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India: No Longer Handcuffed to History

NEW DELHI – A recent court ruling has revealed India’s strengths and limitations as it grapples with its transformation from a land handcuffed to history–ever since the Partition of 1947, which carved Pakistan out of its stooped shoulders – into a modern global giant.

The High Court of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, finally decided a 61-year-old suit over possession of a disputed site in the temple city of Ayodhya, where, in 1992, a howling mob of Hindu extremists tore down the Babri Masjid mosque. The mosque was built in the 1520’s by India’s first Mogul emperor, Babur, on a site traditionally believed to have been the birthplace of the Hindu god-king Ram, the hero of the 3,000-year-old epic, the Ramayana. The Hindu zealots who destroyed the mosque vowed to replace it with a temple to Ram, thereby avenging 500 years of history.

India is a land where history, myth, and legend often overlap; sometimes Indians cannot tell the difference. Many Hindus claim that the Babri Masjid stood on the precise spot of Ram’s birth and had been placed there by Babur to remind a conquered people of their subjugation. But many historians – most of them Hindu – argue that there is no proof that Ram ever existed in human form, let alone that he was born where believers claim.

More to the point, they argue, there is no proof that Babur demolished a Ram temple to build his mosque. Thus, to destroy the mosque and replace it with a temple was not righting an old wrong but perpetrating a new one. The Archaeological Survey of India, however, reported the existence of ruins beneath the demolished mosque that might have belonged to an ancient temple. The dispute remained intractable, and dragged interminably through the courts.