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 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.

While 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.