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Talks and obstacles

Print edition : Mar 16, 2002

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The Ayodhya-related negotiations enter another delicate phase.

THE Ayodhya issue is once again poised for a decisive turn, as it was just prior to December 6, 1992. The surcharged atmosphere, the heavy security development, the huge build-up of kar sevaks, the hectic parleys, an unrelenting Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the fervent appeals to the Supreme Court to intervene, the worried reaction of Muslims - it all seems like a replay of the earlier events.

The issue has taken centre stage as the VHP continues to be unrelenting on its shilapujan programme scheduled for March 15 on the part of the land over which there is no dispute, while the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) has rejected the very idea of it. The AIMPLB came into the picture after the Sankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, Jayendra Saraswati, in a bid to make peace, coaxed it into discussing the issue. In turn he offered it an undertaking that the VHP would abide by the court verdict on the disputed area. Predictably, the AIMPLB has rejected any "piecemeal" solution. It also demanded that the Centre should fulfil its legal obligation of maintaining the status quo in Ayodhya and not allow even a "symbolic kar seva or puja" on the acquired land.

The VHP contends that the 43-acre plot, which was owned by the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas before the acquisition, can be handed over to it as there is no dispute about its ownership. It has demanded that it be allowed to begin building a temple on this land. In the meantime, the VHP said, the government should request the Allahabad High Court to hold day-to-day hearings in order to settle fast the dispute over the land on which the Babri Masjid stood.

In a letter to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on February 27, chairman of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas Mahant Paramhans Ramchandra Das stated that the Centre could hold back the disputed land and part of the land adjacent to it about which there was no dispute, so that it could be handed over to the successful party after the judicial process was over. But in the meantime, he said, it should allow the VHP and the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas to go ahead with their temple construction plan on the remaining part of the land. Significantly, this is the first time that the VHP has said it will abide by the court's verdict in the case of the disputed land. So far its stand was that it was not for the court to decide where exactly Ram was born. It had also maintained that the sanctum sanctorum of the temple would be built where Ram was supposed to have been born and that that spot formed part of the disputed area.

This climbdown by the VHP came after the intervention of the Sankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, Jayendra Saraswati, who agreed to mediate between the VHP and the government on the one hand and the VHP and Muslim leaders on the other. The Sankaracharya, who arrived in New Delhi on March 4, was requested by Vajpayee to try and find a solution to the problem. This is seen as the first serious attempt by the Prime Minister to find a negotiated settlement of the Ayodhya problem, though he has been talking about it for some time.

As a first step towards finding a solution, the Sankaracharya got in writing an assurance from the VHP that it would abide by the court verdict on the disputed land. It was at his urging that VHP president Ashok Singhal gave the written assurance to the Prime Minister. According to the Sankaracharya, this was the minimum the VHP would have to do for the government to agree to hand over to it the land that was not disputed. He reasoned with the VHP that the government could hand over the land only if Muslims too agreed to it and that Muslims would do so only if the VHP promised to abide by the court verdict on the disputed land.

The Sankaracharya also held meetings with prominent Muslim leaders led by Maulana Nizamuddin, general secretary of the AIMPLB. He offered them a proposal: Muslims should agree to a symbolic pooja by the VHP on the land that is not disputed and give in writing that they had no objection to the government handing back to the VHP that land provided the VHP abided by the court verdict. He assured the Muslim leaders that the VHP had agreed to build a wall separating the disputed part of land so that there would be no confusion about it later. The meeting with Muslim leaders, however, was not conclusive as they demanded time until March 10, when the executive committee of the AIMPLB, which was the apex body to take a decision on the issue, would discuss it.

After a day-long meeting on March 10, the AIMPLB came out with a resolution rejecting the proposal on the grounds that it was "incomplete and inchoate" and expressed its displeasure at being offered a "piecemeal solution" for the Ayodhya issue. It said in the resolution that "the settlement of the dispute is not possible in piecemeal manner. It has to be resolved in the holistic manner in such a way that construction of the mosque is also not delayed". The AIMPLB basically had the following objections to the Sankaracharya's proposal: the linkage between the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas and the VHP and other Sangh Parivar organisations was not clear, so it was not possible to understand how the VHP would honour the undertaking given by the Nyas; there was no assurance that the VHP would abide by the undertaking given by the Nyas; there was no construction plan to specify that proposal; there was no assurance that if Muslims won the case, the construction plan of the temple would be changed to shift the sanctum sanctorum of the temple elsewhere and there will be no obstruction in the way of construction of a mosque; with freedom given to the VHP to carry on its mass mobilisation programme there was no guarantee about the sanctity of the wall; and, finally, Muslims are asked to wait for the final court verdict while the proposal allowed the immediate construction of a temple.

Describing the proposal as "workable arrangements at best", the AIMPLB said it did not offer any solution to the problem in its entirety. The legal adviser to the AIMPLB, Y.H. Muchala, told reporters that though they were for a court verdict of the problem, they were still open to negotiations with "anyone except Sangh Parivar members", provided the proposal was "foolproof" and had factored into it the constriction of a mosque. The AIMPLB clarified that even for the March 15 programme, it would abide by the court verdict and, if required, it would make an intervention.

ON the government's part, National Democratic Alliance (NDA) convener George Fernandes, Home Minister L.K. Advani, former official in the Prime Minister's Office Sudheendra Kulkarni and Samata Party functionary Shambhu Srivastava kept in touch with the Sankaracharya, who got back to the Prime Minister every evening. Jayendra Saraswati's involvement provides the entire exercise an apolitical touch and his bid to include the AIMPLB would make it difficult for anyone to criticise the effort.

What is worrying, though, is the involvement of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the dialogue. Once the VHP hardened its stance, the deputy chief of the RSS, Madan Das Devi, came into the picture. He not only supported the VHP's demand, but also urged the Prime Minister to find ways to dispose of quickly the title suit pending in the Allahabad High Court. That the entire exercise got under way is a clear sign of the Prime Minister succumbing to the combined pressure from the RSS and the VHP.

The government, which has been sleeping on the issue for years, filed an application in the Allahabad High Court on March 6 to hold day-to-day hearings of the title dispute so that it is spared the huge cost (Rs.30 crores a year) of maintaining the acquired land. The application will be considered by the court on March 19.

The VHP, however, remains as unpredictable as ever. Its leaders continue to speak in different voices, and this raises doubts about their intentions. Even as Singhal gave a written assurance to the Prime Minister and announced to the media that the VHP would abide by the court verdict, VHP president Vishnu Hari Dalmia said a day later that only the dharmacharyas could decide the course of action on the disputed land. Such change of positions by the top two VHP functionaries has created doubts whether Singhal's written undertaking had any validity.

In 1992 the Kalyan Singh-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh had given a written undertaking both to the Supreme Court and the National Integration Council that the Babri structure would be protected at any cost. But it looked the other way when kar sevaks tore it down. There was no guarantee that the VHP would stop with shilapujan and not force its way into the disputed land.

It is this fear which seems to be weighing down heavily on the Muslim mind. While saner elements among Muslims see a ray of hope in the peace initiative by the Sankaracharya, hardliners such as Ahmad Bukhari, the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, and Syed Shahabuddin, member of the AIMPLB, have trashed it in no uncertain terms. They announced that they would oppose any symbolic pooja even on land that was not disputed because that would be violative of the Supreme Court order to maintain the status quo on the acquired land.

This could well be the last chance for the Vajpayee government to settle the issue through negotiations. What may have spoiled the chances for a negotiated settlement is the fact that the Sankaracharya made the details public without waiting for the outcome of the AIMPLB meeting. He announced that a symbolic pooja would be allowed on March 15 and the land on which there is no dispute could be handed over to the VHP by June 2, the deadline the VHP has set for temple construction to begin.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has fixed March 15 as the date for hearing contempt of court petition filed against Ashok Singhal for making statements violative of the Supreme Court orders.

In another development, Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy said in a statement that the dispute "for any government was never a religious one for a Sankaracharya to be involved, especially one so close to RSS and so controversial as Jayendra Saraswati". He claimed that a new unilateral alteration of the 10-year status quo was being sought by the VHP. "This no constitutionally committed government can allow, either by force or by fraud," he said.

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