The ruined center: religion and mass politics in India.

Author:Van der Veer, Peter


The famous Soviet dissident Andrej Amalrik predicted that 1984 would be the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was right about its eventual collapse, but wrong about the year. Instead, 1984 turned out to be a crucial year for another huge imperial state: India. This paper tries to explain some elements of what happened that year in India by looking at two religio-political movements, one Hindu, one Sikh, that tried to change the shape of the Indian nation-state. In order to understand these events one has to analyze both the secularity of the Indian state and the religiosity of the two movements involved. My interpretation will be based on a historical analysis of post-colonial modernity and on a political science account of the development of the Indian political arena over the last twenty years.

In June 1984 the Indian Army attacked the Golden Temple Complex, the central shrine of the Sikhs, in an operation with the codename Blue Star. This huge complex contained, along with numerous other buildings, the Harimandir (Golden Temple) and the Akal Takhat (the Eternal Throne). The latter was occupied and heavily fortified by militant Sikhs who demanded the separation of a Sikh state, Khalistan, from what they described as Hindu India. The army encountered so much resistance in the complex that it had to bring tanks into the operation, which caused much greater damage to the religious buildings than the generals had expected. The operation lasted from 4 June until 7 June. It destroyed the Sikh Library, which contained a great number of sacred manuscripts and objects from the lives of the Gurus in the Sikh tradition. The numbers game of counting the casualties on both sides has not been conclusive and leaves us with estimates ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand.(1) On the Sikh side the number of dead militants was greatly outnumbered by the number of dead pilgrims who were caught in the crossfire during their visit.

The leader of the Khalistani Sikhs, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, was killed in the encounter. This, however, did not mean the end, but rather the beginning of his importance, as martyrs are central to Sikh tradition. His ghost turned out to be much more effective than he had ever been alive. Operation Blue Star took its place among the founding massacres in Sikh historical memory: the pre-colonial massacre of Sikhs in the battle of Malerkotka by the Afghan war leader Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1762, the colonial massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar by the British general Dyer in 1919, and now, in 1984 the post-colonial massacre of Sikhs in the Golden Temple.(2) These memories repress a lot, but end up constructing a narrative of Sikh suffering, inflicted upon them by outside states. It conveyed the message that Sikhs no longer belonged to the state of India, which was exactly what the militant Khalistanis wanted. The clearest and perhaps most threatening sign of the Sikh understanding of the events was the mutiny of Sikh soldiers in various regiments across the country, significant because of the crucial role Sikhs played in the Indian army from the late nineteenth century onward.

Operation Blue Star turned out to be Indira Gandhi's last battle. On 31 October 1984, India's prime minister was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The assassination was followed by a widespread pogrom against Sikhs and their property, especially in major northern Indian cities with sizeable Sikh minorities, such as Delhi and Kanpur. These pogroms were organized and led by political leaders of Mrs. Gandhi's Congress Party and were meant to "teach the arrogant Sikhs a lesson they would not forget," as people said at the time.(3) The repression was allowed, and sometimes assisted, by the agencies of the state, including both the police and military. Trains and buses were stopped, and Sikhs were taken out and killed. In the Punjab the reverse happened, with the militant Sikhs killing Hindu passengers. In the elections of 1985, Mrs. Gandhi's son, Rajiv, a former airline pilot without any political experience, gained a landslide victory in what was called a "sympathy vote." The anti-Sikh pogrom, and the following electoral success of the political party that had orchestrated the violence, left a great number of Sikhs who had never sympathized with the idea of a separate Sikh state fundamentally disillusioned with the Indian state. Whatever happened afterwards, Khalistani militancy had gained a permanent place in the Indian polity.

The Hindu nationalist movement also had a crucial year in 1984. The Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP), a religious movement led by Hindu monks, and its political ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party, BJP) began a campaign to remove the sixteenth-century Babar mosque from the alleged birthplace of the Hindu god Rama, one of the major gods of the Hindu pantheon. The mosque was located in the northern Indian pilgrimage center Ayodhya, and, according to an inscription on the mosque, it had been built by the Mughal general Mir Baqi in 1528. Local belief which dated back to the pre-colonial period had it that the mosque had been built on a destroyed temple for Rama and, actually, was situated on the birthplace of this god. The mosque had been closed by the government since 1949, when unknown Hindu activists placed an image of Rama inside it. Despite some agitation after independence, there had not been much of an effort to change the status quo.(4) This changed completely when the VHP and BJP entered the stage. Both the VHP and the BJP are part of a parivar (family) of organizations, supported by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, RSS), a militant group which has been in the forefront of Hindu nationalism since its founding in 1925.(5) Despite this "family-connection" between the VHP, the BJP and the RSS, they have considerable independence and important differences in aims, strategy and leadership. In September 1984, the VHP organized a demonstrative procession of trucks called: "Sacrifice to Liberate Rama's Birthplace." This procession went to the state capital, Lucknow, where it attracted large crowds. It was supposed to end in a huge rally in Delhi, but the rally fell flat due to the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi. The anti-Sikh pogrom going on at the same time drew attention away from Hindu-Muslim tensions surrounding Babar's mosque in Ayodhya, but only for a short time. A surprise decision of a district judge in Faizabad led to the opening of the mosque for the Hindu public in 1986. This decision could not have taken place without the assent of the central government.(6)

In 1988 the BJP and the VHP organized a number of demonstrative processions throughout the country, and even among migrant communities abroad, in which bricks were consecrated for use in the temple that would be built in the mosque's place. In the elections of 1989, the Congress Party of Mr. Gandhi lost its majority in Parliament, and the opposition Janata Party of V.P. Singh replaced it, with the parliamentary support of the BJP. Despite its official support of the new government, the VHP-BJP alliance continued its agitation for the replacement of the mosque with a temple. In 1990 they organized a large procession, led by L.K. Advani, the leader of the BJP, which started in Somnath in western India and was meant to end in Ayodhya, with the ultimate goal of destroying the temple. The procession was stopped in Bihar, and Advani and a number of his lieutenants were arrested, leading to the BJP's withdrawal of parliamentary support for Singh's government. The 1991 elections brought the Congress Party to power again in the wake of the assassination of its leader, Rajiv Gandhi, who had been killed by Sri Lankan Tamil separatists in southern India. The BJP, which had grown enormously in the years of Ayodhya agitation, continued its campaign for the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque.

On 6 December 1992 the VHP and the BJP organized another rally in Ayodhya. The aim of the rally, which was publicly announced by the VHP leadership in all major Indian newspapers, was to destroy the Babar mosque. Despite this public announcement, the rally was allowed by the authorities, under the eyes of the gathered press and without much hindrance by the huge paramilitary police force present in Ayodhya. Activists proceeded to demolish the old structure until, after a day of hard work, all that remained was rubble and a question: Why didn't the police intervene?

A high ranking police officer told the press that the police could easily have intervened and prevented the demolition, but they had not received orders to do so.(7) Naturally, they did not get any orders from the state officials of Uttar Pradesh, as the state was governed by the BJP, the political party behind the demolition. The paramilitary forces, however, were under the direct command of what in India is called "the Center," the Union government in Delhi. Why did the Center not act? The story is that India's prime minister, Narasimha Rao (Rajiv Gandhi's successor), was taking a nap and, as he is a very old man, nobody wanted to disturb him. When he woke up, the demolition had already proceeded too far.(8) I do not relate this story to illustrate indecisiveness on the part of the Indian Government, as on the next day the Union government did act very decisively: It dismissed the state governments of four states in which the opposition party BJP ruled. It put the leadership of the BJP and the VHP in jail for a short time and banned a few radical movements, on both the Hindu and the Muslim side. Rao's nap had been a strategic one which allowed the Union government to re-establish the supremacy of the Congress Party after a serious challenge from the BJP. Nevertheless, all these political actions did not prevent the civil war that broke out in many parts of the...

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