An estranged daughter-in-law makes some charges before the Liberhan Commission of Inquiry and then backs off.
THOSE who tuned in late might be forgiven for believing that Union Home Minister L.K. Advani had nothing to do with the tragic events of December 6, 1992 at Ayodhya.
At his repeated appearances before the Justice M.S. Liberhan Commission of Inquiry, Advani has protested against the slightest suggestion that he had anything to do with the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He insisted that the act was the work of "a few hundred people" who did not heed appeals made by leaders to come down from the domes. During his last deposition on December 28, he denied having made a speech from the Ram Katha Kunj to the mob that was about to bring down the Masjid, and then protested furiously when confronted with an Uttar Pradesh Police intelligence report that recorded the opposite. The Home Minister even suggested that the document, produced by officials of a Bharatiya Janata Party government, might be a fabrication. A day earlier, he had described the demolition of the Masjid as a "big setback" to the BJP, and denied ever having asked during his fateful rath yatra from Varanasi to Ayodhya for kar seva to be carried out with "shovels and bricks."
Now, someone present at the start of the rath yatra has taken issue with these claims. And she is not just anyone - she is L.K. Advani's estranged daughter-in-law.
Gauri Advani says she witnessed a meeting between L.K. Advani and top Bajrang Dal leader Vinay Katiyar just before the rath yatra began, where Advani issued express orders to bring down the Babri Masjid. "Iska kaam kar do," she alleges Advani told Katiyar, "kya Babri Masjid ka kalank nahin mit sakta" (Can't the stain that is the Babri Masjid be erased, finish it off)? Katiyar, she records, said he was just waiting for permission to do so: "Hum to aapke aadesh ka intezaar kar rahe hain, aur agar aap bole to Masjid ka namo-nishaan mita dein" (We have just been waiting for your orders, and if you permit us, we will remove its every trace). "To intezaar kis baat ki" (Why should we wait?), Gauri Advani claims her father-in-law replied. "Gulami ke nishaan kab tak rahenge? Masjid ko dhwasth ker kar ke dikhao. Sahi samay aa gaya" (Until when will we tolerate signs of slavery? Bring down the Masjid. The time has come).
These extraordinary allegations were hand-delivered to the Liberhan Commission by Gauri Advani's sister on January 7, in a signed nine-page document. The London-based solicitor, who is currently contesting divorce proceedings initiated by L.K. Advani's son Jayant Advani, asked for permission to appear before the Commission, where she offered to make an even more detailed statement on oath, giving evidence on aspects not contained in the statement. Gauri said she had accompanied Advani and his wife Kamala Advani by the North-East Express to Varanasi on November 30, 1992, and was then present during his conversation with Katiyar which took place just before the rath yatra began the next morning. She characterised L.K. Advani's own statements before the Commission as a "bundle of lies," and said she had "relevant and material information" which would help discover the whole truth about the conspiracy to bring down the Babri Masjid.
Then, just as suddenly, she made a volte-face. Four days after her statement was delivered in New Delhi, she faxed from London a letter to the Commission saying that she did not wish to press her application, and requesting that she be permitted to withdraw it.
No one knows just what Justice M.S. Liberhan intends to do with Gauri Advani's statement, which he presumably studied before the Union Home Minister's recent deposition. Gauri, significantly, has only sought in the January 11 fax message to withdraw her application to depose before the Commission. She has made no effort to recant her allegations.
Interestingly, the Commissions of Inquiry Rules of 1972 make no reference to such withdrawal of statements. Clause 2(b) of the rules provide for any person to "furnish to the Commission a statement relating to such matters as may be specified in the notification." After considering such statements, which the rules make clear need not be in the form of affidavits, the Commission may consider whether it is "necessary to record evidence." Justice Liberhan, then, will have to apply his mind to whether Gauri Advani has new evidence to offer - which at first glance seems a very uncomplicated question.
But it is not: the Advani family and their daughter-in-law are embroiled in litigation which, to put it mildly, has been acrimonious. Such a situation is not, of course, all that unusual these days, but it gives rise to questions about Gauri's motives and credibility. Jayant and Gauri Advani met while she was working as the BJP leader's special assistant, handling issues related to his New Delhi constituency. According to Gauri, she had "deep faith in the ideology" L.K. Advani propagated and took whatever he told her as "gospel truth." Her father, New Delhi-based journalist Pran Sabharwal, and L.K. Advani were long-time acquaintances. Jayant and Gauri were married on October 12, 1991, soon after L.K. Advani's first rath yatra, and just before Gauri Advani had completed two years on Advani's staff. But the relationship did not last, and Gauri Advani soon moved to London, where she is now a solicitor.
In July 2001, Jayant Advani finally sought a divorce. He alleged that Gauri had deserted him seven years earlier but was not agreeing to a divorce as she was interested in promoting her professional and commercial interests by introducing herself as the Indian Home Minister's daughter-in-law. Gauri Advani has not given her take on these allegations, but she filed a counter-suit demanding the return of wedding presents and jewellery claimed to be valued at Rs.3 crores. Again, such moves during divorce proceedings are not unusual, but the subsequent events certainly were. In October 2001, Gauri went public with the allegation that Hardip Singh Puri, India's Deputy High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, threatened her with harm unless she agreed to a divorce by mutual consent. The threat, Gauri claimed, was first made in the diplomat's offices, and then over lunch at a restaurant.
Shortly after that meeting, Gauri moved the Delhi High Court, demanding that the police register a First Information Report against Puri. The incensed Indian diplomat returned the compliment with a libel suit against Gauri in a London court. He said he knew her as a longstanding family friend and had advised her in "avuncular fashion," when she mentioned her marital problems, to part company with her husband in an amicable manner. He strongly denied there had been any threat.
On October 4, a Division Bench comprising Justices Usha Mehra and C.K. Mahajan directed the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi, its Police Commissioner, and the Tilak Marg Police Station, which had allegedly refused to register an FIR, to file their replies. Subsequently the court ordered that a statement be recorded as a precursor to further action. Whether that statement has been recorded or not, Gauri Advani's family members will not say. Delhi Police officials contacted by Frontline also declined to discuss the matter.
Nor was Pran Sabharwal willing to provide any information or insight relating his daughter Gauri Advani's contrary communications to the Liberhan Commission. L.K. Advani's office responded in similar vein. The Minister's personal secretary, Deepak Chopra, flatly said "the subject is not valid." Pressed further, he remarked that this correspondent was not "reading between the lines." "The matter stands absolutely closed," Chopra concluded. He agreed, however, to receive a fax asking for an interview with the Minister, in which Frontline made clear it sought a response to the allegations about Advani's role in Ayodhya, not to any personal allegations. Till the time of going to press, there was no response.
The subject might not be valid for Chopra, but it is valid for determining who was responsible for the December 1992 outrage at Ayodhya. The question remains: is personal grudge the reason for Gauri Advani's application? Her written statement to the Commission is, indeed, full of bitter recrimination directed at the L.K. Advani household. She complains of being forbidden to engage in Hindu "rites, rituals and ceremonies." She asserts that L.K. Advani and his family members are "basically followers of Sikh religion" and that her father-in-law confided in her that he had "no faith in Hinduism". This particular assertion seems dubious since many Sindhi Hindus, as well as other Hindu sects, privilege Guru Nanak in their religious practices. In her first statement before the Liberhan Commission, she contrasts what she claims to be Advani's private religious beliefs with his public actions seeking to "play with the sentiments of the general Hindu masses to enable the BJP to come to power at the Centre."
Whether solicitor Gauri Advani will press her claims to whatever end, or let them sink without a trace remains to be seen.