2018: India’s Year of Turmoil

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs yoga with others to mark the International Day of Yoga, in New Delhi, India, June 21, 2015. Modi led tens of thousands of people in the yoga session in the centre of the capital on Sunday to showcase the country's signature cultural export, which has prompted criticism of fomenting social divisions at home. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

A long-simmering dispute over a religious site may have another turn in the spotlight.

The RSS and BJP are, therefore, likely to take recourse to the Hindutva card in a big way in 2018 to ensure that the Modi government returns to power in 2019. This has been already demonstrated by the RSS’s decision to launch another major rath yatra beginning on February 13. It will begin in Ayodhya, the site of the Ram Mandir/Babri Masjid dispute, and end at Rameswaram in southern India after traversing a number of states over thirty-nine days. It will be called the “Ram Rajya Rath Yatra” (the Chariot March for Ram’s Rule) and will be flagged off by the chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh—himself a radical and divisive Hindutva political figure. The BJP obviously believes that this chariot march, like its predecessor in 1990, will provide it with handsome electoral dividends.

This march, and the meetings associated with it, will also once again bring the Ram Mandir issue to the forefront of Indian politics. The issue’s prominence has coincidentally been reinforced by the decision of the Indian Supreme Court to take up the Babri Masjid demolition case and deliver a speedy judgment on it soon. The case has been lying there for eight years, on appeal from a judgment rendered by the Allahabad High Court in 2010.

The Supreme Court held a one-day hearing on the issue on February 8, but postponed further hearings until March 14 because the litigants—one on the Muslim side and two on the Hindu side—had not provided English translations of important documents that it needs to peruse. It has, however, announced that it will deal expeditiously with the case once the hearing starts on March 14. If the Supreme Court stays true to its word, the case is likely to be decided much before the national elections to be held in 2019. Its outcome is likely to impact the electoral fortunes of the BJP in a big way, since the ruling party has committed itself to the construction of a Ram temple at the site of the Babri mosque.

The chief justice of India, who is presiding over the three-judge bench that will render the final decision on the Babri Masjid demolition case, has made it clear that the Supreme Court will not take into account any emotional, religious or political factors while reaching its decision. It will treat the case as purely a land dispute. This is in stark contrast to the Allahabad High Court judgment of 2010, that heavily relied on Hindu mythology and contested archaeological findings. Consequently, it had allocated two-thirds of the disputed site, including the area where the main hall of the Babri Masjid had stood, to the Hindus and the remaining one-third to the Muslims. In 2010 one of the Supreme Court judges, while staying the Allahabad High Court order and admitting the appeal against it, called that judgment “strange.”

While it is impossible to predict the Supreme Court’s final decision, the chief justice’s statement that the court will treat it as purely a land dispute signals that there is a higher chance of the decision going in favor of the Muslim party—the Sunni Wakf Board, which has based its case largely on property-related legal documents and arguments appropriate for a title suite. The Hindu parties, on the other hand, rely heavily on disputed archaeological evidence or on myths parading as history.

The BJP government will be in great trouble if the Supreme Court decides in favor of the Muslim litigant‚ the Sunni Wakf Board. For then, the court would have to order the government to rebuild the mosque, and in the process demolish the makeshift Ram temple that currently occupies that space. How the BJP government will deal with such an order, if this comes to pass, is anyone’s guess. At the same time, the BJP government’s supporters will take it to task for avoiding the commitment it made during the 2014 election and earlier: that if returned to power it would build the Ram Mandir at all cost. Its electoral fortunes in 2019 could thus be in grave jeopardy.

Fearing such an outcome, the BJP and its supporters increasingly favor an out-of-court settlement, and are working hard to make it happen before the Supreme Court renders its decision. However, an out-of-court settlement has earlier proven elusive, and is likely to prove so again—especially since the Hindu parties to the dispute are unwilling to compromise on their principal demand that the Ram Mandir must be built at the same spot where the Babri Masjid stood. The Muslims, on the other hand, insist that they will only accept a decision rendered by the Supreme Court, and are no longer interested in an out-of-court settlement.