The current Hindu-Muslim violent uprising in Gujarat has its roots in history dating back more than 400 years. In 1528, in the town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, a mosque was built by the invading Mughal rulers on the site that was the birthplace of Lord Rama, one of the most revered Hindu Gods. For over 300 years Hindus harbored rage at this sacrilege and finally in 1853 their rage led to violence. The British intervened in 1859 and erected a fence to separate the places of worship of Hindus and Muslims.
In 1949, two years after India became free of colonial rule, idols of Lord Rama appeared inside the mosque, allegedly placed there by Hindus. Muslims protested, both parties filed civil suits, and the government intervened, locking the gates of the mosque and forbidding anyone to pray there. Hindus formed a committee to “free” the birthplace of Lord Rama and, with Bhartiya Janata Party’s backing, got the district judge to order the gates of the mosque reopened to allow Hindus to worship there. This was followed by protests from Muslims, which in turn resulted in a stepped-up campaign by the Hindus to lay the foundations of a Rama temple on the land adjacent to the mosque. Finally in 1992 Hindus tore down the mosque, sparking nationwide rioting between Hindus and Muslims in which over 2,500 people died.
What is wrong with this picture? There is a continued attempt to correct history. The irony is that the correction itself becomes a new chapter in the ongoing saga. Once the mosque was demolished, rage started forming in the hearts of Muslims. On the other hand, the Hindus see the demolition of the mosque as only half a victory. They want to see the temple of Rama built on the site.
Every year, the anniversary of the mosque’s demolition serves as a reminder to both fervent Hindus and fervent Muslims that they have to correct history in their favor. So each year they engage in stepped-up rhetoric favoring their side of the story, leading to further violence, which goes down in history as requiring further correction. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the current prime minister of India, sought to appease both Hindu and Muslim leaders by setting up an Ayodhya cell in his office and appointing a senior official to hold talks with leaders from both camps. But no firm decision has been reached by the government yet.
In the 21st century, India’s decision-making capacity resembles that of the pre-colonial era. The government, in its narrow focused pursuit of votes, is rendered helpless as it risks losing popularity no matter what the decision. This year, hundreds of Hindu volunteers converged on the site to commit to the construction of a new temple at the site of the demolished mosque. On their way back to Gujarat, a train full of Hindu activists was attacked and set ablaze resulting in the violent deaths of over 50 Hindu activists. All law and order broke down as Hindus took to the streets to avenge the deaths of their slain brothers. This violence will not only continue, but it will escalate unless a decision is reached immediately.
Reflecting upon India’s roots in pluralistic and secular democracy, it seemed that this issue be resolved by rebuilding both the mosque and the temple so that both Hindus and Muslims could pray side by side. But now, the folly of that solution is evident. No matter how benevolent or noble a solution one may seek, the very attempt to seek a solution is an attempt to correct the history and right the wrong. As long as we continue to focus on fixing past problems, every solution will be limited by the parameters established by previous historical tragedies. Any attempt at righting the previous errors will fall short of someone’s expectations. And therefore, every one of those solutions will create new problems.
If, for instance, Hindus and Muslims are allowed to pray side by side, one morning in the future, as a devotee of one religion is walking down a path, someone from the other religion will throw a stone. All it will take is a small incident to re-ignite the kind of violence we have seen in recent weeks and in too many similar incidents in years and centuries now gone. I now think the only way to resolve this issue is first and foremost to clearly accept that what has transpired so far belongs in the past. It has already happened. It can’t be undone. Period. While we cannot undo or correct past mistakes, we can, and must always, learn from them.
Once we make this shift in perspective, this prime site will speak to us itself. Many creative opportunities will emerge to use this sacred piece of land which all Indian citizens can enjoy, should be able to enjoy, and can rightfully proclaim to be theirs–for we all must be proud of, and take ownership of, our country. This year the carnage has already claimed over 600 lives. We now know the answer does not lie in religion. Instead of religious leaders, we must seek advice from environmentally conscious architects. We must seek to nurture this piece of land in some other way.
Perhaps we can build a beautiful park where birds sing, flowers bloom, and Hindus as well as Muslims can sit on a bench and reflect upon the meaning of truth. A hospital to treat needy patients or a school where children can study side-by-side, irrespective of their religion. Perhaps we can build a history museum and salvage for posterity some lessons from this mayhem, so that the future generations can write their history with greater knowledge and a broader perspective. The opportunities will be plenty and much more meaningful if we give up seeking to correct history and instead seek to learn from it.
Darshana Nadkarni is a corporate trainer in areas including leadership development, change issues, cross-cultural effectiveness, and diversity.