Insider's tale

Ayodhya and Narasimha Rao

Print edition : April 05, 2013

The Babri Masjid. Narasimha Rao's heart was set on constructing a Ram temple ahead of the Bharatiya Janata Party and thus take the wind out of its sails. Photo: Subir Roy

P.V. Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister at the Tirumala temple. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Arjun Singh. His autobiography publishes the letters he wrote to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao warning that the mosque would be demolished. Photo: K. Pichumani

An insider’s account of why P.V. Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister did not act to prevent or stop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

ONE very articulate Congress Member of Parliament once called P.V. Narasimha Rao the first BJP Prime Minister of India. Disclosures by P.V.R.K. Prasad, Narasimha Rao’s confidant, confirm that. Officially he was Media Adviser and Additional Secretary to the Prime Minister. Prasad had known Narasimha Rao since 1971 when he was Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. He reveals unwittingly why Narasimha Rao was inactive in the face of the threatened, rather imminent, demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and why he was inaccessible while the crime was being perpetrated. He had no heart to stop it. His heart was set on constructing a Ram temple ahead of the Bharatiya Janata Party and thus take the wind out of its sails. When he began to swim with the tide of popular wrath after the demolition, L.K. Advani, who had formerly called him “fantastic”, poured on him the vitriol reserved for a turncoat.

Prasad is a man of many parts. His facts go awry. The Vimadalal Commission of Inquiry against former Chief Minister J. Vengala Rao and others was not set up by M. Channa Reddy but by Union Home Minister Charan Singh. He revels in being a go-between. Men like Amitabh Bachchan, Amar Singh, Lakshmi Mittal, Dhirubhai Ambani and his sons flit through its pages; particularly Chandraswami. Because of his stint as Executive Officer of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams he had come to know many pundits in many places. Narasimha Rao told him, “You have to do troubleshooting on my behalf in such matters” (squabbles among officials). Over time, his confidence grew and with it the role of pundits and the performance of rituals. Prasad’s faith in them was deep, as Narasimha Rao knew. “Periodically we organised homams and rituals for his protection. We got a homam performed before P.V.’s minority government faced a confidence vote in Parliament. He won the confidence vote. Subsequently, many such experiments were done. Nobody expected P.V. to last as P.M. even for a year. However, P.V. emerged as the first Prime Minister outside the Nehru family to last five years in office.” An interesting job for an Indian Administrative Service officer. Apparently, Narasimha Rao shared his faith and also his friendship with Chandraswami.

One might have missed his revealing memoir but for a report in The Hindu of December 15, 2012, which reads thus: “Former Prime Minister, the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, wanted the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya through an ‘apolitical’ trust and prepared an ‘unshakeable’ master plan. He believed this could be done by the trust that could enjoy ‘acceptability’ from all corners of the Hindu religion because it was headed by Sringeri seer Sri Bharati Theertha Swami as chairman. Narasimha Rao also saw to it that seers of all other important Hindu Mutts and heads of ‘Gaddis’ in Ayodhya were roped into the trust.

“This was stated by the former Media Adviser and Additional Secretary to Prime Minister, P.V.R.K. Prasad, after Sri Bharati Theertha Swami released a book written by him and titled Wheels Behind the Veil (CMs, PMs and beyond). The Telugu version was published last year.

“The details of the plan conceived by Narasimha Rao were revealed by Mr Prasad at ‘Guruvandanam’, a crowded reception held in honour of [the] Sringeri seer at the Lalitha Kala Thoranam here…. The former IAS officer said the seer had agreed to head the trust after much persuasion, around the same time that he observed his ‘Chathurmasa Deeksha’ (four-month-long-worship) in New Delhi.”

The sponsorship of the launch in 2012 is as revealing as this bit (on page 162) about what was going on 20 years earlier, in 1992. “I was stunned and worried the moment I heard the Prime Minister. ‘They insist on constructing the Ram temple at Ayodhya. Do they own Lord Ram?’ Lost in deep thought, he appeared to be talking aloud, but within my earshot: ‘Let us do one thing…. A Ram temple shall be built at Ayodhya. Since they campaign as if we are opposed to it, we will take them head on by ensuring the temple is constructed in some other manner.’ As he unfolded the visionary strategy, I was overwhelmed with joy and surprise.” This was well before December 6, 1992. Narasimha Rao wanted to build the temple to pre-empt the BJP. This was his overriding concern. Hence his passivity in the face of the certain threat to the mosque.

The BJP leaders would do the dirty work of demolition. Narasimha Rao would build the temple on the ruins of the mosque, robbing them of any credit and tarred rightly with blame for the demolition.

False excuses

Prasad records that “the BJP national leaders present on the dais hardly 100 metres away from the structure did not persuade the kar sevaks to stop demolition. Over and above, some of the leaders had been shouting encouraging slogans. The State government was callous and it utterly failed in protecting the structure. There were some who believe that the State had not deployed the forces near the structure purposely, in order to facilitate demolition by the kar sevaks. When once the attack on the structure started, even if the State wanted to take action, they could not have prevented the demolition without killing thousands of sevaks, as the reserve forces had to be brought through the frenzied masses of kar sevaks surrounding the structure.” Prasad, to be sure, faithfully retails Narasimha Rao’s false excuses which Union Home Secretary Madhav Godbole’s memoirs Unfinished Innings exposed thoroughly.

Now read what Narasimha Rao began to do in 1993 after the demolition of the mosque. “Construction of the Ram temple was the BJP’s immediate agenda in the 1993 elections to the four northern States. Since then, the BJP had been emphasising temple construction as its primary task in all its publicity campaigns. ‘Does the BJP own Ram, whom all Hindus worship?’ This political question had been troubling P.V. P.V. was alone when I called on him as usual on a Sunday. Asking me to take my seat, he started talking and continued as if talking to himself. I carefully listened to him. ‘We can fight the BJP. But how can we fight against Lord Ram? The BJP behaves as if Lord Ram is its property. When we say the Congress is a secular party, it doesn’t mean we are atheists. Lord Ram is our God as well. We pray to Him just as they do. How far are they justified in hoodwinking people by monopolising Lord Ram under the pretext of constructing a temple at Ayodhya?’”

A representative trust

The plan was disclosed to Prasad in detail. “‘Maybe, the solution is possible by entrusting Ram temple construction to a representative and apolitical committee comprising all Hindu heads of mutts and peethams representing the whole cross-section of Hindus.’ The Prime Minister seemed to be indulging in a soliloquy. Was he aware of my presence? Just to test, I mildly coughed and asked him who should be its members ideally.

“Pat came the reply: ‘The heads of Adwaita, Dwaita and Visishtadwaita Peethams, Sankaracharyas of Sringeri, Kanchi, Dwaraka, and Puri, Tamilnadu Jiyars and Andhra Jiyyangars, heads of Vaishnava Mutts all belonging to the Ramanuja tradition in the North, heads of Udipi and Uttaradi Mutts belonging to the Dwaita tradition, Gurujis of Vallabhacharya, Gowdiya and Chaitanya traditions, and Mahants of Ayodhya and other Hindu organisations. If we form a trust with representation to all such groups and entrust it with the task of constructing the temple, nobody could call the trust a political body. We can also prevent exploitation of the issue by any political party. My efforts to bring about an amicable solution between the Hindus and Muslims had not succeeded. Efforts of the earlier V.P. Singh government also failed mainly because no fruitful dialogue to find some amicable settlement is possible between the warring groups. Basically they do not trust each other. Legal settlement by the courts may not be received peacefully and might be difficult to implement. This is an emotional and sentimental issue. As both communities have to live together, they should be persuaded to find an amicable solution—that may be possible by forming a representative trust, with a view to bringing both sides to the discussion table.’”

Secrecy and deceit

Secrecy was of the essence of the matter and with it deceit. “‘The VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] and the BJP will oppose the formation of such a trust and pressurise the heads of mutts not to join it,’ I said. P.V. said, ‘They will definitely exert pressure. That’s why it should not appear to be an initiative of the Congress party or government. The heads of mutts should give the impression that they are taking the initiative on their own. And it should happen without anybody knowing about it. First, we have to talk to each one of them individually and take their consent. We must make it abundantly clear that the government will extend its full support only to such a trust and not to any other existing institutions…. We have also to make it clear that construction of the Ram temple can be taken up only after the court decides on the case pending before it or when Hindus and Muslims sit together and arrive at a mutually acceptable decision….

‘The Ram temple construction committee of the VHP is not fully representative to speak on behalf of all Hindus. In addition, it is deemed as anti-Muslim. Therefore, it had become a hindrance for initiating any constructive dialogue. If the government were to intervene, politics would creep in. So, transcending politics, an attempt should be made to resolve the issue. The government should give unstinted support to such an initiative.’

“I said, ‘Sir, your idea is splendid, if it can be carried out. But who will do it?’ ‘You yourself will have to do it.’ I was stupefied and stunned! P.M. was thoughtful for a while and resumed. ‘Yes, you alone have to do it. You have good relations with all heads of religious mutts and peethams. After all, as Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams’ Executive Officer you had close acquaintance with most of them. Haven’t you developed a street of ‘mutts’ itself in Tirumala by allotting land?’

“‘Sir, it is true but most of them belong to South India and only a few come from North India. I do not have even acquaintance with many of the North Indian mathadhipathis, mahants and swamijis.’ ‘Don’t worry; I will make appropriate arrangements.’”

Prasad developed qualms. “Yet, at the back of my mind, the question whether I was sinking into a morass haunted me. Could I, an IAS official, carry out this apparently apolitical but actually political mission? Even as I mulled over my dilemma, P.V. came out with another caveat.

“‘Whatever you do and whoever you meet should not be publicised. Our involvement—either yours or mine—should not leak out. We should act as catalysts and facilitators. There is one police official of the DIG [Deputy Inspector General] rank in Bihar to help you in North India. He seems to be having wide contacts with swamijis in U.P. [Uttar Pradesh] and Bihar. He had also been involved in mobilising the swamijis for a dialogue with Muslims earlier. Arrange to get him. Naresh Chandra who is in charge of [the] Ayodhya Cell in [the] PMO (Cabinet Secretary earlier) can organise that. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh has good relations with Dwaraka Sankaracharya and some other heads of Vaishnava mutts in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. I will ask him to help you. Simultaneously, we have to do something on the Muslims’ front. Our own fellows have done a lot of damage. In their anxiety and enthusiasm to hurt me, they have hurt the Congress themselves by poisoning the minds of moderate Muslims. You do not bother about it. From now on, this is your primary responsibility.’”

Narasimha Rao’s strategy was “to checkmate the BJP from monopolising Lord Ram”. Prasad, for all his qualms, executed it enthusiastically as he describes in the book. Chandraswami helped. “Thus we constituted an apolitical Ram temple construction trust by associating Adwaita, Dwaita and Visishtadwaita pithadhipathis and heads of other important mutts. We got the trust formally registered also. Thus the first phase of forming an apolitical trust, which represents all sections of Hindu society, was complete. It has no links with any political party. But it has members acceptable to all political parties.

“The government is ready to extend total support and cooperation if the committee takes up Ram temple construction. After the registration of the trust, P.V. said confidently: ‘Ram temple construction will take place now without any objections and reservations. On the other (Muslims’) side also, sufficient ground work has been done. You organise the first meeting of the new trust board.’ By then, we had come to the end of 1995,” a pre-election year.

Two things deserve to be noted. First, far from assuaging the hurt sentiments of Muslims, their consent was taken for granted. Secondly, Narasimha Rao’s memoir Ayodhya: 6 December 1992 (Penguin, 2006) suppresses this sordid affair.

Arjun Singh’s warning

His Cabinet colleague Arjun Singh’s autobiography publishes the very many letters he wrote to the Prime Minister warning that the mosque would be demolished; Narasimha Rao could not be bothered. “Narasimha Rao was under the illusion that his action had consolidated the support of the Hindus for the Congress party as they were in a majority in India. A simple illustration of this would confirm his pattern of thinking. Narasimha Rao asked Ranjeet Singh, a senior Congressman and a former State-level Minister from Samthar in Uttar Pradesh, as to how many jeeps he was planning to use for his election campaign. Ranjeet Singh replied that he planned to employ 40 to 45 jeeps. When he heard this reply, the Prime Minister told him: ‘You will need only four to five jeeps for succeeding because the atmosphere for the massive consolidation of votes of Hindus behind the Congress Party has been prepared.’ What actually happened subsequently in the 1993 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh is a matter of history.”

The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party cornered a huge chunk of the votes. The Congress lost; so did the BJP. Arjun Singh resigned from the Cabinet. Narasimha Rao had him expelled from the Congress.