One of the critical currents of con- temporary Indian political history has been Hindutva’s cerebral politics over the Ram Janmabhumi-Babri Masjid conflict and continuous struggle by its historians to create a coherent and authentic historical narrative that would demolish the dominant narrative on Ram and Ayodhya as constructed by the ‘Left Historians’. While many such earlier attempts have by and large produced trash, propagandist pamphlets without much credibility, this time, Meenakshi Jain, one of the few accomplished Hindutva historians, has made a serious exercise which could not be dismissed outright. Earlier, Jain’s contribution as the author of the NCERT’s text-book on Medieval Indian History became a face saving for the then BJP government when the sponsored volumes on Ancient and Modern India were found to be atrocious.
Jain’s volume is quite timely when an upbeat Hindutva is in a quandary whether or not to bring Rama back to the 2014 elections campaign; while it cannot afford to dump Rama altogether, still it would not risk invoking him with the same passion as it did in the past. In the midst of this tentativeness, this volume aspires to create a quiet impact when the Left’s usual fiery opposition to Hindutva has been by and large absent in the current public discourse. As the Rama wave loses its force and fury, the counter aggression obviously becomes frail and feeble.
The book has 15 chapters consisting of 29 coloured photographs of terracottas, seals, pillars, excavation sites and maps relating to Ram and Ayodhya, since the second century BCE onwards. In the introduction, Jain makes her intention clear: Hindutva’s Ram Katha cannot be told without running down the ‘Left Historians’. Thus, she begins by pointing out ‘the belligerence of Left academics’ like Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib toward the 2010 Allahabad High Court Judgement on the Ramjanmabhumi/Babri Masjid dispute. As Jain mentions, Thapar calls this verdict ‘a political Judgement’ and ‘a response to an appeal by Hindu faith and belief’, which has not only ‘annulled respect for history and seeks to replace history with religious faith’ but also made a serious omission by not mentioning the ‘act of wanton destruction’ of the Babri Masjid. For Habib, the Judgement has been ‘astonishingly one-sided’ and ‘an absolute legitimation’ of the demolition of the Babri Masjid; moreover, the conferment of judicial entity on ‘a supernatural power’ is inconsistent with the secular tenets of the Indian Constitution. As Jain observes, these negative responses merely reflect the failure of the Left historians to present substantive evidence and convincing arguments in the Court. Like her Hindutva compatriots, the author seems to be enamoured by this favourable Judgement; the Lords of the Court appear to be more sanctimonious than Lord Rama himself. What would happen if the Supreme Court turns down this verdict? Then, for Hindutva, the Lords of the Court may perhaps turn out to be demons!
The book is organized around three major themes: first, construction of antiquity and popularity of the Rama cult; second, pre-sentation of Ayodhya’s history and evolution of the Mandir-Masjid conflict—religious, political and legal; and third, rebuttal to the Left historians’ version on Rama and Ayo-dhya, particularly in the context of the dismissal of their arguments by the Allahabad High Court.
The first theme on the antiquity of the Rama cult and its pan-Indian popularity are crucial to counter the contrary arguments put forward by the Left historians. Jain attempts to score over the opponents by providing literary, sculptural and epigraphic evidence. Thus, the author selectively extrapolates stray observations and arguments from both indigenous and foreign sources and weaves them together to make her arguments appear convincing. For instance, evidence on literary sources, on the one hand, borrows from the works of Herman Jacobi, A.A. Mcdonnel, Sheldon Pollock, John Brokington and Father Bulke, and on the other, makes use of Puranic, Buddhist and Jain literature along with the references from ancient texts of Bhasa and Ashvaghosha to the contemporary writings of V.S. Sukthankar and H.D. Sankalia. No doubt, her attempt to establish the antiquity of the Rama cult by intelligently selecting from these disparate sources has produced a useful compilation, but certainly not authentic history. An historian’s craft needs to be distinguished from the craft of writing! On the aspect of Ramayana’s pan-Indian popularity, the author, after highlighting different regional Ramayanas, claims that there ‘was scarcely a part of India that did not produce its Rama story’. By the time of the ‘Muslim invasions’, she observes, the Ramayana ‘had evidently been deeply ingrained in the minds of the populace’ which ‘dents the claims of the Left academics on the late popularity of the Ramayana.’ The two chapters, constructing the Rama cult on the basis of sculptural and epigraphic evidence, primarily draw on different regional sources and traditions; but she argues that these are not ‘multiple versions’ as they conform to the ‘paramount status’ of the Valmiki Ramayana (p. 263), thus constituting a single pan-Indian tradition of Rama.
The second theme revolves around the antiquity of Ayodhya and the evolution of the Janmasthan-Masjid conflict. Her story of Ayodhya begins in Satya Yuga, when Manu founded the city and handed it over to Ikshvaku. As she claims, the history of India thus ‘commenced in the revered city’; for Hindutva, if Rama is the national hero, then Ayodhya, after all, has to be the Hindu Jerusalem. She has shown how Ayodhya, the capital of Kosala, had passed on to different Hindu kingdoms since Dasaratha—the Nandas, the Mauryas, the Sungas, the Dattas, the Kushanas, the Mitras, the Guptas, the Maukharis, the Pratiharas—until it came under the Muslim invaders, first Mahmud of Ghaznavi, followed by Muhammad Ghori, the Sharquis, and finally Babur. Though Jain observes that Babri Masjid was ‘apparently raised’ (p.100) during Babur’s stay at Ayodhya in 1528, she fails to provide any evidence of demolition by Babur. Thus, she concludes, on the basis of Peter van der Veer’s observation, that there ‘was a wide spread belief that the prestige of the Janmabhumi temple had aroused the envy of local Muslims, especially the pir…He goaded Babur to demolish the temple and raise a mosque in its stead’(p. 100). Can belief be taken as authentic historical evidence? Then the author proceeds to describe how different Hindu rulers made attempts to reclaim various Hindu sacred spaces; while the Maratha focus was the holy city of Banaras, the Amer ruler Sawai Jai Singh acquired land and established Jaisinghpuras in important Hindu religious centres including Ayodhya in order to restore Hindu Dharma. She cites sources to claim that Rama Janmasthan was situated in Jaisinghpura and the ownership of the Janmasthan land was vested in the deity (p. 113). Then she attempts to construct an exclusive Hindu Ayodhya simply relying on the British administrative sources: while Montgomery Martin depicts Ayodhya as a ‘Hindu city’ and Faizabad as a ‘Moham-medan city’, P. Carnegy observes that Jan-masthan marked the place where Rama was born and where Babur built the mosque. She further uses citations from Neville, and Alexander Cunningham to strengthen her argument. In order to prove that Hindu-Muslim conflict and contestation over Ayodhya is not of recent origin but has a long history, Jain shows the surge in court cases on the Ramjanmanbhumi/Babri Masjid after 1857. Citing a petition by Muhammad Asghar(30.11.1958), which was taken cognizance of the Allahabad High Court, Jain argues that that there was a concrete proof showing that Hindus prayed in the Masjid. She further mentions that the controversy was not confined to the legal sphere alone; Ayodhya witnessed communal riots in 1912 and 1934. After Independence Hindus represented the UP government to raise a Rama temple and their mobilization finally led to the installation of Ram Lalla in the Mosque on 23rd December 1949.
The last part/theme of the book attempts a systematic rebuttal to the Left historians on the basis of the ASI Report and expose their failure in the Allahabad High Court. Compared to other Hindutva historians like Koenrad Elst, who made rabid, intolerant and fanatical aggression on the Left historians, Meenakshi Jain appears to be subtle and sophisticated. Pre-fixing ‘Professor’ before Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and R.S. Sharma may not necessarily be a conscious reverence to their scholarship, but may very well be a strategy to convey the message that Hindutva has acquired enough ammunition to present a Hindu history in a more competent and professional manner, moving away from its earlier acrimony and diatribes. It is though another matter, regrettably, that Hindutva historians are still way behind the so-called Left historians in terms of scholarship as well as professionalism. Jain thinks otherwise, however! She does not miss out a single point to expose the ‘falsity’ of her opponents; but she does it in a different style. For instance, she systematically culls out the professional limitations of each and every Left/pro-Babri historian from their recorded depositions before the Allahabad High Court and Court’s adverse observations. Calling Thapar, Habib and Sharma as ‘emotional Marxists’, she wants to convey that their history-writing is based more on emotion and ideology rather than historical facts.
Incidentally, a major portion of Meenakshi Jain’s work is devoted less to Rama and Ayodhya, but more to the Left/pro-Babri historians. This suggests that the hegemony of the Left historians still remains intellectually overpowering. She could have done an excellent service to Hindutva had she written an authentic history of Rama and Ayodhya which would stand on its own and become a reference point in its own right.
Pralay Kanungo is a Professor at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.