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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 49 New Delhi November 24, 2018

Ayodhya Phobia: A Hype?

Sunday 25 November 2018

by Nilofar Suhrawardy

October 29, 2018 has passed off and the fear that prevailed earlier regarding communal tension over the Ayodhya issue has, at least for the time being, subsided. Prospects of the Apex Court taking a decisive stand on the Ayodhya dispute on October 29 had indeed raised concern about it leading to communal tension. Paradoxically, little attention was paid to the fact that this is 2018 and not 1992. It was feared (and to a degree still is) about India heading towards communal tension that gripped it over the Ayodhya dispute following the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Certainly, the riots that occurred during that phase were spread almost across the entire nation. But if this fear still prevails, it is a tragic indicator that sections of the nation continue to remain gripped by the mentality which provoked them to riotous behaviour during the 1990s over the Ayodhya issue. It is possible that noise is deliberately being made regarding the Ayodhya fear to gain media coverage and to distract the people from other issues of primary concern. These include their economic grievances about inflation, etc.

Undeniably, Indians are as religious today as they were in the 1990s and earlier. Not surprisingly, the political, social and also commercial value of the “religious” tag has increased tremendously. Paradoxically, it is now being put to greater use than it was a few decades ago. Increase in avenues and means for doing so has made this tag and/or religious advertisements of various kinds more exploitable than was the case earlier. In contrast to there being one and only channel earlier, that is, the Doordarshan, there is no dearth of television channels nowadays. Nor is there of religious serials telecast on these. Earlier, when the popular Ramayana serial was telecast, people of all religions remained glued to the screen. The roads wore a deserted look when the serial was telecast. This is not the impact of any religious serial in the present era.

Within less than half-a-century, the Indian society’s attitude towards new means of communication and what they receive from these has come a long way from the period when these weren’t around. It cannot be ignored that now self-proclaimed “religious leaders”, various politicians and others have gained means of exploiting their respective “religious” labels for their own political, commercial, communal and other purposes they see as advantageous. This does not imply that these persons/groups’ “religious” agenda is understood by the public as desired by the former.

Nowadays, people have many religious serials to select from. The question of their choice being confined to just one does not exist anymore. When people have several/numerous options to select from, chances of they being dependent on one and being influenced by it alone cease to exist. In the present era, they also have the option to give greater preference to non-religious serials, turn to their mobiles, Internet or other means for entertainment and/or other purposes. Chances of people being caught in a dependency-trap while, perhaps blindly, giving undue importance to only one serial/agenda have decreased. With this, the danger of a significant number of people according significance to the same issue along aggressive lines may also be regarded as much less in comparison to the earlier phase.

This does not suggest that the importance of the Ayodhya issue’s religious aspect has decreased for a substantial number of people. It has not. Of course, the same issue has the million dollar question tagged with it—about it leading to communal tension. This has received substantial media coverage with discussions and so forth. But one fact cannot be ignored. Opinions expressed on this issue at various levels, in comparison to 30 years ago, have reached a much higher level. It may be recalled, earlier the media coverage of even a minor communal incident was not encouraged. There prevailed the risk of similar tension spreading to other parts of the nation. This fear has ceased to prevail. It is worth noting, the intensity of communal tension during the Gujarat carnage remained confined primarily to that State though it received substantial media coverage. Undeniably, the people paid considerable importance to the coverage, including their telecast. However, the people chose to remain within their households and did not try provoking communal tension elsewhere.

Nevertheless, there still prevail Right-wing, extremist elements trying to spread communal tension by provoking the people’s religious feelings. Yet, differences between the nature of communal tension that spread three decades ago and the one witnessed now cannot be ignored. Certainly, cow-lynching cases, assassi-nation of secular, outspoken Indians and similar incidents symbolise attempts being made to spread communal tension. But the limited impact of these attempts stands out. Equally significant is the opposition voiced against these communal incidents from people of different religious communities.

Elementarily speaking, the opposition against communal incidents is suggestive of basic humane values being still present in India. When humane values are given importance in any society, fear along any line, particularly religious, is not expected to prevail. But this cannot be said about any part of the world, including India. What does this suggest? It would be erroneous to question the values being promoted by any religion. This demands deliberation on the degree to which “values” are exploited and/or misused in the name of religion by persons, parties and/or groups to promote irreligious, negative trends. Communal incidents, including cow-lynching cases, cannot be viewed as humane and religious from any angle. But what does one say about the “religious” label that is tagged to these?

With the majority of Indians being quite religious, accustomed to indulging in numerous “religious” practices, it is held that adding a “religious” touch to even inhumane activities is likely to accord “religious legitimacy” to the same in the minds of the general public. Well, what does this imply? First, this suggests that several extremist elements apparently appear to be extremely overconfident about the “success” of their communal agenda. At the same time, slowly but definitely, they are becoming conscious of its limited impact. Besides, it is impossible to ignore the opposition voiced against communal incidents in the recent past.

Equally important is the fact that communal incidents—such as cow-lynching cases and assassination of secular persons voicing their stand against them—have not succeeded in provoking any communal crisis throughout the country. This reality cannot be sidelined. At the same time, the harsh fact that criminals in all cases have not been accorded punishment nor have the victims and/or their relatives given compensation cannot be missed. The role played by officers on duty in uniform in apparently aiding the communal elements also needs to be taken note of. The negative publicity earned by these incidents bears its own significance. Attempts have reportedly been made to “control” and/or “silence” the media so that only “favourable” coverage is accorded to people in power and also the saffron brigade. This strategy has not succeeded totally.

Instead, substantial coverage, that too along negative lines, has been accorded to these communal incidents and also officers allegedly held responsible for aiding/encouraging as well as participating in the same. Also, India would not have witnessed their coverage, criticism as well as protest demonstrations against the same, if the media and other means of communication had been silenced totally. It is worth noting, one hasn’t heard of any report about support expressed by the public regarding the communal incidents—including the cow-lynching cases. This may be viewed as a strong indicator of communal rioting of today’s age not being really favoured by the Indian society in general.

True, each and every Indian is not totally secular. Though the communal attitude still prevails, the majority are not willing to easily step onto the path of communal frenzy, aggression, violence and so forth. Yet, the fear still prevails about the possibility of the Ayodhya issue leading to communal tension. It doesn’t take long for any “news” about Ayodhya to hit the headlines. With parliamentary elections round the corner, attempts are likely to be made by Right-wing extremists to add as much communal fire to the issue as possible.

But let us also accept the fact that these elements do not represent even a significant percentage of the Indian society. If they did, their attempts to communalise and also polarise the Indian society along religious lines would not have had limited impact. Around 30 years have passed since this religious issue provoked nationwide riots. But fear prevails that it may again. In all probability, such fear is likely to remain confined to discussions, debates and the media. In the opinion of the majority, the Ayodhya news at present is nothing else but another electoral strategy, without any political and/or religious legitimacy. Even the illiterate, poor public seems wise enough to understand the electoral importance being given to the Ayodhya issue at this phase and probably not be taken for a ride by its communal propagators. There is nothing surprising therefore about October 29 having passed off peacefully with the people in general pursuing their routine activities. This has been the case, till date, though the Ayodhya issue has been periodically raised at various levels. It is time, perhaps, that serious attention was paid to analysing the fear-phobia linked with the Ayodhya issue provoking communal tension. In essence, this only aids the extremist elements trying to add communal fire to the same!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist. She has come out with two books: Ayodhya Without Communal Stamp: In the Name of Indian Secularism and Image and Substance: Modi’s First Year in Office.

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