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The flame of hope
By Rajdeep Sardesai

It's been the kind of month that has left all right-thinking Indians badly bruised and scarred. First Godhra, then the rest of Gujarat and now Ayodhya: for the last few weeks, India’s secular republicanism has been challenged and threatened. Godhra was a heinous crime that has no place in any civilised society. What followed was an anti-Muslim pogrom in cities like Ahmedabad and Vadodra where members of a particular community were virtually hunted down. And then, we’ve had the spectacle of Ayodhya where sants and mahants of various hues ended up holding the nation to ransom. 

In these depressing times, there is little to cheer and look forward to. And yet, some hope has been provided, ironically by the people of Ayodhya and Mumbai, two cities which were at the heart of the post-Babri masjid demolition violence exactly a decade ago. Lets start with Ayodhya. Ten years ago, as thousands of karsevaks assembled in Ayodhya, there appeared to be a popular sanction for the Sangh Parivar’s decision to build a mandir at the disputed site. The BJP had just won the Uttar Pradesh elections, LK Advani’s rath yatra had attracted huge crowds, and there was widespread resentment at the manner in which Mulayam Singh Yadav had fired upon the karsevaks. At the time, shopkeepers in Ayodhya were ready to down their shutters at a moment’s notice if the Ram Janmabhoomi movement proponents asked them to. 

Ten years later, the Sangh Parivar’s attempt to raise the mandir-masjid issue has met with strong disapproval in Ayodhya itself. One reason why the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had to climb down from its proposed temple construction plans on March 15 was because few of Ayodhya’s residents wanted to be involved in any way with the movement. The few hundred karsevaks who eventually reached Ayodhya were basically ‘outsiders’ who are hardcore Bajrang Dal-VHP supporters. The level of local participation was negligible. The same shopkeepers who had spontaneously supported the Ram mandir movement a decade ago, were now angry that the repeated curfews had ruined their business. Indeed, not just in Ayodhya, but all over Uttar Pradesh, there appears to have been little enthusiasm for the mandir movement. When the VHP took out a chetna yatra two months ago to mobilise public support on Ayodhya, the crowds were missing. When a section of the UP BJP leadership tried to play the mandir card in the recent assembly elections, the party found itself reduced to a poor third. 

Now, let’s switch to Mumbai. A decade ago, the city was caught in a tidal wave of communal violence that stripped the city of its status as the premier cosmopolitan metropolis in the country. Muslim mobs were on the street, the Shiv Sena was targeting minorities, and the police in several places just chose to look the other way. More than 1000 people died in the orgy of violence. This time, Mumbai may have been tense but it was peaceful. Local Muslim community leaders urged restraint, the Shiv Sena leadership chose not to incite their cadres to violence, and the police was patrolling the streets. The local mohalla committees that had been set up after the last riots were also active, and consciously working to spread the message of communal harmony. In one neighbourhood, an inter-community cricket match was held, in another there was a peace march. It was clear that no one in Mumbai wanted a repeat of 1992-93. 

Indeed, there are two messages, which have been sent out in Mumbai and Ayodhya. The first is the reaffirmation of a belief that any form of sectarian politics, which makes violence and confrontation its calling cards is subject to the law of diminishing returns. While there remains a significant core group who has been attracted to militant fundamentalism (whether Hindu or Islamic), the much larger group of Indians want to look beyond the bigotry and violence. It wants a future where it can benefit from economic growth, not a future which is based on reviving past animosities. The silent majority may still not be vocal enough, but their presence cannot and must not be wished away. 

The second, and equally significant message that has been sent out relates to the functioning of the state. One reason why the situation in Mumbai remained under control is because this time the state government made a determined effort to ensure that potential law-breakers were not allowed to take the law into their own hands. The hundreds of preventive arrests were part of a strong message sent out by the government that it meant business. As did the union government when it decided to stage flag marches in Ayodhya and send more than forty companies of paramilitary forces to the town to ensure that March 15 passed off peacefully. Perhaps, the large police presence was only because the Centre realised that their government’s future was at stake, but the fact is that both the prime minister and the home minister were personally monitoring the Ayodhya security situation, and their statements in and outside parliament were strong and effective. 

What it shows is that when any government wants to ensure that its citizens are protected, it can easily do so if it shows the necessary political will. Ten years ago, the Babri Masjid was demolished because the Narasimha Rao government at the Centre and the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh simply did not do enough to stop the destruction. If two weeks ago, Gujarat burnt it was because the state government simply was not willing to be firm enough in taking on the mob. If only Messrs Vajpayee and Advani had shown the same resolve in dealing with the Gujarat flare-up as they did in tackling the Ayodhya crisis, many more lives of innocent Indians may have been saved (NDTV).

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