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Did India Pass the Secularism Test?

In Mumbai on Sept. 29, 2010, Indian schoolgirls hold signs advocating for tolerance as they march with a peace rally on the eve of the Babri Masjid mosque verdict. (Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images)
by admin
8 October 2010

By Komal Hiranandani

On September 30, 2010,
the Allahabad Court in India delivered its judgment on the allotment of land in
and around the Babri Masjid mosque, which both Hindus and Muslims claim as a
religious site. Two-thirds of the land went to Hindus and one-third went to the
Muslims. India has already faced much strife—including riots in 1992 that killed some 2,000 people—over this land, and so
the judgment was understandably accompanied by anxiety about whether violence
would erupt again. Remarkably, none did.

The voices for peace were
omnipresent. Religious leaders, government officials, political parties, and
local celebrities alike joined campaigns in the media, online, and through
public appearances, appealing for calm following the verdict. Many schools and offices in India remained closed
on the verdict day, the day was declared a dry day, bulk text messages were
banned, and tens of thousands of security personnel were deployed across the
country. But the security forces were not tested. Even
so, it is too early to congratulate the country for overcoming anti-secular
forces. Both Hindu and Muslim groups are pursuing appeals of the judgment in
the Supreme Court in the hopes of obtaining the entire land.

Yet, it is noteworthy
that groups refrained from making celebratory statements or holding
demonstrations after the verdict. It is even more significant that groups that
once supported destructive means to secure the disputed land now asked their
supporters to remain non-violent. The main opposition Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in India
can credit much of its rise in the 1990s to its robust support for building a
temple on the contested site. Today, in praise of the peace that followed the
verdict, the BJP said that India was in a new era of intercommunity relations.

While the
issue remains highly politicized, in the past the politicization has led to
thousands of deaths. Today, no party found it prudent to call for violent
reactions to the verdict. Perhaps they perceive that India has moved on, with
more to look forward to than to look back on. With India's development on
everyone's mind, divisive politics would not yield the best returns.

religious fundamentalism and conflicts continue to plague India, the country
can at least claim a small victory in passing a test of its democratic
institutions. This is a big moment for all developing societies. The aftermath
of the Allahabad Court verdict marked the mass acceptance of the judicial
process to resolve contentious religious disputes. Even those discontented with
the ruling are pursuing judicial means to try to achieve their ends.

But then
again, what will happen when the Supreme Court rules on the appeals, and there
is no further judicial recourse for unsatisfied parties? It took about 60
years for the Allahabad judgement to finally be passed. We have seen the prominence of the issue diminish during these years, especially since 1992, when
it was contentious enough to spark riots. Will the issue still be salient when
the Supreme Court finally gets around to its judgment? Or can the Supreme
Court delay the judgment long enough in the hopes that the issue will, one
day, no longer be salient?

Komal Hiranandani is a staff member of
Asia Society India Centre. The opinions expressed in this piece are entirely
her own and do not reflect the views of the Asia Society India Centre.