Justice S A Bobde, the Chief Justice of India-designate, holds, quite rightly, the Ayodhya title dispute to be one of the most significant cases in the world. That is because it is much more than a title dispute. Law, as law, deals with all title disputes alike. In that case, this too is only what it purports to be: a title dispute. One title dispute is just like another. None is more significant than the rest. But the Ayodhya dispute is unique and earth-shaking, and it is hypocritical to pretend that it is not.
The key to this uniqueness lies in a cliché, which is much more than a cliché. The insistence of many on the Hindu side of this dispute that ‘faith is above facts’ can be dismissed lightheartedly only from an outlook of secular superciliousness. This renders secularists, for all their other merits and strengths, blind to the distinctive essence of religion, which operates on the ground. Liberal-secular thinkers do themselves and social realities no good by refusing to reckon with this fact.
The Ayodhya dispute offers a potent illustration of it; and, to that extent, the verdict that the country awaits with bated breath will also be a defining moment for Indian secularism. Soon enough we shall know that Ayodhya was not a mere title dispute, but also, willy-nilly, a religious assertion draped in the prolific paraphernalia of political brinkmanship.
To understand this aright—and especially to appreciate why the Ayodhya imbroglio remained preternaturally intractable for so long—we need to recognise a dictum fundamental to religions, including the two involved in this case. That dictum is: so long as something is believed, on the basis of faith, to be true, it is not necessary that it be factually true. This core principle of religiosity pits facts against faith, and vice versa. It makes faith the yardstick of truth. Truth is what is believed in. The more widely and ardently a religious matter is believed by its adherents, the truer it is. Faith is presumed to
have the power to transform an assumption into the truth. It is ‘impious’ to contest it. Nearly everything in a religion becomes invalid without this latitude.
Law, in its very essence, runs counter to this; the reason that in most religions there is a distrust of law and its guiding light, reason. This is palpable in Christian theology, and is reflected in other religions as well. The equality of all in the eye of the law is not a religious ideal.
Philosophical Hinduism notwithstanding, its practice at the popular level is predicated on the priority of faith over facts. So, those Hindu sadhus who insist that “faith is above facts” are not being obstinate.In law, however, facts are above faith. Facts are the bridle paths to the truth, which the judges are professionally trained, and obliged, to ascertain. What makes the Ayodhya dispute dauntingly complex is this paradigmatic incompatibility between means and ends. The judges have to adjudicate a matter in which the genius of their profession is incompatible with the spirit of the matter they judge. It is like asking an engineer to judge the roadworthiness of a car by riding an elephant.
The irony here is double-edged. ‘Faith-above-facts’ is a dogma endorsed by the litigants on both sides of this struggle. It is doubtful if any Muslim would stand on the side of facts when they seem inconvenient to his faith. No ‘believing’ Christian, either. If he does, he would be an object of suspicion, even aversion, in his community. All religions profess commitment to truth, but the truth acceptable to them has to come filtered through the faith. What incommodes the faith will be rejected and suppressed as heresy. A vast majority of those exterminated by the Inquisition were truth-seekers. This made Bertrand Russell say, “Faith is safe only among heretics!”
E M Foster’s novel, A Passage to India, from which I derive my present title, affords an invaluable insight into the Ayodhya stand-off: In particular, the trial scene in the novel, in which Dr Aziz is alleged to have sexually assaulted Adela Quested while they were exploring the Chandrapore Caves. Foster is suggestively vague about the facticity of the charge. Adela believes she was assaulted. Her belief is endorsed by her colonial clan.
But her certitude begins to dither in the course of the trial; she becomes uncertain. Adela’s traumatic experience in the impenetrable darkness of the caves symbolises the civilisational disquietude of one who is both attracted and intimidated by the ‘mystery or muddle’ to which she gravitates. She ‘feels’ assaulted. And it suffices that she does, till the trial peels off the ‘belief’ layer by layer with pincers of facts. A monumental litigation, surcharged with explosive racial passions on both sides, erupts around what turns out to be an illusion.
Foster is, however, mistaken that this enigma is only oriental. No, it is basic to religiosity, universally. The issue at the heart of the Ayodhya tangle pertains, one way or another, to the reach and remit of religious freedom and the conundrums thereof. “Faith-above-facts” is a religious dogma; even if it may not have the explicit sanction of scriptures. It lurks and reigns in the bedrock of popular religiosity. The anxiously awaited Ayodhya verdict will impinge on this dilemma.
This will have an oceanic bearing on the question, as Justice Bobde surmises, if religion and reason can be partners in the service of a modern democracy. Today’s keenly awaited verdict could secure or snap the meeting-point between the European and Indian versions of secularism. As of now India is on the cusp; a time pregnant with expectancy and its country-cousin, anxiety.