The recent depositions of three prominent leaders, two of them former Prime Ministers, before the Liberhan Commission reveal a peculiar strategy the VHP employs to achieve its goals.
Q. From your interaction with the sadhus and sants did you find them to be functioning as a part of a regular, cohesive organisation or were they acting only as individuals?V.P. Singh: As individuals.
P.V. Narasimha Rao: I am inclined to believe that they were functioning as individuals for the simple reason that I have not heard of these names in any other context.
Q. Was the call for kar seva given by the Marg Darshak Mandal/Dharma Sansad or by you and/or other Bharatiya Janata Party leaders?
L.K. Advani: We were not a party to the decision of holding the kar seva on December 6. The decision as well as the date and the form, etc., were decided by them. We, as supporters of the Ayodhya movement, decided that 'all right, we will participate in it'.
IF one goes by these answers given before the M.S. Liberhan Commission of Inquiry into the circumstances relating to the December 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the next logical question would be, "Then with whom were the then Prime Ministers negotiating before December 6, 1992?" The Commission raised these questions in the course of its inquiry into the role of the Dharma Sansad and the Marg Darshak Mandal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in the negotiations that preceded the demolition.
Both Narasimha Rao and V.P. Singh said before the Commission that throughout the Ram Janmabhoomi movement they were negotiating with sadhus and sants and not with any organised body. Through these statements, they have given acceptability to the idea that the government can negotiate individually with sadhus and sants, ignoring the role of VHP units such as the Marg Darshak Mandal and the Dharma Sansad.
In the late 1980s, when V.P. Singh was Prime Minister, the VHP organised a meeting of the Marg Darshak Mandal, which decided to begin construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya on February 14, 1991. This decision was conveyed to him by the Mandal. It was obvious from his deposition that he then perceived the VHP to be an amorphous entity. When he was asked whether he, during his tenure as Prime minister or subsequently, had dealt with the Dharma Sansad or the Marg Darshak Mandal, he did not have a clear idea about the nomenclature of these organisations or its representatives who met him. "Twice a delegation came, in which Ashok Singhal was there and Dalmiaji was there. I do not know whether the other members of the delegation were from the Dharma Sansad or not," he said. He went on to say that he was basically dealing with the VHP and the BJP, and not the Marg Darshak Mandal. V.P. Singh was more forthright than Narasimha Rao in naming the sadhus whom he dealt with during the Ayodhya movement. He mentioned the names of Swami Chinmayanand, Mahant Avaidyanath and the Sankaracharya of Kanchi. When Narasimha Rao was asked by the Commission to throw light on the opinion-makers or leaders of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, he said that he was not aware of them. He refused to comment on the VHP, saying, "I know so little about the VHP."
THE ambiguity about the identity of the VHP lies not so much in their perception as in its character. The VHP was set up to bring about an identity of interests among a broad range of Hindu organisations. Its ultimate goal was to project itself as the sole representative of Hindus. In this effort, the VHP is assisted by the Marg Darshak Mandal, which "directs and guides the religious ceremonies, morals and ethics of the Hindu society". The members of the Mandal represent different sects of Hinduism. The Mandal was assisted by a Sadhu Sansad ("parliament of sadhus").
The Marg Darshak Mandal, which has evolved into a virtually permanent institution, has 200 members. It meets twice a year to "advise the VHP in socio-religious domains". The Mandal and the Dharma Sansad have grown stronger over time, particularly after 1984 when the Sadhu Sansad was converted into the Dharma Sansad ("parliament of the Hindu religion") with thousands of participants.
The Dharma Sansad decides the course of action for the VHP. At its first meeting in 1984, the Dharma Sansad demanded the "liberation of Ayodhya". In the same year, the Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti, formed under the leadership of Mahant Avaidyanath, launched the 'tala kholo' agitation. The year 1985 saw a series of processions - of Ram-Janaki raths from 25 places in northern India to Ayodhya. At a meeting on December 5, 1992, the Marg Darshak Mandal decided to hold kar seva the following day - the day the demolition took place.
At a meeting of the Dharma Sansad before March 15 this year, sants, including Ramanujacharya Vasudevacharya, Ramanujacharya Purushottamacharya, Ramchandra Das Paramhans, Mahant Avaidyanath and the Gorakh Pitatheesh-war, passed a resolution demanding that the Centre hand over 67-plus acres of land acquired by it in 1993 to the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas by March 12.
"Regardless of the failure of Ramchandra Paramhans to conduct shilanyas on March 15, the VHP remains strong as ever," asserts Dr. Pradip K. Datta of the Department of Political Science of Delhi University. However, unlike in 1992, the VHP seemed to be isolated at the popular level this time. "The political parties were more critical and it was obvious that there was far more condemnation from the media this time around, though a lot of this criticism was because of the preceding violence in Gujarat," explained Datta.
In his deposition before the Liberhan Commission, V.P. Singh was critical of the Nyas. On March 19, he said that he had serious differences with the line the Nyas has taken and the way it defined Hindutva. "In this very country of ours we have the Hindutva of Gandhiji, of Vivekananda, of Sant (Ramchandra) Paramhans. This land has given Kabir and Tulsidas, the greatest bhakt of Ram. Had they defined Hindutva in the sense that the VHP is defining it?" he asked. Referring to March 15, he said: "Today what has happened is that the VHP not only consistently says that it will not abide by court orders but goes on mobilising people on the same issue, creating a psyche against the court. They are no respecters of the court and the Constitution."
Narasimha Rao's response was full of ambiguity. He said: "I do not remember but when we were examining the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, it was pointed out that the RSS had an overwhelming say in the Nyas. I do not remember the details but the Nyas did not seem to be representing the leadership of the Hindu religion."
Not surprisingly, Advani's assessment of the role of the Marg Darshak Mandal and the Dharma Sansad was at complete variance with V.P. Singh's and Narasimha Rao's. Advani said that it was the VHP that led the movement. He went out of his way to place the onus of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement on the VHP. For instance, when he was asked by Commission's counsel Anupam Gupta whether the BJP was the executor or the decision-maker in the movement, he said emphatically that the party was a participant. Advani said: "We are not the executors also, we are participants. As they have many other participants who have nothing to do with the BJP."
The VHP's organisational structure allows Advani to own or disown it according to his convenience. Any important decision of the VHP is attributed to the Marg Darshak Mandal, which is responsible only for taking decisions and not for executing them. The decisions are therefore described as actions of the sadhus, who, it is then asserted, do not come under the discipline of any organisation of the Sangh Parivar. In failing to recognise that the sadhus are a part of the VHP's organisational structure, both Narasimha Rao and V.P. Singh seem to have fallen in this trap.
When Advani was asked about those present on the dais of Ram Katha Kunj on the day of the demolition, he said: "The bulk of them were sadhus and sants who were part of the Dharma Sansad. I did not see the leadership behaving in any irrational manner." He distanced himself from the VHP and the Dharma Sansad by alluding to the Mahabharata. He said: "Bhishma and Drona were as guilty as Duryodhana as they sat as passive spectators. If the VHP or the Dharma Sansad had decided to demolish the structure and even then the BJP or its leaders like Dr. (Murli Manohar) Joshi and me had gone there, the context of the Mahabharata would have applied to us. But as it is, and as I have pointed out at length in my narratives before the Commission, we can be blamed for not being able to judge the mood and impatience of the people or for not being able to identify if there were any elements who were bent upon demolition, mischief; but we cannot be blamed for aiming at demolition or wilfully encouraging people to do so."
"Advani's statement is not surprising. For him more than anything right now, it is important to maintain a distance from the VHP, to emerge as a statesman," said Achin Vanaik, Visiting Professor, Jamia Millia Islamia . "In this context, I see the BJP as having achieved its minimal criteria on March 15," he said. The minimal criteria, according to him, are the undermining of the secular criteria of the Constitution, the legitimisation of the role of the VHP, which was obvious in the reaffirmation of its role in resolving the dispute, and the National Democratic Alliance remaining intact.