Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi and the Question of Sacred Space
Posted by Chloe Packer on October 12, 2010
In 1992 in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, rioters tore down a mosque known as the Babri Masjid, which had originally replaced a Hindu temple some 450 years before. Over 2000 people died in the riots that followed. A court battle ensued to determine who truly had the right to this land. The verdict was announced on Sept. 24th of this year.
Disclaimer: there’s a lot of players in this controversy—any listeners should keep in mind that this is a simplified report of the issue’s history.
Before we get to the verdict, some history:
The Babri Masjid site was originally home to a Hindu temple. The site is known as Ram Janmabhoomi, and is supposed to be the birthplace of Ram, the seventh avatar of the Hindu god, Vishnu. In 1528, the year after the founder of the Mughal dynasty came to power in Northern India, a temple was either torn down or was modified to create the Babri Masjid, a mosque.
The first riot (that we have on record at any rate) that broke out over the Babri Masjid occurred in 1853, under the British.
In the ensuing 157 years, the site has been disputed in and out of court, it has been locked and unlocked; both Muslims and Hindus have at different times been denied access to the site and it has been a source for disharmony between Indian Muslims and Indian Hindus, with both sides saying they have the right to ownership of the land. In 1989, Vishnu Hindu Parishad, or VHP, an international Hindu organization moved to place the foundation stone for a temple to Ram on the Babri Masjid site, which greatly intensified the issue, and finally in 1992 a group of rioters tore down the mosque. A commission probing the cause of the riot was leaked to the press, the results of which indicated that the riot and demolition had been planned by top members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, India’s nationalist, right wing and predominantly Hindu political party. It is also the second largest party in India.
A court case also ensued to determine which religious group owned the property rights to the land and the verdict was announced this September. It should also be noted that pieces for a Ram temple have been in construction and are ready to be put together. It’s also important to keep in mind that there are several suits in this case, but that the title suit was the question of ownership of the site.
The Allahabad High Court announced that the land would be divided into three, part to the Hindus, one part to the Muslims, and a third part to the Nirmohi Akhara, another Hindu denomination. It also declared that the site is indeed the birthplace of Ram and that the mosque was constructed against the principles of Islam. In addition, the court has also declared that the mosque was built with parts of the old Hindu temple, and that these 2.7 acres are an official Hindu site of worship.
In The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, an article on Oct. 1, 2010 read: “For every Hindu who believes the spot under the central dome of the Babri Masjid is the precise spot where Lord Ram was born there is another who believes something else. But leaving aside the question of who “the Hindus” referred to by the court really are and how their actual faith and belief was ascertained and measured, it is odd that a court of law should give such weight to theological considerations and constructs rather than legal reasoning and facts.”
So, there is some discussion about the validity of this ruling, at least in the media. Two religious groups, two faith groups, were fighting over this site and the court decided to use faith as part of the basis for its ruling.
As we all know, this is not the only site in the world that is fought over by one or more religions:
Dome of the Rock/Wailing Wall in Israel
Buddhas of Bamiyan destroyed by the Taliban
Preah Vihear Temple fought over by Cambodia and Thailand
The Shaolin temple in China
So, this whole story raises an important issue for skeptics:
Can a secular state (India is a secular state, on the books) make decisions based on theology about a religious site?
Why should religious sites be given special status?
Why should they even be preserved?
The Taliban said when they tore down the Buddhas, “[a]ll we’re breaking is stones”. They have a point, but what about the historical and archeological value of these sites?
Please e-mail us if you would like to share your views on these issues or tune in to our podcast to hear our spirited discussion!