As I’m writing this, the Babri Masjid verdict is yet to be delivered. By the time you read this, we will already know what its effect was on the country. The aftershocks of the 6 December 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid are still being felt.
The Sangh Parivar has always held that the issue cannot be decided by the courts because it is a question of religious sentiment and faith. If enough people feel that Ram was born right on that particular spot (though no one can as accurately say when he was born), their ‘feelings’ ought to be respected and the land handed over for the construction of a temple.
Most civil movements that began after the widespread riots in 1992 talked about a return to the values of secularism, of which Indians have a pretty wide and inclusive definition. Unlike other countries (such as France), in India secularism means the freedom that all religions have to live by their religious creeds and the neutrality of the state in relation to these practices. It is what Mukul Kesavan calls, in his book Secular Common Sense, an ‘all-are-welcome secularism’ that was born of the need to bring every kind of Indian on board the anti-colonial, national movement.
One position taken by a politician after the demolition of Babri Masjid had nothing to do with rights or religions. It ought to have counted as a valid and very secular reaction. Yet, not even the secular civil movements that wanted to heal the wounds of ’92 took Kanshi Ram’s statement as anything more than a badly-timed piece of irreverence.
I’d like to examine Kanshi Ram’s suggestion that “the best solution for the Ayodhya dispute is to build a public toilet on the disputed site”.
If this horrifies people, as I’m sure it did and will continue to, let’s consider what constitutes the sacred for any religion. With most religions, sanctity resides in several locations: in the word of god, in an idol, a book, a place of worship or diverse symbols. But the sacred never includes gross physical processes, because somehow, the body (being mortal, I suppose) always has to be mortified or transcended to reach the divine.
Toilets are never, ever, sacred spots, even though all kinds of other places – such as beauty parlours – are now described as temples to the body. If anything, in our country, the presence of gods is supposed to repel bodily functions – consider the tiles depicting deities that are meant to discourage people from spitting and peeing in the corners of stairwells and other public places not designated as bathrooms or spittoons.
Why are toilets so unmentionable? Why are they so outside the pale of sacred discourse? Why are the necessary functions of the body supposed to be disrespectful of the divine?
What the exclusion of the functions of the body from the sacred hides is something Kanshi Ram brought up but which never entered the debate around secularism post-1992: that to allow the sacred to exist one has to cast out from public notice the large numbers of people who help us keep our bodies and sacred spaces ‘pure’.
Manual scavengers are not supposed to exist according to our laws. But they do – every time the drains overflow, it is these manual scavengers who are found waist deep in manholes, clearing up blocked sewage systems. The rest of us could not be ‘clean’ if we didn’t have someone whom we could consider ‘filthy’.
It says something (not very flattering) about us as a country that we’re more easily shocked and traumatised by the demolition of a place of worship than about the existence of manual scavengers. Recently, in Savanur in Karnataka, a Bhangi community that was facing eviction from their homes protested by pouring excreta on themselves. It didn’t impinge on our national consciousness in any way, did it?
That protest was as potent a political comment as Kanshi Ram’s statement that a toilet ought to be built on the site of the demolished mosque. But it will probably never have the impact it ought to until we take our toilets as seriously as we do our places of worship. Or until we find a god of toilets.
An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.
And thanks to Paro for inputs.