babri demolition were perpetrated by those afflicted by the virus of intolerance that is sown in their minds by religious extremists to further their political ends.

As there are Islamic fundamentalists across the globe who justify the chaos and mayhem they cause, there are Hindu fundamentalists who have shown no remorse over their role in the mosque's demolition.

It is no secret that the two feed on each other and grow directly in tandem. The demolition was used by Muslim fundamentalists and their underworld cohorts to cause mayhem in Mumbai first in 1993 and subsequently across the country. The Hindu extremists' response was equally violent.

These events and the Gujarat carnage in 2002 have irreparably harmed the secular nature of India's polity. The social and political fallout has been tremendous.

Extremism begets extremism. The only difference is that more Hindu fundamentalists acquired respectability and a place in mainstream politics than their Muslim counterparts. Many Babri-wreckers became lawmakers and ministers.

This was directly at the cost of the Congress, which, while in power at the federal level, abdicated both its political and moral responsibility and authority. It was widely perceived as being ready to let the mosque disappear to end the political contentions.

Seventeen years after Babri, the way the rival sides cynically advance their arguments on TV, it is clear that no lessons have been learnt. The positions have hardened.

Legal and constitutional issues involved get blurred in any such debate. These niceties are followed when convenient. For the rest, it becomes "a question of faith and public sentiment".

Why Justice M.S. Liberhan took 17 years to complete his report beats me. Several hours of film footage of the demolition was available to him. I happened to see it in 1992 when shown by the then defence (now agriculture) minister Sharad Pawar.

Anyone could have seen the frenzied crowd and the triumphant faces of leaders who exhorted those with crowbars and shovels with heave-ho screams.

The judge confirms what is known. The only "new" point is the indictment of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP's moderate face who, while keeping away from the demolition, later swung between expressing justification and regret. And, as prime minister, jettisoning his own plea of rajdharma (a ruler's duty), he condoned the Gujarat killings.

Those who should have been found guilty and punished long ago protested against the leaking of the report, not their indictment. Such is the cynicism. There is talk of a renewed campaign for the Ram temple. If the recent polls verdicts are any indication, it is not likely to succeed. All right-thinking Indians would thank Lord Ram for that.

As for 26/11, the country has moved on and so has Mumbai's citizenry, which has shown resilience by compulsion, not by choice. The hurt, the suffering, persists deep down. As Mumbai-born, I can perceive that.

Few lessons have been learnt, and those mainly by the armed forces that are better equipped, not the political class that enabled them, but also promoted itself.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government commendably resisted a military option, averting a catastrophe. He was called a "eunuch" and national security became a major issue in the last polls. The people, however, renewed their confidence in him.

It is increasingly evident that the source of the trouble lies to India's west. Last week, United States President Barack Obama shifted gear from the Pushtun militants and the Af-Pak to those who operate from Pakistan's heartland, asking Islamabad not to "misuse" elements like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.

Evidently, even Pakistan's rulers have not learnt any lesson, much as they claim to be victims of terrorism.

It is heartening that the trial of Ajmal Kasab, the lone survivor among the Pakistani perpetrators of the Mumbai mayhem, is on track. As one of the two who killed 57 people, he has to hang some day. But that will only be after due legal process.

The private TV channels that went overboard last year with shrill, sometimes irresponsible reportage, also seem to have learnt few lessons. The government can but will not impose any curbs on them, for fear of losing popularity.

Nobody likes curbs, but a self-devised code of conduct should govern the media's news gathering and dissemination. But who will bell the cat?

I am one among millions who hope that there will be no more demolitions and cynical use of religion in politics. That would set the house in order and give less reason for the planners and perpetrators of 26/11 to enlist new converts to their perverted cause. MAHENDRA VED

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