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Towards a temple

Print edition : Jun 20, 1998 T+T-

The BJP leadership has denied any move to construct a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in the near future; however, statements from the Hindutva combine's other constituents, especially the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, have sinister implications.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in Ayodhya and New Delhi

SPEAK in many voices to create confusion and strike suddenly. That was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-led Hindutva combine's strategy throughout its eight-year-long agitation that culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. The combine is at it again, judging by the work at Ayodhya and in Rajasthan on pillars and other parts for a proposed temple in Ayodhya.

The two principal components of the Hindutva combine, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), speak differently about the prefabrication work. The result is that the combine's objectives remain shrouded in mystery. Neither the uproar in Parliament nor the statements made outside by Hindutva leaders have helped throw light on the real intentions of the combine.

The refrain of the BJP leadership, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Home Minister L.K. Advani and party president Kushabhau Thakre, is that the prefabrication work is not a prelude to the construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site unless the Supreme Court pronounces a favourable judgment. However, VHP leaders, including working president Ashok Singhal, joint general secretary Vinay Katiyar and chairman of the Sri Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas (the trust designated by the VHP to oversee the construction of the proposed temple) Mahant Ramachandra Paramahans, aver that they will not be bound by any court verdict or assurance from the Prime Minister. Paramahans told Frontline: "The Prime Minister and the Government can say what they want. As far as we are concerned, the construction of the Ram temple is not a matter for adjudication." Stating how his organisation proposes to pursue its objective, he said: "No Constitution, no laws, no government and no Prime Minister can stop our work. Our commitment is only to the dharma and the dharmacharyas. And we will complete the construction of the temple as and when the dharma and the dharmacharyas ordain."

According to Champat Rai, joint secretary of the VHP, a tentative construction schedule has been formulated. He said that the assembling of the base and the pillars of the temple would start in two years' time, irrespective of the Supreme Court verdict. Paramahans said: "Our work is not bound by any court or government." When it was pointed out that the construction of a temple could not be completed in one day unlike the demolition, and that the security forces would have ample time to thwart any construction work at the disputed site, Champat Rai said that the kar sevaks would come up with ways to keep the "opponents" at bay. He claimed that geological studies commissioned by the VHP had shown that it would not be difficult to construct on the land in and around the disputed site. "We will not need to dig deep to lay the foundation," he said, and added, "we are planning to go in for a raft foundation, and the platform built during the July 1992 kar seva will help us use this process." However, many BJP leaders, including Uttar Pradesh BJP unit president Rajnath Singh, discounted this and said that the construction would be "proper and legal".

DOUBLESPEAK was the norm even during the agitation preceding the demolition of the mosque. After failing to conduct kar seva in 1990, the VHP leadership said that it would not agree to any settlement that went against its contention, even as BJP leaders spoke of a negotiated settlement. Speaking to Frontline in early 1992, Vinay Katiyar stated in unmistakable terms that the VHP would achieve its objective irrespective of legal and constitutional hurdles. "Might is the only law that we understand," he said. However, around the same time, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh said in an interview (Frontline, May 8, 1992) that the BJP was exploring two options - a negotiated settlement, and if that failed, the enactment of a law to remove the legal hurdles to the construction of a temple. Both these options had ruled out the use of force. (However, the difference of opinion vanished with the demolition and Hindutva groups of all shades hailed the act as "liberation from shame".

For a brief while in 1995 - when the Supreme Court refused to adjudicate on the mandir-masjid dispute and reverted the case back to the Allahabad High Court - the VHP appeared to exhibit some faith in the judicial process. In an application moved before the Lucknow Bench of the High Court on October 9, 1995, Ashok Singhal pleaded that he and Mahant Ramachandra Paramahans be allowed to participate in the case as plaintiffs in order to protect the interests of the deities at the disputed site and to achieve the objectives of his organisation. The court rejected the application on March 19, 1996.

However, with the BJP-led coalition Government coming to power at the Centre, Singhal and his associates have gone back to presenting their claim as one bound only by faith. It is evident from earlier experience that they are adopting expedient positions, which could change depending upon circumstances.

Leaders of the BJP and the VHP say that they differ only on whether adjudication should be accepted or not; they are united on all other issues, including the contention that the prefabrication work is not illegal. Making a statement in the Lok Sabha, Home Minister L.K. Advani pointed out that when Indrajit Gupta, Home Minister in the United Front Government, was asked about the ongoing work, he too had replied that nothing illegal was going on. Quoting from Indrajit Gupta's letter to a former Rajya Sabha member last year, Advani said that he (Indrajit Gupta) had clearly stated that no work was going on at the disputed site, but at a place 2 km away from it. The letter is also reported to have stated that the ongoing work did not violate the Supreme Court order to maintain the status quo at the disputed site. "We agree with the former Home Minister's statement," said Advani.

VHP leaders wonder why the prefabrication work, which had been going on for the past eight years, generated a controversy now. "The only aim of the Opposition in creating this uproar," said Vinay Katiyar, chief of the Bajrang Dal, "is to divide the BJP-led front at the Centre and cause the downfall of the Government." Katiyar also alleged that the Opposition was worried that the Vajpayee Government would find a negotiated solution to the mandir-masjid dispute. "The Government has initiated discussions with top Muslim leaders both within and outside the country and considerable progress has been achieved in settling the issue," he said.

Whatever the truth in Katiyar's contention, the present controversy cannot be blamed entirely on the Opposition. The fact remains that the statements made by the VHP leadership were a contributory factor. VHP leaders, including general secretary Acharya Giriraj Kishore, claimed at numerous press conferences across the country in the first and second weeks of May that one-fourth of the work on the temple had been completed.

According to VHP insiders, these statements were cleared by the RSS leadership and their objective was to appease Hindutva-oriented BJP supporters. The non-inclusion of the mandir issue in the Vajpayee Government's National Agenda had not been received well by this section. However, Paramahans said: "All this is immaterial to us. This controversy will have no effect on our plans, and as far as we are concerned, things are moving in the right direction."

In addition, the Sangh Parivar wants to send across the message that it is still committed to building a Ram temple at Ayodhya. A senior VHP leader told Frontline: "The media and the Opposition parties, especially the Congress(I), helped us by falling for this ploy. Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's letter to the Prime Minister and the party's efforts to move an adjournment motion in Parliament on the issue have come as a boon for us." Leaders such as Paramahans and Katiyar have stated that the uproar has benefited the Hindutva combine politically. This is particularly true of the VHP, which can now re-enter mainstream national and Hindutva politics more confidently. Over the last five years, it has been sidelined, essentially because the Sangh Parivar opted to pursue "moderate, power-gaining politics". According to insiders, the controversy will also enhance the financial strength of the VHP since a fresh round of contributions are likely to flow in from within the country and from abroad.

ACCORDING to Zafrayab Jilani, convener of the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC), certain important developmentsvis-a-vis the disputed site have been overlooked by the Opposition parties and the media in the current brouhaha. He said that he received information in the third week of May that a proposal for making improvements to the makeshift temple had been sent by the Commissioner of Faizabad division to the Union Home Ministry. Jilani told Frontline: "The suggestions were to replace the bamboo and the canopy of the structure, to make it stronger." He wrote to the Commissioner cautioning him against effecting any such change since it would amount to a violation of the Supreme Court orders of January 7, 1993 and October 24, 1994. The orders state that the status quo as obtained on January 7, 1993 should be maintained and that there should be no enhancement of the facilities at the makeshift temple. Jilani said that there had been no response from the Commissioner. However, information that the move had been abandoned, at least for the time being, reached him through other sources. "But it is quite possible that these attempts will be made again," he said, "especially because the VHP has favourable governments in the State and at the Centre."

Frontline's attempts to contact the Commissioner did not succeed. Significantly, Jilani's May 30 statement on the Commissioner's proposal, which was published in the local newspapers, was not rebutted by the State Government.

All this adds to the suspicion that the Sangh Parivar is planning something at the disputed site. Katiyar told Frontline that although Ram had the patience to wait for the rains to end before setting out to rescue Sita from Ravana, the bhakts could not wait any longer to build the Ram temple. Katiyar, however, did not explain this statement. But going by indications from Sangh Parivar activists in Ayodhya, a symbolic kar seva could be in the offing in the near future, depending on the national political situation. A local VHP leader told Frontline: "If the Central Government faces more problems in its functioning and its survival is in doubt, the operation can take place quite soon, within four to six months. Otherwise, it may be delayed for as long as a year."

At any rate, for the time being, the Parivar is satisfied that the furore over the prefabrication exercise has turned out to be to its advantage. The Congress(I)'s failure to take its campaign on the issue to its logical conclusion by moving an adjournment motion has added to the Parivar's contentment. By all indications, the Congress(I) was keen to capitalise on the issue and win back the support of Muslims. However, it was thwarted by two factors. The first was Sonia Gandhi's act of writing to the Prime Minister instead of the President. The second was the party's failure to coordinate with other Opposition parties. These were compounded by the fact that the Congress(I) leadership did not have the details of the prefabrication work, including information about the places where it is going on. Many Congress(I) leaders reportedly thought that the karyashala at Ayodhya was either on the disputed site or on an adjacent site.

THE course of future developments on the temple front is unpredictable. One can be certain about only one thing, that the Sangh Parivar has a few aces up its sleeve. Interestingly, Paramahans told Frontline: "I do not think that any BJP leader who is committed by dharma to build a temple will go back on his pledge." (The reference was to the pledge taken by Kalyan Singh at Ayodhya soon after he became the Chief Minister that he would build a temple there.) "It is true that the National Agenda does not refer to the mandir issue," said Paramahans, "but I do not think that this is the BJP Government's permanent position. You will see everything falling into place in due course." In the meantime, the BJP and the VHP will continue with their doublespeak for as long as the Parivar wants.