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Political project

Print edition : Oct 05, 2007 T+T-

The Sangh Parivar revives a campaign that it had not so long ago found hard to sell.

in New DelhiL.K. Advani

UNTIL the second week of September, when both the ruling Congress and the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suddenly discovered that the affidavit filed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in the Supreme Court on the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project was controversial and hurt religious sentiments, the biggest political ripples created by Ramas bridge were within the Sangh Parivar led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. The RSS leadership was compelled to act against a scientific researcher, a self-proclaimed Doctor Puneesh Taneja, after he was exposed. He was removed as an RSS pracharak.

Taneja was introduced as a space scientist working on the Vishwa Hindu Parishads (VHP) investigation into the Sethusamudram project, by none other than the VHP leader Ashok Singhal, at a press conference in Delhi on May 2. Taneja claimed that he was a Senior Research Scientist and an Additional Secretary in the Department of Space. He also claimed that he was attached to the Prime Ministers Office, South Block, New Delhi, until he took leave from his government job to investigate the Sethusamudram project and advance the Sangh Parivars righteous campaign on the issue. In the process, he had also become an RSS pracharak.

There is no evidence to suggest that Tanejas research made any original contribution to the VHPs arguments on Ram Sethu. According to Sangh Parivar insiders, Taneja was mostly repeating the arguments that the VHP has been advancing for the past decade and a half. These included the contention that the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations (NASA) space-borne cameras had discovered the remains of the mythical bridge built by Rama across the Palk Strait. The other argument was that the bridges unique curvature and composition conclusively proves that it was man-made. Some engineering calculations were presented by Taneja from time to time in an effort to buttress his point. The space scientist had also presented so-called archaeological studies to argue that the first signs of human habitation in Sri Lanka dated back to pre-historical times, about 1,750,000 years ago, and the bridge was almost as old. The mythical reign of Rama was supposed to have taken place during the Tretha Yuga, that is, more than 1,700,000 years ago: this calculation would put the bridge during Rams time.

None of these arguments is new, but the presence of a space scientist associated with the Department of Space was meant to lend some credibility to the VHPs contentions. Everybody has a mission in life, and the Sethusamudram is my mission, Taneja went around proclaiming.

However, by June the RSS leadership received a number of complaints, some of them from the outfits of the Sangh Parivar, pointing out that Tanejas credentials were fake. The RSS leadership was impelled to initiate an inquiry. As the investigation gathered momentum, Taneja became incommunicado. The RSS leadership decided to remove him as pracharak. These developments caused considerable embarrassment to the Sangh Parivar and somewhat slowed down the Ram Sethu campaign. Only the leadership of the VHP made some efforts to get over this setback by holding periodic media conferences to warn the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government at the Centre that Hindu rage would be unleashed globally against it if it proceeded with the Sethusamudram project. These routine media conferences, however, had failed to generate popular appeal for the campaign or even bring it up as a major point of discussion in national politics.

However, the developments after September 12, the day the ASI filed its affidavit in the Supreme Court, changed this situation. Several RSS activists contacted by Frontline in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand pointed out that the issue had become a matter of debate in many parts of northern India, though they were not sure the campaign would evoke a mass response on the same scale as the Ayodhya Ram temple agitation. A number of these activists thought the UPA, especially the Congress, was largely responsible for generating the Ram Sethu debate. The move by the Congress leadership to withdraw the September 12 ASI affidavit and present a fresh one has certainly lent authority to our position on the Sethusamudram project, said a Lucknow-based activist of the RSS.

M. Karunanidhi, Chief

According to political analyst Hariraj Singh Tyagi, it is quite in character for the Congress to lend this kind of credibility to a Hindutva campaign by the Sangh Parivar. The Ram Mandir campaign was floundering without mass support until the Congress leadership of the 1980s, marshalled by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, decided to open the gates of the disputed structure in Ayodhya for Hindu worship in 1987 and followed it up with the shilanyas [foundation stone laying ceremony] for a proposed Ram Mandir in 1989. Both these moves had the political objective advancing a soft Hindutva agenda and pandering to the Hindu sections of the electorate at a juncture close to general elections. But what it ultimately did was to grant much-needed credibility to the Sangh Parivar agitation. The disastrous consequences are well recorded in history. The political gaffes being committed around the Sethusamudram affidavits are also in the context of possible midterm polls. It may not have as extreme consequences as the measures in Ayodhya did, but there is little doubt that this has had the effect of bringing alive a Hindutva agenda that was virtually dead, Tyagi said.

The developments after September 12 also had the effect of bringing about a semblance of unity among the warring outfits of the Sangh Parivar. The BJP, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal have decided to work together on this issue, keeping aside the animosities that had flared up intermittently between the leaderships of the BJP and the other Sangh Parivar outfits in the past three years. In the process, L.K. Advani has once again started projecting himself as a Hindutva leader and has made spirited attempts to take charge of the campaign on the Sethusamudram project. Developments in the run-up to the BJP National Executive in Bhopal during September 21-23, as well as the happenings at the meet, highlighted this attempt.

It remains to be seen whether this will be allowed by Advanis colleagues in the BJP, such as party president Rajnath Singh, and leaders of other Sangh Parivar outfits. There was an indication that Advani might face some internal resistance when Ashok Singhal asserted that the RSS had authorised the Ram Sethu Raksha Samiti, led by the VHP, to lead the agitation. Saying that there were clear directives on this from the RSS, he said that all pro-Hindu organisations should act under the leadership of the Ram Sethu Raksha Samiti. However, there is little doubt that in the immediate aftermath of the recent developments the BJP and other constituents of the Sangh Parivar have been able to put up an appearance of unity.

Union Minister for

The Congress, on the other hand, not only helped the Sangh Parivars campaign by its floundering moves, but also faced internal bickering on the issue. Many of its leaders, including Congress Working Committee (CWC) member R.K. Dhawan and Union Minister Jairam Ramesh, openly accused Union Culture Minister Ambika Soni of being responsible for the ASIs September 12 affidavit. Both leaders maintained that Soni should take responsibility for filing the controversial affidavit and resign from the Ministry. Though Ramesh later apologised to Soni, the factional fighting was out in the open. There were indications that the Congress leaders who came out against Soni could do so because Congress president Sonia Gandhi had herself taken her to task over the affidavit.

As the internal squabble blew up, both Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh initiated damage-control efforts. They sent a message to all leaders of the party to refrain from making uncalled for comments. A party statement on September 20 asserted that in the specific context of the Ram Sethu issue, in view of the prompt withdrawal of the affidavit, reflecting the partys and the governments alacrity and sensitivity on matters of personal belief and faith, the matter should be treated as closed and uncalled for comments be avoided.

The statement said: The Congress is a vast democratic movement with ample intra-party scope for conveying a wide spectrum of opinions and views which are listened to, observed and where necessary acted upon However, airing such views in public generates unnecessary and avoidable confusion.

According to highly placed sources in the Congress, the principal motivation for this rearguard action was the escalating war of words between Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and the Sangh Parivar on the Sethusamudram project. Karunanidhi, who leads an important constituent of the UPA, has completely rejected the faith dimension of the opposition to the project and called the Sangh Parivar agitation downright foolish. The arguments between Karunanidhi and Advani on the issue have been acrimonious. Sources in the Congress say that the leadership is apprehensive that the nature of the debate could set aside whatever little soft Hindutva gains the Congress would have made from the act of backtracking on the ASI affidavit.

The fact that Karunanidhi does not have to worry about a Hindu vote bank, unlike parties that operate in northern India, makes the situation pregnant with tremendous damage potential, a Bihar Congress leader told Frontline.

In the context, the dominant mood in the Congress is one of foreboding. The ASI affidavit imbroglio has come at an inopportune moment when the partys relationship with the Left is at an all-time low. The only consolation for the Congress is that allies of the BJP in the NDA, such as the Janata Dal (United), do not favour a Hindutva-oriented, extremist position on the Sethusamudram issue.