Irfan Engineer

[Some Hindu religious zealots believe that in ancient times, monkeys built a bridge on the Indian ocean between India and Sri Lanka to facilitate the passage of the army of their god Rama to go to the land of Ravana; in the confrontation between the state and the fundamentalists, the spineless United Progressive Government of India has backed down. The article below by Irfan Engineer presents an analysis of this episode. Ed.]

In a developing country like India, if faith is pitted against secularism, it proves advantageous politically to the rightist political parties. It amounts to playing on their home turf. Sangh Parivar (this refers to combined forces of Hindu fundamentalism led by RSS or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) has always derided secularism as a western concept. The BJP, and to some extend media commentators and columnists also, have been seeing the issue of affidavit filed by the Archeological Survey of India in the Supreme Court in reply to a petition challenging Ramasethu Samudram Project in this light. The Petition before the Supreme Court challenges the Project on the ground of faith stating that pursuing the project would mean damaging a historical bridge that was built by the monkey army of Lord Ram from the eastern coast of India to Sri Lanka. The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) under the pressure and threats from BJP has sought permission of the Supreme Court to withdraw its earlier affidavit wherein it took the stand that there was no proof that Lord Ram existed. Constituent Parties of UPA, including the Congress took a stand that no evidence was required to prove existence of Lord Ram, though they maintain that there is no man made structure and Adam’s Bridge that exists is a natural formation of sand and corals. Media commentators and columnists have criticized the Government. arguing that it should not have questioned the existence of Lord Ram, which amounts to questioning something that is a matter of faith. They further argue that secularism, as we practice in India, doesn’t mean that state will be intolerant of religion, but that the State will maintain equidistance from all religions.

The ASI’s affidavit nowhere questioned the existence of Lord Ram. It was neither competent nor called upon to comment on existence or otherwise of Lord Ram. That is indeed a matter of faith and left to individuals according to Article 25 of the Constitution. When called upon to file a reply to a petition claiming that there was a Ram Setu which was built by Lord Ram’s monkey army, as an expert body it stated that if there was no evidence of existence of Lord Ram, it could not be scientifically accepted that there was any Ram Setu constructed by his monkey army. ASI is an expert body which studies and maintains historical structures and cultural heritage of India. ASI was required file its reply to the issue of Ram Setu and it did so. Sangh Parivar smelt an opportunity there and misled the people of the country stating that the Government headed by Manmohan Singh under the direction of UPA Chairperson questioned the faith of millions of Hindus. Distinction should be made between opinion and evidence of existence of Lord Ram. All those who have opinion that Lord Ram exists, may not have evidence. This is true of all the believers who might be called upon to prove their respective Gods in whom they believe. One would expect an expert body like ASI to give its opinion on the evidence that the Adam’s Bridge was built by monkey army of Lord Ram. It is a perfect legal counter that there was no evidence of existence of Lord Ram himself, let alone about his monkey army constructing Adam’s Bridge. Any counsel representing ASI in a court of law and opposing the petition would be tempted to take that legal defense.

We will make a big mistake if we see the issue of Adam’s Bridge versus Ram Setu through the prism of faith versus secularism. The issue must be seen in the light of faith versus law of the land. If the government of the day in public interest has taken a decision to dredge a canal after taking all the relevant factors into account with due process, can the decision be challenged in a court of law on the ground of faith? That is what the petition was doing. The answer to the question is a clear no, as our Constitution is secular. The defense to such a petition then, is perfectly tempting for any counsel as was initially taken by the ASI. The decision of the Government can be challenged in a court of law on other grounds, viz. that it is not in public interest, that it violates fundamental rights or Wednesbury principle (a 1948 court decision requiring public bodies to be reasonable in their decisions) that Government has not followed due process of law in making its decision, taking all the relevant factors (like environment) into account and not that it has based its decision on any extraneous factors which it should not have taken into account.

The Sangh Parivar on the other hand wants the Government to decide all policy decisions on the extraneous factor of faith of Hindus. Such an attempt is an insidious effort to create a legal regime privileging the Hindu faith over others, as Islamic faith is privileged in Pakistan, the Hindu faith in the Kingdom of Nepal, and other religious faiths in other theocratic states, such as Israel. During its agitation on the issue of Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue, the Sangh Parivar could not come with any evidence to prove that birthplace of Lord Ram was on the precise spot where Babri Masjid existed. Therefore the Sangh Parivar through its extensive propaganda made vulnerable people believe that the location of Babri Masjid was on the place where Lord Ram was born, and then claimed that no proof of birth of Lord Ram on a particular location was necessary as it was a matter of faith for Hindus. The Sangh Parivar was not willing to accept the decision of any court by placing any evidence, let alone cogent evidence of Lord Ram’s birth on the location where Babri Masjid then stood. The Sangh Parivar’s demand during the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation was that there should be legislation to hand over the premises of Babri Masjid to a Hindu trust for construction of Ramjanmabhoomi Mandir based not on evidence but on faith of Hindus. Even if we accept that Hindus have faith that Lord Ram was born in the Ayodhya where Babri Masjid once stood, the issue before the courts of law cannot be whether Lord Ram was born on the location or even whether there was a Ramjanmabhoomi temple on the location. The only issue which the secular courts established under the Constitution can be called upon to decide is dispute of ownership of the premises of Babri Masjid and undisputedly from the year 1526 till 1949 the ownership of the premises of Babri Masjid was recorded in the name of a Muslim trust and they were in occupation. After 1949 orders of Collector, and later Courts, restrained the Muslims from offering namaz. The law of adverse possession states that if a person not having title to an immovable property is in possession of it for more than 12 years, and the rightful owner did not take any remedial measures, the title of the property passes onto the party having adverse possession. The Sangh Parivar was not confident that Courts of law would be able to hand over the possession of the Babri Masjid premises to Hindu litigants on the basis of existing laws and therefore wanted a new legislation based on faith of Hindus. Any state where laws of land are based on the faith of one particular community is anything but a secular state. Of course, such a law would be open to challenge for violation of Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution, which give all persons freedom of conscience and lay the foundation of secularism.

This time round, the Sangh Parivar is making another effort by threatening to mobilize popular support privileging faith over law and judiciary. Hindus are at liberty to have their faith in existence of Lord Ram as are Muslims, Christians and others to have faith in their own mythologies. The issue in the Ramsethu Samudram project therefore is not whether Hindus can have faith in existence of Lord Ram but whether the execution of project should be subject to faith of one particular community. If the Indian Courts, legislatures and executive do gradually accept this premise on whatever grounds, it will not only be end of secularism in the country, but beginning of continuous communal conflicts in plural India.

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