India’s Ayodhya Verdict Threatens Democracy, not Secularism
By Nandini Deo and Amy Erica Smith
On November 9th, the Indian Supreme Court issued its final ruling in India’s most famous religious dispute. Taking the side of the Hindu god Ram—under Indian law, gods are people and have standing to sue—the Supreme Court awarded Ram and his devotees a controversial site in the north Indian town of Ayodhya, where Hindus had torn down a mosque in 1992. The Court accepted their claims that a Hindu temple had stood in that place before the mosque replaced it in the 16th century, and offered some adjoining land to build a mosque as compensation.
Why have so few Indian Muslims protested the decision? And what does it mean for Indian secularism, parties, and democracy?
In the West, most observers have seen this as a serious blow to India’s Muslims and as confirmation of the takeover of the state by Hindu nationalism, under the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Western media has decried the Ayodhya decision as a violation of secularism.
However, that’s an inaccurate interpretation of Indian secularism. Indian secularism follows very different rules and principles than we are used to in the West. Instead, the real reason the verdict is a threat is that no significant political force is contesting it.
How did we get here?
On December 6, 1992 Indians were riveted to their televisions as they watched a crowd of 300 thousand karsevaks (Hindu religious volunteers) swarm all over a 16th century mosque known as the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.
The police stood by as Hindu nationalists used sticks, crowbars, and their bare hands to demolish the structure in the name of the god Ram. They believe that Ram was born in the same location as the mosque and that erecting the mosque was an act of Muslim aggression against the country’s Hindu majority.
Litigation over the premises began in the middle of the 19th century. In the aftermath of the demolition, hundreds lost their lives in riots across the country while the court cases multiplied.
Here’s what the decision teaches us about religion and politics in India.
This might seem like a sign of the fall of Indian secularism and triumph of Hindu nationalism. However, some historical background shows the story is a bit more complicated.
This decision is based on faulty scholarship and unsubstantiated historical claims. On legal grounds, though, it is compatible with India’s version of secularism. Indian secularism has never been about a separation of religion and the state. Rather, it attempts to treat each major religion with equity.
What equity requires in specific conflicts is highly contested and ambiguous. The state is frequently involved in religious property disputes, governs religious educational institutions, provides resources to support various pilgrimages etc. This verdict is not unusual in having a god as a litigant. The interpretation of archeological evidence and scriptural texts is also a common enough feature of legal interventions in India.
In political terms, the decision is a major shift in the status quo. This judgment continues the process of intimidating India’s beleaguered Muslim minority. It reminds them that they have no allies, and that in today’s India might makes right.
In India, Hindus make up about 80% of the population. Violent conflict between Hindus and Muslims has flared periodically in response to electoral competition, status fights, and resource scarcity. In most incidents, Hindus are the aggressors and Muslims are victims. Religious riots have disparate causes, but their consequences remain constant: they unite Hindus around their religious identity, across internal divisions of language, caste, and class, and they serve as a warning to Muslims to keep their heads down.
This decision bolsters Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism: the belief that India is the homeland for Hindus and that followers of other faiths, especially Muslims and Christians, should defer to Hindus.
Here’s what the decision teaches us about parties and democracy in India.
The ruling party, the BJP, is Hindu nationalist. In the 1980s, the BJP first emerged as a significant national electoral presence through the campaign that ultimately destroyed the Babri Masjid. In the 2014 and 2019 elections, the party secured a majority in parliament and grew powerful enough to advance even its most controversial policies. Most significant is its August decision to revoke the special status of Muslim majority Kashmir and impose a months-long communications crackdown on its people.
Most political parties in India claim to be secular. In fact, electoral rules prohibit campaigning on the basis of religious appeals. Especially in Northern India, opposition parties count on Muslim votes.
However, even though they often paint themselves as defenders of the Muslim community, no major party has come out in opposition to the Ayodhya verdict. The Indian National Congress party issued a statement saying it “respected” the verdict. The explicitly secular Aam Aadmi party and the BSP “welcomed” the decision. The Samajwadi party deployed poetry to claim the decision would bridge the gap between Hindus and Muslims and provide a way forward for more amicable relations. The only critical voices have been from elements of the Muslim community and some embattled left-leaning intellectuals. The Communist parties said parts of the judgement were questionable but overall it was a “reconciliatory” decision. Essentially, there has been no opposition.
The Ayodhya verdict and its aftermath are an echo of the lack of opposition to the Indian state’s takeover of Kashmir in October.
Why the partisan consensus? Perhaps opposition parties thought these events were unjust, but calculated that open opposition risked violence that could endanger Muslims. Or, perhaps Hindu dominance has become so mainstream that opposition is seen as a losing and unpopular position.
The truly frightening aspect of the Ayodhya decision is the reaction to it. The fact that no major opposition party has spoken out is what we should worry about. A democracy without an opposition is hollow. In the absence of a robust opposition, elections are meaningless and accountability disappears.
The checks and balances that all democratic systems require can take a variety of forms. In the Indian parliamentary system, federalism and national opposition parties provide the chief checks on the ruling party’s power. Part of the work of opposition parties in a parliamentary system is to differentiate themselves from the ruling party. If everyone is too afraid or unwilling to speak out, there is effectively no competition left in Indian politics.
That leaves only state governments as a check on the BJP. As more and more states themselves come under BJP control, even that bulwark is being eroded. Increasingly India’s democracy itself is at risk.
Nandini Deo is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University, and author of a number of books, including Mobilizing Religion and Gender in India: The Role of Activism.
Amy Erica Smith is Associate Professor of Political Science, as well as a Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean's Professor, at Iowa State University. Among her most recent publications is Religion and Brazilian Democracy: Mobilizing the People of God.