A failed mediator

Print edition : December 03, 2004

The Sankaracharya's efforts to mediate in the Ayodhya dispute failed as he squandered his credibility by ultimately toeing the Vishwa Hindu Parishad line.

in New Delhi

Sri Jayendra Saraswathi with VHP leader Ashok Singhal.-R.M. RAJARATHINAM

THE Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was quick to organise agitations across the country to protest against the arrest of the Kanchi seer, Jayendra Saraswati. Claiming that the Sankaracharya's arrest was an affront to Hinduism, it demanded his immediate release. At a meeting of the VHP's Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samiti held in Haridwar on November 14, the sants threatened to launch a countrywide agitation from November 16 if he was not released. While both the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party have condemned the hasty manner of his arrest and remand to judicial custody on the occasion of Deepavali, they have not yet taken to the streets. The VHP seems to have found in the Sankaracharya's arrest a golden opportunity to communalise the national atmosphere by branding the Central and the Tamil Nadu governments as anti-majoritarian.

The VHP's new-found reverence for the Sankaracharya flies in the face of its past actions. In 2002 and 2003 it had turned its back on his proposals to solve the Ayodhya dispute. While some representatives of the Muslim community have condemned the manner of the arrest, they are likely to recall how their leaders had trusted him as a respected leader of Hindus as a whole and were willing to have a dialogue with him though they ultimately found nothing to distinguish his proposals from those of the RSS-VHP combine.

Taking advantage of his spiritual aura, the Sankaracharya had earned an influential following among political leaders cutting across party lines. His growing political profile and his inclination to grab political limelight brought him to the centre stage of the efforts to mediate in the Ayodhya dispute. Before the demolition of the Babri Masjid, he was only one of the several seers involved in the negotiations with the Muslim community at the behest of the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Other seers gradually withdrew from the political process, thereby leaving a vacuum in the interface between religion and the state in the resolution of the Ayodhya crisis after the demolition. Sensing an opportunity, the Sankaracharya filled the vacuum with his initiative and soon earned an informal authority to speak on behalf of Hindus, independent of the sectarian elements of the Hindu Right. He earned the goodwill of the minority community by his appeal for calm during the post-demolition phase and his reluctance to justify the demolition.

Thus the Sankaracharya deliberately kept a distance from the "mandir vahin banayenge" (we will build the temple right at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood) crowd and questioned the VHP's urge to build a grand temple where a make-shift temple was already in place without any hindrance to the daily puja. Although he demanded the resignation of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the wake of the 2002 anti-minority pogrom in the State, he did not persist with his demand or condemn the government's complicity in the violence. Yet moderates in the Muslim community considered him a tall leader of Hindus, who could be expected to mould Hindu opinion in the country in favour of a just solution to the Ayodhya dispute.

THE Sankaracharya's first `peace initiative' came after the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas (RJN) and the VHP threatened to hold bhoomi puja on the government-acquired land in Ayodhya on March 15, 2002. Coming soon after the Gujarat pogrom, the Sangh Parivar move led to a crisis of sorts with the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government coming under renewed pressure to find a solution to the dispute.

On March 5, 2002, a delegation of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) led by its general secretary met the Sankaracharya at the request of the Prime Minister's Office. The Sankaracharya informed the delegation that the RJN had confirmed its commitment to abide by the court verdict in the case relating to the disputed site. He appealed to the board to "accord its consent for the start of the construction of the Ram Mandir by the RJN on the undisputed acquired land of which the latter is the original owner and a permanent lessee". The basis of the Sankaracharya's optimism was a commitment given to him by the RJN earlier in the day that it would abide by the court verdict. Later, on March 8, 2002, the RJN reiterated its stand in a letter to the Prime Minister.

On March 10, 2002, the AIMPLB rejected his formula, calling it "incomplete and inchoate". Expressing doubts about the vague links between the RJN and the VHP and other Sangh Parivar organisations, it pointed out that it was not clear how the VHP would honour the undertaking given by the RJN. The AIMPLB added that there was no assurance from the VHP that it would abide by the undertaking given by the RJN (Frontline, March 29, 2002).

The AIMPLB told the Sankaracharya that the judicial course should be followed in toto, or there should be an out-of-court settlement. It said: "It could not be a mix. The settlement should give something to both sides by mutual agreement. If the judicial course was to be followed, both sides should commit themselves to abide by the final verdict and the judicial process should be expedited. If an out-of-court settlement was to be negotiated, the Muslim right to the Babri Masjid site should not be left hanging in the air and await judicial verdict." The Sankaracharya's formula, as one of the AIMPLB members put it later, gave nothing to Muslims and everything to the VHP. He said: "In this sense, it was unbalanced, unfair and unjust."

Besides, the AIMPLB pointed out an in-built contradiction in the formula, which wanted the status quo to be maintained on the Babri Masjid site, but allowed it to be violated (in the form of construction activity and transfer of ownership) in the rest of the acquired area.

Notwithstanding the AIMPLB's reservations, admirers of the Sankaracharya touted the VHP's agreement to accept the judicial order as his achievement. They deplored the AIMPLB's inability to reciprocate this "magnanimous gesture" by allowing the bhoomi puja on March 15, 2002. Others, however, found the argument that one had to be rewarded for "consenting" to honour a court verdict preposterous.

As subsequent events revealed, the VHP was only too eager to withdraw its March 8, 2002, letter to the Prime Minister. The letter had been signed by the VHP's working president, Ashok Singhal, in his capacity as a member of the RJN. With the Supreme Court ruling against holding any symbolic puja anywhere near the disputed site, the VHP decided to change tack.

In June 2002, the VHP's Margdarshak Mandal wrote a letter to the Sankaracharya seeking withdrawal of the March 8 letter. By withdrawing the letter, the VHP revealed its intention not to honour its commitment to maintain the status quo at the disputed site before the Allahabad High Court delivered its verdict on the title suit. The Sankaracharya explained to the media that the VHP's move to withdraw its commitment given on March 8, 2002, revealed it relied more on negotiations than on judicial intervention as a means to solve the dispute. To civil society, however, the Sankaracharya's claim about the VHP's "sincerity" appeared rather naive.

THE Sankaracharya's intervention during June-July 2003 was another instance of his flip-flop on the dispute. His new formula, unveiled on June 16, 2003, in his letter to the AIMPLB president, Maulana Syed Mohammad Rabey Nadwi, laid down five broad parameters. First, the AIMPLB could give a no-objection statement regarding the construction of a temple on the undisputed land in Ayodhya. Second, the discussion on the disputed site where the mosque once stood could be held later, and an amicable settlement may be arrived at by the court. Third, construct a wall around the disputed site in order to protect it and separate it from the undisputed acquired area. Fourth, do not entertain further demands from either side on the undisputed area once they reach a final negotiated settlement. Finally, let the government work out a time-bound plan for implementation of the formula, after the parties arrive at a cordial understanding.

On June 23, 2003, the AIMPLB president sought certain clarifications from the Sankaracharya on his formula. His reply on July 1, 2003, clearly indicated that he had changed his mind and substantially revised his original formula. The Sankaracharya said: "Though the disputed area may belong to the Wakf Board and is a place of faith to the Muslims as well, since the place is of great faith and reverence to Hindus, the Muslim community and the Wakf Board may think over it and donate the said area to Hindus."

The Sankaracharya justified this appeal on the grounds that the Supreme Court had dealt with the disputed and undisputed areas together and that the status quo applied to both of them. Hence he felt that his original formula, which made a distinction between the two, might not be feasible.

However, his reference to Kashi and Mathura distressed the AIMPLB, which had no option but to reject his second formula as well. The Sankaracharya wrote: "A point was made that Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya - all the three belong to the Hindus and keeping in mind the larger interest of the country and communal harmony, if not today, but at some time or other, these places have to be given to the Hindus. The Muslims have to mentally prepare themselves for this." In his reply, he referred to the Babri Masjid as it once stood as a "building" rather than as a mosque. This shocked the AIMPLB, which noted a complete change in his tone and tenor after the VHP decided to corner him on the issue.

As one of the revered saints of Hindus, the Sankaracharya once earned the goodwill of Muslims who looked to him as a sincere mediator keen on evolving an amicable solution to the Ayodhya tangle. However, he seems to have squandered his credibility by toeing the VHP's line ultimately. On June 9, 2003, a few days before he revealed his second formula, he commended P.V. Narasimha Rao for allowing the makeshift temple at Ayodhya soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. He said that while some of their leaders were acting as hurdles, the majority of Muslims in India were in favour of giving up their claim on the disputed site. This cast a shadow on his role as an honest broker of peace between the two communities.

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