As the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seek to build a Ram mandir, or temple, in Ayodhya, the Muslim community is divided on how to bring "closure" to an issue that continues to mobilise the Hindu right-wing.
A section of the Muslim community—which includes members of the clergy—feel that some kind of compromise, either before or after the Supreme Court verdict, would be the best and most prudent course of action.
Meanwhile, an equally influential section—which includes members of the state and bureaucracy—feel that any compromise would embolden the Hindu right to launch similar agitations against other mosques in the country, and would leave the negotiators of this compromise vulnerable to the charge of selling out.
Some Islamic scholars like Maulana Salman Nadwi of Lucknow's renowned Islamic Nadwa seminary have favoured shifting the site of construction of a new mosque (to replace the destroyed Babri Masjid) to a spot away from Ayodhya. Maulana Nadwi has cited the example of the second Caliph, Umar Bin Khattab, (584 CE – 644 CE) who shifted a masjid in Kufa (present day Iraq) to another site, and established a market of dates in its place.
Maulana Nadwi has also drawn attention to the Treaty of Hudaibiyah, signed between the Prophet Mohammed and the Quraysh clan of Mecca in 628 CE. The treaty, which resulted in the acknowledgement of the Prophet and his followers as a legitimate political and religious force, is often cited as an instance of a short-term compromise that resulted in a far-sighted victory.
Maulana Nadwi's call to avoid conflict and clash has not gone down well with many Muslim community leaders. In February 2018, Nadwi was expelled from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), an informal but influential body of various Muslim sects in India.
A significant section of Muslim scholars, retired bureaucrats, members of judiciary and those well versed in politics, feel a compromise or a "goodwill" gesture might result in demands for similar concessions from Muslims for other places of worship including Krishna Janmabhoomi-Idgah dispute at Mathura, and the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi.
The fears of Muslim scholars are well-founded: In the spring of 1990, Arun Shourie, journalist-turned-BJP-minister-turned-Modi-critic, and Hindu revivalists Sitaram Goel, Ram Swarup, Jay Dubashi and Harsh Narain, published a list of 3000 mosques that they claimed were actually temples, in a two-volume tract titled Hindu Temples: What happened to them.
In private conversation, Syed Shahabuddin, former foreign service officer-the turned politician-parliamentarian who died in 2017, used to say that he often toyed with the idea of making some sort of unilateral goodwill gesture in the Ayodhya dispute but backed out fearing that the demand may go on for Mathura, Kashi and beyond.
A court verdict—even if unfavourable—might be preferable to a compromise, said scholars and former bureaucrats seeking anonymity to speak freely. Their reason being that any compromise, irrespective of its terms, would be seen as a betrayal of the interests of the Muslims. The recrimination will only grow with time, they fear, while even a total reversal from the apex court would bring a sense of closure in the long term.
By this argument, one source said, even an ordinance to build the Ram mandir, would offer the beleaguered Muslim community "better closure" as the villain would be the government and not "one of us". The fact that the current Muslim appellants in Ayodhya dispute cannot be said to represent the Muslim community in its entirety, means that any out-of-court settlement will only create fresh complications.
Chandra Shekhar, Rao and Vajpayee
There have been at least nine attempts to solve the Ayodhya dispute since 1859, when communal clashes over the possession of the site prompted the colonial administration to erect a fence separating the inner courtyard, to be used by Muslims, and the outer courtyard used by the Hindus.
Three of the most serious attempts were made during the Chandra Shekhar, P V Narasimha Rao, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee regimes.
In 1990, then prime minister Chandra Sekhar tried to resolve the dispute by bringing the VHP and Muslim historians to the negotiating table, but VHP cadres damaged the Babri Masjid, bringing an abrupt end to talks.
In his book Ayodhya 6 December 1992 (Penguin/Viking 2006) , former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao made a singular point—attempts at a solution were scuttled by the BJP. Always careful with words, the late Prime Minister insisted that the BJP scuppered a possible solution to the temple dispute to keep the Ayodhya pot boiling.
Till August 1992, Rao says, his talks with "apolitical" sadhus and sanyasis on how and where to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya "without breaking the law or upsetting communal harmony" were proceeding quite well. Then, all of a sudden, the sadhus broke off the talks.
"Why did they go back on their promise?'" Rao wondered and then offered an explanation, "It was clear that there was a change of mind on their part or, what is more likely, on the part of political forces that controlled them.These forces deliberately wanted to get out of a friendly situation which the sanyasis were getting into with me and which, if left to itself, would have made the mandir issue wholly apolitical."
This subtle aspect of the Ram Janmabhoomi matter suggests that while Hindu masses were swayed by their devotion to Ram and their intense desire for the temple, the political forces behind the issue only wanted to retain a long-term, vote-rich communal issue for as long as they could, Rao remarked.
In 2003, an optimistic AIMPLB in Lucknow summoned its grand assembly to clinch the Babri Masjid issue on the premise that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime and the Sankaracharya of Kanchi would prevail upon the VHP to accept the legal mandate on the Ayodhya dispute.
Vajpayee was Prime Minister at the time, and everything looked set: The Muslim law board had given its final touches to a proposal that had sought a mosque within the 67 acres of undisputed land, a legal mandate to debar Hindutva forces from raking up Mathura and Kashi, and a plaque at the disputed site recording the chronology of the dispute.
The influential Nadwa theological school decided to back the board's bid to hammer out a compromise. Maulana Rabey Nadwi, rector of Darul-Ulum Nadwa, said there was no harm in a negotiated settlement. The Muslim Personal Law Board had invited all Muslim MPs and community leaders to thrash out the Ayodhya issue.
However, Vajpayee and Kanchi Sankaracharya's efforts to end the Ayodhya dispute were criticised by a section of the VHP clergy. The RSS too played a role in watering down the demand that Hindutva forces would give up their claim to the mosques in Mathura and Kashi.
Eventually the plan, like those before it, fell through the cracks.
Author-journalist Rasheed Kidwai is a visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.