When interpretations get sacralised, often the facts get desecrated. The raison d’etre of an emperor’s demolition drive is very different from the individual and community’s perception. With the former, demolition and desecration are to prove turf control and to assert power viscerally, not necessarily for the purpose of asserting religion unless that was the objective by itself. The iconic example is the burn down of the great library at Alexandria to assert the end of the Hellenistic world of knowledge.
We should have no illusion that all empires often destroy temples and stupas, and kill people of the other religion either directly or indirectly. Hindus have destroyed Buddhist stupas and Viharas, and utilised the debris for building the temples. Apologists feel that even though relics from stupas were thrown into water, it was never desecrated like using the broken idol as the steps for people to walk on.
The argument is just a matter of sophistry. Desecration happened when holy places of other religions were demolished or destroyed. Giovanni Vadardi’s book The Gods and the Heretics deals with all the wars between Hindus on one side and Buddhists and Jains on the other. It also enlists all the major killings organised by each religion. There is nothing benign about anyone’s behaviour. It was political power in full play. When nearly 900 Buddhists were slain in Odisha in the early 16th century during the reign of Gajapati King Pratap Rudra Deva, there was nothing malevolent in his character. He was only following the script of his time.
Until the Britishers came in and stopped the Afghan raids from the West, northern India used to see them frequently by the Warlords from Khorasan to get over their crop failure and to meet their war expenses. It was business as usual and damages to temples were incidental. Muhammad Ghazni’s raids were meant to plunder and carry away treasures. They were also breaking temples to unearth wealth rumoured to be hidden. During his 18 attacks, he never veered off to Khajuraho which is not far from his route. Obviously, his interest was in the treasure and not in the demolition. That even someone as maligned in history as Aurangzeb did not destroy the temples in Mathura on his way to Agra should make us ask the question whether the senseless demolition of Hindu temples was his imperial objective.
Recently, I visited Uttarakhand where the colloquial tagline is ‘Kankar kankar mein Shankar’. If you dig anywhere in India, one will get splinters of rock which can be either mimicking ‘lingam’ or an approximate one. We may get a real Shivling too for having humans living on this land for long. All such discoveries are by and large predictable, not serendipitous. Of course, all such discoveries make some people gain significantly. In Uttarkashi town, nearly 30 years back, digging was done by some people on a whim and a terracotta figurine of Durga emerged. Now a temple stands there and the pujari will hold forth on how it is an ancient temple and the deity is swayambhu. Eyewitnesses of the first incident will testify how humdrum was the discovery, to begin with, and all we hear today is the story spun.
Are we becoming a country of earth diggers with a renewed emphasis on ‘shovel economics’? Digging will surely mean the discovery of some icon or its lookalike. How is it just and prudent for the courts to order digging on the premises of a mosque despite the existence of a law to the effect that religious usage as it existed on August 15, 1947, will not be changed (Act of 1991)? The idea of digging to establish truth will surely resonate with people without work.
Will this become the urban employment programme of the future? And all this is in pursuit of truth which is incomplete and perhaps a whim. What does one do with the truth even if it is discovered? Will mosques be converted into temples or both religions will perform their prayers which will make these places tinderboxes? I remember the explanation from the Jewish guide in Jerusalem showing the small excavation of the temple of Solomon at a level below and covered by glass. She said, “We just want to pray even if it remains with the Arabs.” A perfect story of victimhood though on the ground facts are different; a clever ploy of foot in the door to appropriate the place a little later.
We should be mindful of the mayhem it will create in society for all time to come. True or false, historical excesses cannot be reversed. People will be spinning yarn of stories bent upon ‘othering’ non-Hindus. A large percentage of people will be unsure of themselves and their identity markers will be erased. People who are pushed to the wall often don’t have many options beyond fighting with their back to the wall. That does not portend well for our society and its future.
(Views are personal) firstname.lastname@example.org
Former Secretary, Government of India