Facing a no-confidence vote in November of 1990, V. P. Singh,
India’s eighth prime minister, posed a resounding question to an audience of
MPs: “What kind of India do you want?” With this question, Singh signaled
the irony of a secular nation-state indulging the Hindu nationalist demand to
demolish the Babri Masjid, a small sixteenth-century mosque. The ultimate
aim of this endeavor, known as the kar seva (service), was to build a Hindu
temple in place of the mosque to simultaneously mark the birthplace of the
god Ram and symbolize Hindu political resurgence. In fact, the plan was no
longer just being debated and was gaining noticeable traction among upper-
caste Hindus and Lok Sabha parliamentarians. Singh himself gave a straight-
forward answer to the question of what kind of India he wanted: a secular,
democratic country based on the rule of law. He thus resolved to protect the
small mosque at all costs because that was simply what he, the leader of the
world’s largest secular democracy, was charged to do. Unlike the Congress
Party governments before and after him, Singh did not waver in his com-
mitment to the protection of the Muslim minority and its built heritage. To-
ward this end, he had L. K. Advani, the organizer of the planned demolition,
arrested. He then deployed security forces to surround the historic Mughal
mosque and thwart its planned destruction. The prime minister’s principled
stance to protect the space of the mosque enraged Hindu nationalists and
compelled their political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to pull support
for Singh’s coalition government. This eventually cost Singh his post.
What is often overlooked by writers of the now well-studied series of events
that culminated with the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December of 1992
was that Singh’s question —“What kind of India do you want?”— signaled an
ethical approach to the kar seva controversy.1 Asserted here is the notion that
the kind of India one wanted could be shaped by how one reckoned with its
architectural and national landscape: that with the destruction of this small,
inactive historical mosque the promise of Indian secularism could die and
communalism could come to reorder the country.2 More crucially, it sug-
gests that with the proper perspective on its built environments, India could
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