When Courts Adjudicate History: The Ayodhya Verdict

Saurabh Mishra | 11 November 2019

Asian History | Religious History | Modern History

William Hodges, ‘A View of Part of the City of Oudh’, 1787, which features the Babri Masjid mosque on top of the hill. 

India witnessed one of its worst religious riots in 1992, when unruly mobs demolished a mosque built by the first Mughal ruler, supposedly on the exact site in Ayodhya where Lord Ram, of the Hindu pantheon, was born. In a sense, though, these mobs were not unruly at all – they had gathered with the specific intent of carrying out the demolition, were spurred into action by rousing speeches given by political leaders, and had been nourished on fake videos of Muslim brutality toward a majority Hindu population. The demolition set in motion nation-wide riots, and inaugurated a militant phase of Hindu right-wing politics that has culminated in the BJP — India’s largest Hindu right-wing party — coming into power with a thumping majority.

This episode has come back to haunt us again, as the Supreme Court of India passed its verdict last Saturday on whether or not a temple could be built on the site of the demolished mosque. Many aspects of 6 December 1992 (the day of the demolition) were replicated on Saturday: tens of thousands of people were, once again, gathered in Ayodhya; schools and colleges were shut across several states, as everyone kept a suspenseful watch on events of the day; and incendiary fake videos on social media had primed its audience for militant and aggressive action. Perhaps the only saving grace, on this occasion, was that national elections had occurred recently, and a riot was not going to serve the interests of any political party.

In this entire episode, what was most interesting for historians was the Supreme Court’s approach toward the past. The court appeared to have willingly assumed the mantle of a historian, going through several documents to decide whether Hindus had always believed in the holiness of the site. The choice of documents was fairly eclectic, ranging from religious scriptures, to travelogues by medieval Chinese travellers, to gazetteers and travelogues written by colonial officials.[1] All of these appear to have been given the same historical weight, without making any allowances for the potential biases of their authors. Indeed, colonial officials were often referred to as ‘historians’ in court hearings, their opinion being taken as accurate.[2] The overall strategy consisted of combing through documents for any sentence or phrase that referred directly or obliquely to either a temple, or the Hindu belief that this site was the birthplace of Lord Ram. Such an approach is bound to lead to a very warped view of the past, and is a good example of how a fetish for empiricism might drive us further away from a considered view of history – something that first year undergraduate students are taught in universities.

What is also equally significant is the court’s reluctance to allow historians to get involved in the court proceedings. Their opinions were not sought by the court, and even a famous statement released by a group of historians in the wake of the riots in 1992 was dismissed as unreliable.[3] Indeed, prominent historians of ancient India have given interviews to media channels on the issue, but not been summoned by the Supreme Court to give evidence. As one of the doyens of ancient history noted in an interview to Frontline: ‘In order to resolve the dispute over fact, the best thing is to have…historians sit in front of the court and debate. The court could then decide on what convinces it on the basis of rationality.’[4] The court’s unwillingness to do so either reflects its confidence in identifying the ‘correct’ view of history, or the fact that it has been persuaded by Hindu right-wing propaganda that most existing histories are unreliable, biased, or anti-Hindu.

Clearly, at least in this particular case, history is not merely the subject of dry academic debates – it has the potential to affect the lives of more than a billion people. By allowing Hindu groups to construct a temple on the site, while giving permission to Muslim groups to build a mosque on a separate 5-acre plot, the court has tried to carry out the task of calming down violent Hindu extremists, while also soothing the fears of the Muslim minority. Perhaps the entire hearing was never about getting to the most reliable version of history at all—it was always about achieving this precarious sense of balance. As we analyse the judgement, perhaps it is also time to consider whether well-intentioned historians do not often attempt to achieve a similar sense of balance, especially when writing on highly sensitive and politicised subjects.

Saurabh Mishra is a lecturer in the Department of History, Sheffield. He is the author of the monograph Beastly Encounters of the Raj: Livelihoods, Livestock and Veterinary Health in Colonial India, 1790-1920 (Manchester University Press, 2015).