IF the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has its way, a Ram temple at Ayodhya, which the Bharatiya Janata Party promised in its manifesto, will be built in about two years. VHP sources said that ex-situ construction work was going on at four workshops in Sirohi district in Rajasthan and at one workshop in Ayodhya. In the Sirohi workshops, where components of the temple's exterior were being built using red sandstone from Bharatpur, about 200 persons have been at work for the past three years, the sources said. The architectural design had been prepared and once the construction work was complete, the temple could be "assembled" at Ayodhya, the sources added. More than Rs.8 crores had been collected in 1991 from the public for the shila pujan, the sources said.
Under the circumstances, the VHP is reluctant to start an agitation on the temple issue lest it should embarrass the BJP-led coalition Government at the Centre. In addition, given the uncertainty over how long the Vajpayee Government will be able to withstand the pulls and pressures of the alliance partners, the VHP would prefer to raise the temple issue only at an "opportune time". It is not also raising the Kashi and Mathura issues for now.
In the short term, the VHP has embarked on a programme to expand its base and find new supporters by raising relatively less contentious issues that will help it mobilise support. At its executive committee meeting in Faridabad on April 2 and 3, it resolved to "free" a few other places of worship - including the Sivagiri mutt in Kerala (Frontline, January 23, 1998), the Venkateswara temple in Tirupati, and the Vaishnodevi temple in Jammu - from "government control". It demanded a ban on cow slaughter and conversions from Hinduism, and an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the recent Coimbatore blasts. It also resolved to oppose the construction of the Tehri dam and to support the Government's endeavour to settle the Ayodhya dispute through negotiations.
THESE resolutions were sought to be endorsed at a Sant Sammelan in Hardwar on April 9. The sants had gathered for the Kumbh Mela and appeared to show little interest in the Sammelan proceedings. Perhaps the lack of interest also stemmed from the fact that the VHP, like the BJP, is keen to put contentious issues on the backburner. When this correspondent asked VHP working president Ashok Singhal on April 10 about the Ayodhya issue, he said: "If a temple for Lord Ram cannot be built in India, where else can it be built?" He said that the VHP did not believe in issuing ultimatums. In any case, he said, it was not the VHP, but the "Hindu samaj", that would build the temple.
Perhaps taking into account the sants' lukewarm response to the VHP's demand for a negotiated settlement of the Ayodhya dispute, Singhal demanded legislation to solve it. However, he did not elaborate on this except to say that a review of the Constitution for that purpose was imperative. One of his aides said: "It will be better if there are no more discussions on this issue at present."
Asked if the VHP had lost faith in negotiations, a VHP source claimed that successive governments had tried negotiations as a way out, but had failed. If the Government was serious about negotiations, it should start them immediately; otherwise, it would fail to carry conviction, the source warned.
It appears that the VHP wants to leave its pronouncements on the Ayodhya issue a little vague to suit the political agenda of the Sangh Parivar. The sants are evidently dissatisfied with this approach, as in their view any dilution of the stand on Hindutva issues would alienate the Sangh and its various organs from the people. (On April 10, the VHP also organised a discussion on the development of pilgrim centres; it demanded the creation of a separate department at the Centre for the upkeep of pilgrim centres.)
The VHP may be flinching from taking an aggressive line, but its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, which has its units in about 4,000 blocks in 500 districts of the country, is working on an aggressive expansion strategy. It plans to start new units in 3,500 blocks in 250 districts. Bajrang Dal national convener and VHP joint general secretary Surendra Kumar Jain, a commerce teacher in a Rohtak college, told Frontline that the Bajrang Dal would set up balupasna kendras in 7,531 blocks covering every district, to impart martial arts training to Hindu youth. The Bajrang Dal claims that this training is intended to infuse confidence in the youth "to face threats from across the border" and resist "cultural invasion by other religions, including conversions". But knowing the Bajrang Dal for what it is, these moves have hardly instilled confidence among the minorities.