Sunday, September 19, 2010

History and faith are beyond law

Belief is independent of who owns the disputed land in Ayodhya and is manifested in the unshakeable faith that a Ram Mandir shall rise again where it once stood.
(Babri Masjid, built by Babar after demolishing temple at Ram Janmasthan.)

James Tod joined the Bengal Army as a cadet in 1799, presumably looking for a life of adventure in the heat and dust of India. He swiftly rose through the ranks and, as a Lieutenant-Colonel, provided valuable service to the East India Company. His uncanny ability to gather information helped the early colonisers smash the Maratha Confederacy. Later, his assistance was sought during the Rajputana campaign. Colonel Tod, as he was known, was a natural scholar with an eye for detail and a curious mind. He was fascinated by the history of Rajputana and its antiquities as much as by its palace intrigues and the shifting loyalties of its rulers and their factotums. That fascination led to his penning two books that are still considered mandatory reading for anybody interested in the history of the Rajputs, although latter-day scholars of the Marxist variety would disagree with both the contents and the style, neither leavened by ideological predilections. The first volume of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan was published in 1829 and the second in 1832, nearly a decade after he returned to Britain.

Thousands of people, Indians and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims, visit Ajmer every day to offer a chaadar at Dargah Sharif of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, a shrine where all are welcome and every prayer is answered, or so the pious choose to believe. Many stay on to visit the other antiquities of Ajmer, among them a magnificent mosque complex which bears little or no resemblance to its name: Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra. People gawk at the columns and the façade intricately carved with inscriptions from the Quran in Arabic. They pose for photographs or capture the mosque’s ‘beauty’ on video cameras and carry back memories of Islam’s munificence towards its followers. Don’t forget to visit Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra, they will later tell friends and relatives visiting Ajmer. As for Indian Muslims who travel to Ajmer and see Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra, they would be tempted to wonder why similar mosques are no longer built, a wonderment that is only partially explained by the fact that sultans and badshahs no longer rule India. The crescent had begun to wane long before Bahadur Shah Zafar was propped up as Badshah of Hindoostan by the mutineers of 1857.

Such speculation as may flit through troubled minds need not detain us, nor is there any need to feel sorry for those who wallow in self-pity or are enraged by the realisation of permanent loss of power. Hundred and fifty years is long enough time to reconcile to the changed realities of Hindustan. So, let us return to Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra in Ajmer. Few who have seen and admired this mosque complex would be aware of Colonel Tod’s description of it in the first volume of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan: “The entire façade of this noble entrance … is covered with Arabic inscriptions … but in a small frieze over the apex of the arch is contained an inscription in Sanskrit.” And that oddity tells the real story of Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra.

This is no place of worship built over weeks and months for the faithful to congregate five times a day, it is a monument to honour Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghauri who travelled through Ajmer after defeating, and killing, Prithviraj Chauhan in the second battle of Tarain in 1192 AD. Stunned by the beauty of the temples of Ajmer and shocked by such idolatory, he ordered Qutbuddin Aibak to sack the city and build a mosque, a mission to be accomplished in two-and-a-half days, so that he could offer namaz on his way back. Aibak fulfilled the task given to him: He used the structures of three temples to fashion what now stands as Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra. Mindful of sensitivities, his men used their swords to disfigure the faces of figures carved into the 70 pillars that still stand. It would seem India’s invaders had a particular distaste for Indian noses portrayed in stone and plaster.

The story of Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra is not unique. Hindustan’s landscape is dotted with mosques built on sites where temples stood, often crafted with material from the destroyed places of worship. Quwwat-ul Islam, the first mosque built in Delhi, bears testimony to the invader’s smash-and-grab policy, as do the mosques Aurangzeb built in Kashi and Mathura, or the mosque Mir Baqi built at Ayodhya on the site Hindus believe to be, and revere as, Ram Janmasthan. The pillars and inner walls of Babri Masjid, as the structure was known till it came crashing down on December 6, 1992, were those of a temple that once stood there, a fact proven beyond doubt. Somnath was fortunate: It was sacked repeatedly, but no mosque came to occupy the land where it stood — and still stands — in Gujarat.

By next Sunday, we will know who owns the land where Babri Masjid stood and a Ram Mandir now exists. Unless something extraordinary happens between today and Friday, the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court is all set to give its judgement on the title dispute that has been pending in various courts for more than six decades. It is anybody’s guess as to what shall be the verdict of the three-judge Bench; what is for sure is that the claimant who loses the case will immediately appeal to the Supreme Court and it will be quite some time before the issue is resolved beyond further legal dispute. Hence, there is no need for either celebration or mourning, with its attendant consequences, at this stage.

In any event, we must bear in mind that courts can at best decide on who owns the land, not the sanctity or otherwise of the land. Similarly, court judgements can neither rewrite history nor controvert historical facts. Faith and history are not subjects of legal scrutiny, nor do they require to be constrained by the narrow interpretation of law. Hindus believe Maryada Purushottam Ram was born at the spot where the Babri Masjid was built in 1528 by Babar’s army of invaders as one of the many mosques that came to symbolise, over hundreds of years, Islam’s conquest of Hindustan. That belief is independent of who owns the piece of land today and is manifested in the unshakeable faith that has sustained the hope for five centuries that a magnificent temple shall rise again where it once stood on the banks of Saryu.

[This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer.]

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