By Nick Pacek
After months, even years, of increasingly heated and apocalyptic rhetoric, right wing protestors storm a “sacred” building after instigation by a leader who did not think they would actually follow through on it. A nation looks on captivated as events unfold on television, watching as the crowd discovers that, when they push on the cops, they are ill-equipped to defend the target that everyone assumed would never really be touched. Even before the dust settles, the international press calls the leader a demagogue, elites say his now-tarnished party is doomed to oblivion and, seeking stability, turn to a septuagenarian machine politician as savior.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid in India at the hands of Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) agitators in 1992 holds striking parallels to our current political moment. Widely decried in elite circles, lambasted by NGOs, condemned by the international community and quickly labeled the “darkest day in Indian history,” the immediate aftermath was followed by chaos and civil disorder. Communal riots wracked the nation, participants were arrested and tried en masse and the leaders who were alleged to have provoked the attack were shunted to the side by allies and enemies alike. However, far from being the death-knell of the Hindutva movement, the demolition supercharged a path that led to the Hindu right assuming its current hegemonic position in the Indian political system.
What follows is an exploration of the Ayodhya dispute, as the broader controversy is known: its genesis, its major players and its ultimate effects. Though a long and complex story, it focuses primarily on the key moments in the late 1980s and early 1990s that have been seared into the political memory of India. After this background, this essay then explores the multiple points of commonality – and key differences – between the events of the Ayodhya dispute and the recent events surrounding President Donald Trump’s engagement with mass mobilization, culminating in the January 6 storming of the Capitol. India and the United States are drastically different political cultures, but as the American right moves towards clearer nationalist lines, this precedent could be a model for the coming decade.
The Babri Masjid was a mosque built in Ayodhya during the 1500s by the Mughal Emperor Babur, supposedly on the grounds of “Ram Janmabhoomi,” the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. As Muslim and then British rule was replaced by a new Hindu-majority Indian state, agitation began for the destruction of the mosque and the building of a Hindu temple on its foundations. This low-level agitation went nowhere for years, as the institutional Indian National Congress largely ignored it while what existed of the Indian right was primarily secular and free market in orientation, with little time for the “dark demons” of communalism. In the 1980s, however, things began to change as the so-called “Congress system” began to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions and inefficiencies – a political party that, in the name of secularism and plurality, had created a family dynasty that alienated religious and ethnic groups across the country while presiding over a collapsing economy and deteriorating quality of life.
Into this picture stepped the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindutva organization under the umbrella of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is India’s largest Hindutva organization, a paramilitary volunteer brotherhood made up of millions of members, and the VHP’s particular focus was on outright religious issues: temple issues, cow slaughter and conversion are their naan and ghee. By 1984 – as India descended deeper into communal violence amid the backdrop of a growing insurgency by the Sikh religious minority in the northwest – the VHP decided that the time was right to escalate their campaign.
A series of “rath yatras,” symbolic “chariot” processions (often by pickup truck) in imitation of the god Rama, were used to agitate for Hindu access to the grounds and the building of a temple where the mosque then stood. The yatras traversed India, especially in the Hindutva heartland of the north, with truck parades storming past fields and into cities. The establishment faltered in its handling of this agitation. Unwilling to crackdown outright, the ruling system flinched and removed the restrictions on Hindu access, turning it into a de facto temple. However, agitation continued, now urged on by another RSS affiliate: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
After the 1989 parliamentary elections, the Congress was defeated by an unwieldy opposition alliance. The BJP granted its support to a broadly secular alliance but did not enter government. This ruling alliance quickly began to fray and collapse under its own contradictions and, to try and stave off its collapse, turned to affirmative action. Digging up the “Mandal Report,” which was drafted over a decade prior but was hidden away by previous governments, the government announced a series of wide-ranging reservations for members of India’s “other backward castes” (OBCs). While smaller affirmative action programs had existed for the most peripheral tribes and castes of India, this now ballooned the categorization; essentially, over half of India’s population was now categorized as “deserving” affirmative action.
In late 20th century India, especially prior to the private sector boom caused by economic liberalization, a government sinecure was the most prestigious way to guarantee a steady income and social respectability. The BJP’s base, drawn primarily from lower- and middle-class traders and smallholders born into castes now deemed “upper” and not worthy of government largesse, exploded into rage. While theoretically benefitting from their caste stature, the average BJP voter was often no better off than his “OBC” neighbor, except in some slight social benefit in religious situations, but was now being told that his children would have to take second place behind less qualified candidates. This was not just an insult, being told that he was the beneficiary of oppression while his indistinguishable neighbor was a victim, but it was an active assault on his family’s prospects for advancement and security.
Against this backdrop of social outrage, economic upheaval and political instability came the man of the moment: L.K. Advani, a high-level leader of the BJP. Born into a prosperous trading family in Karachi, now Pakistan, he was not a natural candidate for populist demagogue. A cosmopolitan son of the elite, Advani became a Hindutva nationalist and spent the long years in post-partition India as a political activist for a succession of Hindutva parties. During the 1980s, he was a key leader of the BJP and the mastermind of its decision to throw its full weight into the Ayodhya dispute. In1990, in the immediate aftermath of the decision to implement the Mandal Report, Advani designed his greatest moment of political theater: the Ram Rath Yatra.
The Ram Rath Yatra took what the VHP had already done and blew it up to a national scale. As a modern Rama, Advani took to his chariot (an air-conditioned Toyota) at the ancient Hindu temple at Somnath, on India’s western coast. Over the next month the “chariot” crossed central and northern India, stopping at major cities and small towns alike for impromptu speeches to roaring crowds. Some “kar sevaks” (volunteers) walked along nearly the entire route, but the crowds thronged to their largest as the yatra drew closer to Ayodhya. Advani was arrested before he could reach the city, as were over a hundred thousand participants, but the yatra continued. Finally, tens of thousands of kar sevaks faced off with tens of thousands of police, resulting in pitched battles and culminating in a kar sevak placing a saffron flag, the symbol of Hindutva politics, on top of the mosque. Eventually, however, they were dispersed.
The fragile government’s decision to imprison Advani led to the BJP pulling its outside support. Elections followed shortly thereafter in 1991, and the BJP made noticeable electoral gains – though the ultimate benefactors were the Congress party, which took power. After years of chaos, social agitation and political violence (including the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi), the Indian voters settled on the aging Congress party apparatchik, P.V. Narasimha Rao, for a return to “normalcy.” The Congress’ ability to govern through a minority government obscured the BJP’s gains, and led some to argue that the Hindutva movement had hit its natural ceiling – as the furor of the Mandal Report and the Ram Rath Yatra died down, the BJP would be consigned to the party of a vocal minority of ever-diminishing upper castes, unable to expand its vote.
However, Rao’s government did not bring peace and stability. Coming to power amid an unprecedented economic crisis for the Indian system, which was finally collapsing after decades of inefficiencies, he touched off a wave of economic liberalization. As state-owned firms were privatized and the established economic order upended, the upper castes found themselves reminded that they were now shut out from the haven of state employment. Agitation against the government came not just from the right but also from aggrieved separatists on the frontiers, emboldened communists and now state sanctioned OBC groups flexing their newfound political and economic muscle. Rao, elevated as a compromise candidate between the various factions of the Congress for long service to the party, was fundamentally unable to moderate these tensions.
Advani and the RSS thus saw a chance to gin up popular support and keep their movement at the forefront of the political action. A rally was organized for December 6, 1992, in which over a hundred thousand VHP and RSS activists would be exhorted by the leadership of the Hindutva movement, including BJP leaders like Advani. The goal of this rally is hotly debated to this day. According to leaders, it was designed to exert political pressure on the Congress government; by drawing out such a massive crowd, the central leadership would be forced to hear their complaints. Others, including members of the Indian state security forces and judiciary, allege that Advani and other RSS leaders were indifferent to the fate of the Babri Masjid, and that members of the state apparatus were under orders not to effectively defend it. Still more allege that there was a grand conspiracy, long pre-planned to demolish the mosque.
Regardless, what followed was that 150,000 thousand kar sevaks, whipped into a fury by a cavalcade of leaders urging them to fight for their Hindu heritage, overwhelmed the ill-equipped police cordon. Though at first the crowd had stayed at the edges of the cordon, with limited flashes of conflict with police, eventually a youth pushed through with a saffron flag and climbed the mosque. Taken as a signal by the crowd, the kar sevaks charged the police lines that quickly melted away in the face of the surge. Within hours, the mosque had been torn to its foundations.
This point in the narrative is the most analogous to the current moment in American politics. If the comparisons are not clear yet, Trump is our Advani figure, pantomiming the path of a political hero – Trump as Caesar, Advani as Rama – to gin up his base. This base, made up largely of middle-class smallholders and businessmen but including lower-class members of groups deemed “privileged,” are aggrieved by the establishment alleging that they are somehow unworthy of state aid because of their blood and, instead, actively granting favors to members of other ethnic groups; Black Lives Matter, with its showering of state and corporate support, fills in for the Mandal Commission.
As with Advani and the yatra, Trump had an ostensible goal that he used to mobilize his increasingly agitated base. Advani repeatedly drew out hundreds of thousands to destroy the Babri Masjid and Trump repeatedly drew out hundreds of thousands to secure the election. Both likely did not actually expect their stated goal to be achieved immediately and were likely using these repeated instances of mass mobilization to demonstrate their continued political potency with an eye towards negotiations within the elite and future elections.
However, at a certain point our modern Caesar/Ram discovers that he cannot fully control the movement. MAGA is now the VHP; with a strong leadership principle and dedication to the cause, the enterprising young activists decide that the moment has finally come to emulate their heroic leaders. Just as Advani did not lead the kar sevaks onto the grounds of the masjid, Trump did not lead the “Q sevaks” into the Capitol – despite hinting he might. The crowd, riled up by the sacred cause and eager to emulate the crossing of the Rubicon or slaying the demon king of Lanka, takes a mind of its own.
This is where our stories diverge, but not by as much as you may think. The Capitol, notwithstanding the scale of the establishment’s reaction, was not torn to the ground by a motley crowd of boomers, rural workers, veterans and Viking shamans. Five people are dead, four at the hands of the state, but the Capitol is mostly undamaged save for some smashed windows, papers on the floor and assuredly not-fascist cans of Axe body spray in the corner.
The aftermath is where the real lessons can be found, though first we must emphasize key differences. In 1992, India was plunged into weeks of communal violence, leaving thousands dead and precipitating a wave of jihadist violence. Nothing of that scale is likely to happen imminently in America, as our race riots this summer left “only” a few dozen dead. Though the specter of open ethnic conflict looms larger than it has in decades, we are some time away from reaching Indian-style cycles of pogroms. Other salient differences are that the RSS and its affiliates benefited from decades of disciplined organization absent on the American right, and the GOP has thrown Trump to the wolves in a way the BJP never did.
More relevantly, the BJP brand was tarnished in the eyes of the Indian press and the world. Advani was labeled a mastermind of unprecedented evil, tapping into India’s darkest impulses. You only have to check your Twitter feed, or turn on any media outlet, to see the same being said about Trump and his movement – now deemed a violent insurrection, unlike the peaceful protestors who attempted to burn Lafayette Square to the ground. This elite backlash, in the short term, undermined the BJP’s attempts to force the Rao government to collapse. As the institutions of the state, high society and the economy all rallied around the Congress establishment – out of a mix of fear of chaos, a desire to safeguard their long-held influence and greed for the loot to be gained from the now-threatened liberalization scheme – the government was able to stave off collapse and serve a full term until 1996, remarkable for a minority government in such a system.
However, despite the near universal scorn heaped on it by the domestic elite and the international community, the BJP was not sent into a death spiral. Instead, it spent the next four years capitalizing on the forces it had effectively unlocked and activated from 1990 to 1992. The fundamental grievances that had led to these outbreaks of violence against the system did not go away, and, in fact, became worse. The Mandal Report was fully implemented, after legal challenges, in 1993, and the economic upheaval only became more acute as the 1990s progressed. Thus, when 1996 came around, the Congress was again ejected from power – and, this time, the BJP took control at the head of a minority government. Though this government soon fell, the BJP emerged triumphant from polls in 1998 and 1999.
Perhaps most saliently, it was not ultimately Advani who reaped the benefit of the ensuing chaos. Instead, it was his long-time political partner, the perceived moderate Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who led the BJP to these victories. Vajpayee put forth a more measured picture and became every Indian secularist’s favorite Hindu nationalist. While Advani was not ejected from the BJP, and remained a key party leader, he ultimately was relegated to waiting in the wings for a handoff that would never occur, instead being selected as the doomed candidate to challenge the Congress in 2009. By 2014, when elections swept Narendra Modi and his hard-ribbed Hindutva into power, Advani’s time had passed.
If any lesson can be drawn from this parallel, it is that just because the elite – corporations, the media and almost all the political establishment – have formally renounced Trump does not mean that his “movement” is doomed to oblivion. He, like Advani, may never again benefit electorally from the forces his actions have unleashed. Elite disdain for him is as powerful as it was for Advani, but Advani, at least, retained the loyalty of his party and his movement. Instead, there will likely be a Vajpayee figure waiting to ride this movement to power when the American Rao, the husk of Joe Biden, is discarded after the elite have pillaged and remade the American economy and ethnic relations in their image.
Just like India’s elites could not undo the power of “reclaiming Ram Janmabhoomi,” America’s elite cannot put the genie of a Viking shaman yelling “freedom!” from the Senate floor back in the bottle. The image is now in the right-wing American lexicon, and it is a powerful one. In India, it may have taken decades, but the muscular and ascendant Hindutva ideology galvanized by the demolition of the Babri Masjid overcame demographic trends, elite pressure and social upheaval to become the clear pole of Indian political dynamics. There is no guarantee that American nationalists will emerge triumphant from the next decade of politics, but if it does, we will be able to draw a line straight from the storming of Capitol Hill to that moment of political dominance.