As the renewed Hindutva build-up towards a temple in Ayodhya escalates, the distant echoes from a period of lawlessness that the Bharatiya Janata Party was deeply implicated in, begin once again to resound across the political landscape.
ON the Assembly election campaign trail in Punjab, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee warned last fortnight of a conspiracy by international terrorist networks to "disintegrate" the country. India, he said, would actively campaign for a global body that would be able to take on the menace. The theme has been a constant refrain in campaign speeches all over by Bharatiya Janata Party luminaries. Home Minister L.K. Advani and Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, to name only two, have been vigorously working the crowds with the promise that the BJP-led government is embarked upon a decisive struggle against terrorism. Victory, they have said, is assured.
It is a long time since the BJP has been united in quite the same manner around a single theme in its campaign rhetoric. Just under a decade back, the party found a similar cohesiveness over the mission of building a Ram temple at Ayodhya. With Vajpayee merely being a sullen bystander, the BJP declared that the Ram Janmabhoomi matter was beyond the jurisdiction of the courts of law to decide. But as the law of diminishing returns caught up with the stridency of its campaign on Ayodhya, the party of Hindutva shifted from an obsessive single-issue focus to a more accommodative, if equivocal, stance.
The primordial Hindu identity and its centrality to Indian nationalism are no longer the exclusive themes that the BJP chooses to play on. Curiously for a party that held in disdain the authority of civic institutions when it was a matter of convenience for it, the BJP today has chosen to orient its campaign almost solely around the dangers that terrorism poses to the institutions of civic democracy. And as it leads an effort to secure for India a niche in a global coalition against terrorism, the BJP is keen to secure its image as a party dedicated to the rule of law and committed to the equal and symmetric treatment of all religious communities.
Most inconveniently, though, the distant echoes from a period of lawlessness that the BJP was itself deeply implicated in, are beginning once again to resound across the political landscape. Even as the Prime Minister and his colleagues in the BJP were making their lofty pronouncements about the new responsibilities that India was taking on as part of its commitment to the global struggle against terrorism, their confederates in the Hindutva fraternity were, with equal ardour, doing their best to undermine the new posture. And the theatre of their new militancy once again was Ayodhya.
As the Prime Minister worked the campaign trail in Punjab, Ashok Singhal and Ramachandra Paramahans, two luminaries of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) were laying out their concrete plans for the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. Hindus had waited for over 50 years for their temple, they said, and would wait no longer. Beginning March 15, the VHP would begin moving the pillars that had been carved for the temple to the site where the Babri Masjid stood until its frenzied demolition in December 1992. And the construction of the temple would begin shortly afterwards at an auspicious moment to be determined through astrological consultations, they announced.
Singhal was positive that there was little in the Supreme Court's successive rulings or the status of the litigation at any other level to restrain the government from handing over to the VHP all the land surrounding the site where the Babri Masjid stood. The Babri Masjid itself, said Singhal, was a Shia shrine, and lineal descendants of its builder, the Mughal general Mir Baqi, still lived in the vicinity of Ayodhya and Faizabad. Rather than continue with the dilatory judicial procedure, the VHP leader suggested, the government would be better advised to engage in direct negotiations with the descendants of Mir Baqi and leaders of the Shia community, to obtain the disputed land for the construction of a temple.
Seldom known to inconvenience himself with historical facts or with details of judicial pronouncements, Singhal's statement is, quite clearly, contrary to all credible interpretations of the situation as it stands today. Yet his acknowledgment that matters of fact and law may have a bearing on the Ayodhya dispute is undoubtedly an indication that with all his commitments to the Ram temple, he is keen to arrive at a compromise deal that will not endanger the stability of the BJP-led government at the Centre.
From another quarter, though, an associate of Singhal's from the VHP was sounding a note of the deepest pessimism. The Prime Minister, said Viswesa Teertha Swami of the Pejawar math in Udupi in Karnataka, had quite bluntly ruled out the possibility of any land being transferred to the VHP. According to the Swami's recounting of what happened at the recent meeting between the VHP leadership and the Prime Minister, Vajpayee had said that he would be prepared to quit rather than violate the terms of the compact between the BJP and its coalition partners.
Many of the mobilisational techniques and themes that the VHP had deployed in earlier phases of its agitational campaign were in evidence at the recent sant chetavani yatra that it took out from Ayodhya to Delhi. This, the latest in its sequence of elaborately ritualised processions, drew by all accounts a rather poor public response. Many of the sections that had signed on for the VHP's adventurist politics in earlier phases remained indifferent. The unsubtle timing of the venture with the build-up to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, was a rather transparent indication of crass political calculations.
The BJP, for its part, is deeply divided by the VHP's new provocations. Undoubtedly there is a section which believes that having achieved power, the party should not abandon the cause that propelled it to the forefront of national attention. Others seem dearly to wish that Ayodhya would just vanish as an issue, leaving the BJP at liberty to enjoy the benefits of wielding power, if in uneasy coalition with a diversity of other parties. The price of attracting this broad-ranging support, they argue, was the consignment of Ayodhya as an issue to the lower orders in the party's list of priorities. And as long as the cohabitation continues, it should not be endangered by issues that have a tendency to disrupt the newfound solidarities. The BJP's allies, for their part, have been definitive in their insistence that the government is burdened with sufficient problems without having to take on the VHP's highly divisive agenda also in the bargain.
The VHP decided at the Kumbh Mela last year that it would not wait beyond the Sivaratri festival this year (falling on March 12) before commencing construction work on a Ram temple at Ayodhya. This mixing of Saivite and Vaishnavite motifs has been a constant element in the VHP's strategy of recruiting a broad range of religious figures and spiritual hucksters to its cause.
There was a certain symmetry between the decision taken last year and an event from the prehistory of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, as far back as 1985. On October 31 that year, the VHP organised one in a sequence of conclaves that it has rather grandiosely titled Dharma Sansad (or religious parliament). The purpose then was to revive the flagging momentum of the Janmabhoomi movement that had flickered to life in the last days of Indira Gandhi's regime, but then been extinguished by her assassination and the desertion of a large segment of Hindutva ranks to the Congress. The Dharma Sansad then put down the ultimatum that it would not wait beyond Shivaratri the next year for the Babri Masjid to be thrown open for the worship of the Ram idols that had in its narrative manifested mystically within its confines in 1948.
There is no clear means of knowing whose was the unseen hand that guided the subsequent course of events. But matters moved so rapidly after this event, particularly after a VHP delegation called on the Congress Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Bir Bahadur Singh, in December 1985 to reiterate the demand, that it is difficult not to suspect an element of orchestration behind it.
On January 31, 1986, a petition was filed before the District Court, Faizabad, praying for the opening of the locks on the shrine. Within hours of an order passed by the Judge the following day, with television crews from the official media in attendance, the doors of the Babri Masjid had swung open to allow the tumultuous entry of thousands of devotees. There was at once an upsurge of communal tension in the country, with serious affrays sweeping through Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir. The cycle of events that would culminate in the tragic demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 had been firmly set under way.
How far will the symmetries between two Sivaratri festivals set 16 years apart go? The government of Rajiv Gandhi had been propelled into authority in 1984 partly on the strength of a Hindu backlash against the secessionist threat that the Punjab militancy seemed to embody. Yet it had no specific obligation to the Hindutva lobby and could well have resisted the strident demand for opening up the Babri Masjid. Yet the Congress, putting expediency above principle, was then engaged in a cynical (if rather delicate) manoeuvre between two kinds of religious extremism. The course that this gambit took is evident from its subsequent actions.
Meeting in New Delhi shortly after the gates of the Babri Masjid had been opened, the Congress Working Committee expressed its concern at the growing activities of "communal and anti-national" organisations. It called upon the government to "crush" these with a "firm hand". Addressing the meeting, Rajiv Gandhi, who was yet to descend from the peak of personal authority that he had scaled in 1984, referred very cryptically to the efforts by "some people" to communalise politics in the country. On the issue of Muslim personal law, he informed the committee that the government was in consultation with "various sections" and had finalised a "package" to resolve the problem.
Less than a week later, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill was moved in the Lok Sabha, amidst vehement protests by the Opposition benches. The "package" deal to recruit religious extremists from both sides to the cause of the ruling arrangement was complete. But forces had been set in motion that would consume the Rajiv Gandhi government and lead through a bloody sequence of riots and massacres, to the tragic demolition of 1992.
If these were the events that Shivaratri in 1986 presaged, what can be said about the recurrence of that day of piety this year? The VHP looks upon the Vajpayee government's reluctance to hand over the land at Ayodhya as an act almost akin to treachery. Hardline elements within the BJP are directly obliged to the VHP for their current political prominence and would do anything to appease their mentors. But there is a pragmatic section within, which seems to be dominant today, which steered the BJP away from its isolation towards an accommodation with other parties beginning in the mid-1990s. Now engaged in the exercise of wielding the long-sought-for power, they are averse to any disruption until the next general elections.
In the uneasy stasis between these two factions - a state of indecision that could soon be rudely shattered when the VHP puts its plans into effect - there is little room for the consideration of matters of principle. Miscreants who demolished a historic monument - not to mention a structure that was of religious significance to a number of people - have evaded prosecution for years and have now assumed positions of authority. Unable to rebuff decisively another threat to the rule of law, they equivocate and seem to arrive at another expedient compromise with the forces of religious extremism.
All the while, the government is engaged in an assiduous effort to establish India's credentials in global forums as a country committed to safeguarding civic democracy against the depredations of religiously motivated terrorism. The effort clearly calls for the kind of disingenuous make-believe that may go beyond the resources of the government today. Caught between the imperatives of survival and the need to appease a constituency that it owes its current identity to, the Vajpayee government could soon be stumbling towards a crisis that threatens its very existence.