Silent spectator

Print edition : June 02, 2006

P.V. Narasimha Rao's book on the Ayodhya demolition of December 1992 only confirms his own culpability in what happened.

THIS is a truly unique memoir of a kind that has no precedent or parallel in the entire corpus of memoirs or autobiographies. They have been written over the centuries for the authors to tell the world what they knew of the events, how they interacted with others, what their contribution to the making of policy was and to refute versions they considered wrong and unjust. P.V. Narasimha Rao's book tells us nothing of the kind. Things just happened. He surveys the events without a word about his role or a word in refutation of precise, credible and damning charges made against him. His silence, wilful and deliberate, proves those charges to be true.

Two former Prime Ministers attacked him after the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on December 6, 1992. On December 9, V.P. Singh demanded that Narasimha Rao be put on trial for "criminal negligence" jointly with Kalyan Singh, then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. "His [Rao's] responsibility is no less." Chandra Shekhar said on December 12: "It does seem there was deliberate dereliction of duty" (The Statesman; December 13, 1992). He revealed that he had met Narasimha Rao on November 30 to convey "certain information" on the threat to the mosque. "I personally explained my apprehensions." They were ignored.

Jyoti Basu, then Chief Minister of West Bengal and one of the country's most respected leaders, testified to the M.S. Liberhan Commission in a prepared statement: "Two days before the demolition, i.e. on 4 December 1992, I rang up the Prime Minister to inform him that there was apprehension that the Babri Masjid may be attacked and hence something has to be done to protect it... . In the third week of December 1993, Harikishan Singh Surjeet and I met the Prime Minister and asked him why nothing was done. He said `How could I disbelieve a Chief Minister when he assured me that no harm will be done to the mosque?'" (People's Democracy; December 8, 2002).

Narasimha Rao preferred to believe a Kalyan Singh who had, on his appointment as Chief Minister in 1991, taken a vow to build a temple on the site of the mosque rather than a leader like Jyoti Basu, not to forget his own Cabinet colleague Arjun Singh and Union Home Secretary Madhav Godbole. Narasimha Rao blamed the split in the Congress for his loss of office in 1996 and denial of the party ticket in 1998 for all that befell him; including a place in the dock as an accused in a criminal trial.

What Lord Melbourne wrote to a friend after he lost office in 1841 is all too true of Narasimha Rao. "I have always considered complaints of ill-usage contemptible whether from a seduced disappointed girl or a turned out Prime Minister." The last paragraph of the book explains why it was written: "I tried to explain all these things to my colleagues, but on their side also political and vote-earning considerations definitely prevailed and they had already made up their minds that one person was to be made historically responsible for the tragedy, in case the issue ended up in tragedy. If there had been success (as there definitely seemed to be, in the initial months) they would of course have readily shared the credit or appropriated it to themselves." Did Narasimha Rao really imagine that his strategy might succeed?

But what was that strategy? That he kept entirely to himself. After the demolition, the Sangh Parivar's organ Organiser (December 13, 1992) spilled the beans: "A tacit understanding seems to have been hammered out after a series of meetings Shri P.V. Narasimha Rao had with Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee, Shri Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Prof. Rajendra Singh, joint secretary of the RSS" (emphasis added throughout). That "understanding" was never disclosed.

This explains not only the Sangh Parivar's optimism and boldness but also Narasimha Rao's and Home Minister S.B. Chavan's suspension of disbelief, which had such tragic consequences. On December 4, Chavan said it would be wrong to disbelieve the Uttar Pradesh government's assurances to the court. He disbelieved the reports provided by his own Intelligence Bureau.

Organiser makes no secret of the fact that both Narasimha Rao and Chavan had been hoodwinked. "The Sangh Parivar played its cards well in this battle of wits with the Prime Minister... it was decided after prolonged discussions with various organisations of the Parivar to devise a strategy to confront the Centre while avoiding a clash with the judiciary. It was as part of this strategy that the U.P. government filed [an] affidavit in the Supreme Court assuring the latter that the government would not allow violation of the court's orders." Admittedly, the affidavit was a fraud on the Supreme Court.

Organiser described the Parivar's plans authoritatively and bluntly: "The game plan was not to allow the Centre to pre-empt the arrival of the kar sevaks at Ayodhya by dismissing the U.P. government and deploying paramilitary forces in and around Ayodhya." Organiser called the filing of affidavits a "tactical move". This explains BJP leader K.L. Sharma's reference on December 12 to Narasimha Rao's "final assurances to the BJP, VHP and RSS leaders on 3 and 4 December". The assurances were not revealed either. They were part of the "understanding".

Advani's threat at the Kanpur Central Railway Station on December 1 was published by the newspapers the next day in direct quotes: "Kar seva does not mean bhajans and kirtans. We will perform kar seva with shovels and bricks on the 2.77 acres of land acquired by the U.P. government."

The White Paper on Ayodhya published by Narasimha Rao's government in March 1993 summarised explicit threats of demolition by the highest leaders of the BJP (pages 90-92). BJP president M.M. Joshi, on December 1 at Mathura: "He appealed to the gathering to assemble at Ayodhya in large numbers for kar seva and to demolish the so-called Babri Masjid." Vice-president Vijaya Raje Scindia in Patna on November 23: "She said that the Babri Masjid will have to be demolished." Vishwa Hindu Parishad president V.H. Dalmia in Delhi on November 9: "Declared that `the RJB [Ram Janmabhoomi] temple would be constructed in the same way it was demolished by Babar'. Kar sevaks, he said, were pressurising the leadership that they should be called not to construct the RJB temple but to demolish the masjid." RSS leader Rajendra Singh publicly said that he had warned Narasimha Rao on December 3 that anything could happen at Ayodhya on December 6. Narasimha Rao chose to ignore all this because he had arrived at a "tacit understanding" with the Sangh Parivar behind the back of the Cabinet.

On February 7, 1997, a television channel telecast Chavan's interview in which he pinned the blame exclusively on Narasimha Rao. Two days later M.L. Fotedar, a man of even less credibility, jumped into the fray singing the same tune. Chavan said: "If the government in the State was dismissed well in advance, the demolition of the mosque would not have taken place." Oblivious of the contradictions, he added he could not have taken that step because of the sworn affidavits of the Uttar Pradesh government in the Supreme Court. This was Narasimha Rao's view, which he shared. Hence Chavan's enthusiastic defence in Parliament, on December 3, of L.K. Advani and Kalyan Singh.

Narasimha Rao claimed also that he could not act because the matter was before the Supreme Court. But on November 25 the court made an order in which it said: "The Central government is of course at liberty to make its own assessment of the matter and to take such action on its own as may appear to it proper and permissible." Narasimha Rao thus received a carte blanche from the National Integration Council (NIC) on November 23 and from the Supreme Court on November 25. It was the "tacit understanding" that inhibited him from acting.

P.V. Narasimha Rao with A.B. Vajpayee in New Delhi in May 1996.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

There were only 500 men near the mosque on November 25, two days after the NIC gave Narasimha Rao a carte blanche to "take whatever steps the Prime Minister considers essential in upholding the Constitution". The crowd swelled to 175,000 on November 30. A senior and retired police officer, N.S. Saxena, wrote: "The initial error at Ayodhya, deliberate or unforeseen, was to allow about 2,00,000 people to congregate. Once this was done, the security forces became helpless as they had specific orders not to fire. The huge unruly mob could not be stopped from vandalism without killing not tens but several hundreds. Obviously, no government in India would agree to kill several hundred of its citizens" (The Telegraph, January 6, 1993).

Documents annexed to Arjun Singh's letter of February 6, 1995, addressed to the Chairman of the All India Congress Committee's Disciplinary Action Committee, reveal much. He resigned from the Cabinet on December 24, 1994. On January 9, 1995, moves began for his expulsion from the Congress. His letter set out precise questions he had raised, about Narasimha Rao's parleys with the Sangh Parivar's leaders, while drafting the government's White Paper. The BJP's White Paper on Ayodhya recorded Narasimha Rao's parleys and more. In 1996 came Godbole's memoirs Unfinished Innings, a detailed first-hand account of Narasimha Rao's systematic deception and wilful inactivity from July to December 1992.

Not only does Narasimha Rao's book studiously ignore them all but refrains altogether from informing the reader of his role. There is nothing in it that is new. It is an abbreviated rehash of the official White Paper which any hack could have written for him.

"When any fact is especially within the knowledge of any person, the burden of proving that fact is upon him," says Section 106 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. This is not a technical rule. It is based on sound common sense and good morality. If a person charged with conspiracy with the Parivar does not reveal fully and convincingly what really transpired between them, he must be deemed to have accepted the charges. Section 114 embodies certain presumptions which the court may draw "regard being had to the common course of natural events, human conduct... ". One of the presumptions is that "evidence which could be and is not produced would, if produced, be unfavourable to the person who withholds it". Narasimha Rao's silence suffices to damn him. He makes flat assertions about events without even once revealing what he said or did.

Sample this vague narrative: "In the months prior to December 1992, strenuous efforts were made to find an amicable solution to the RJB-BM issue and avert the impending crisis." When and with whom were the talks held? What were the proposals each side made? Not a word of any of this.

He does not respond to the points Arjun Singh raised in his letter to the Cabinet Secretary, S. Rajgopal, dated January 10, 1993, and repeated in his letter to Narasimha Rao dated February 3, 1993 (for the text vide Frontline; February 26, 1993).

THE BABRI MASJID on December 6, 1992, hours before it was demolished.-

Arjun Singh put them more tersely in a press interview. Godbole quotes it and also exposes the gaps: "Arjun Singh had raised the inconvenient but basic question of the purpose of the White Paper and whether it was not meant to set out all the facts for the people to judge the issues in their totality."

Arjun Singh argued (Sunday, February 14-20, 1993) that while the White Paper talked about the `history and geography of Ayodhya', it blacked out five main issues: 1. What happened in the period between the meeting of the NIC and December 6, 1992? 2. What happened in the meeting of the CCPA [Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs] on November 27, 1992, and what was the resulting directive given to the Union Home Secretary Madhav Godbole? 3. What transpired at the meeting between Vasant Sathe and Balasaheb Deoras on November 28, 1992? 4. What came out of the numerous meetings that the Prime Minister held with sadhus and Kalyan Singh? 5. What was the Prime Minister doing between 12 noon and 6 p.m. on December 6, 1992?

"The government White Paper did not discuss the contingency plans prepared for dealing with the situation either in July 1992 or December 1992. It also did not discuss why they were not implemented by the government on either of the two occasions.

"The implications of taking recourse to Articles 355 and 356 of the Constitution were also skirted, so as to be in line with the Prime Minister's averments in Parliament. More than anything else, the White Paper was ambivalent about the course of negotiations held by the Prime Minister. The implications of alternatives explored in making various submissions to the Supreme Court do not find any mention in it. It also fails to answer the important question of whether given the circumstances, the demolition of the structure was unavoidable or whether it could have been prevented. Excessive concern for narrow personal and political gains resulted in many vital questions being left unanswered in the government White Paper" (pages 342-343).

There is another episode which would have been comic were its consequences not so tragic, Godbole records. "After the draft was approved by the Prime Minister, it was given to the Ministry of Home Affairs to have it printed and placed before Parliament. After the White Paper had gone for printing, one day the Prime Minister phoned to me say that there was unnecessary criticism that he had been sleeping when the disputed structure was being brought down. He said the position should be explained in a sentence or two."

Significantly, in his own book, which is supposed to provide a personal defence, Narasimha Rao has not a word on this. He writes not a word about what he was doing during those fateful hours on December 6, 1992. What, indeed, was he doing? Sleeping? Watching TV? Playing Scrabble? Read this: "The chronology of the happenings of 6 December 1992 between 9-30 a.m. and 7-30 p.m. reveals that the Central government had maintained constant contact with the U.P. government" (page 154). This is a reference to the chronology in the White Paper.

Of the 317 pages of Narasimha Rao's book, appendices of already published documents take up pages 193-311. A perfunctory resume of history (pages 3-87) is followed by an equally perfunctory record of events in 1992. A chapter on why President's rule was not imposed and another on why it all happened make up the rest. His thesis is the same as the one he trotted out in 1992. Article 356 applies if a situation has arisen, not if it is likely to arise. This clever excuse was trotted out on December 21, 1992, with a suggestion for tightening up Article 356. It is worse than preposterous. It is dishonest. On November 30, Narasimha Rao said: "Then let us go ahead with Article 356. Let Godbole prepare and bring up a Cabinet note" (Godbole, page 372). That note "was kept ready every day", Godbole records (page 372). Even a notification was ready by November 27 (page 384). Of course, Narasimha Rao had no intention to act at all.

Referring to the spurious legal arguments for inaction he made in Parliament after the demolition, Godbole writes: "At the outset, I must say that at no stage, in all the discussions before 6 December 1992, had the Prime Minister raised this point. Neither had the Law Ministry raised it at any time during the discussions in the CCPA or elsewhere. As mentioned earlier, the draft notifications for imposition of President's rule in U.P. and dissolution of the legislature had been vetted by the Ministry of Law on 27 November. The question of invoking Article 356 had come up several times during the two to three weeks prior to 6 December in the context of implementation of the contingency plan.... The question of non-applicability of Article 356 never came up for discussion in the briefing in the manner in which it was presented in Parliament."

In an interview to India Today (January 15, 1993), Narasimha Rao compared the crowd at Ayodhya in December 1992 to the ones at the Boat Club in Delhi: "Five lakh people come here... they come and go and nobody notices."

The absurdity of this argument testifies to both arrogance and lack of honesty. He would have been less complacent if such a crowd had gathered in the vicinity of his home and shouted threatening slogans.

Godbole's remarks are withering. "The Prime Minister was also told that all his options would be closed once the kar sevaks congregated in large numbers at Ayodhya. At no stage had the Prime Minister said that the crowds in Ayodhya were no different from those which collect in rallies at the Boat Club. But if that was his real assessment, then all one can say is that here you have the answer as to why the highest political executive decided not to act but to sit back and let events take their own course." That is the point - Narasimha Rao did not want to act.

He goes so far as to black out his own chairmanship of a Group of Ministers set up by Rajiv Gandhi in April 1987 to work for a solution. This was mentioned in the BJP's White Paper (page 86) but was omitted in the official White Paper. The Group met at least twice ("A tale of two White Papers" by N. Ram; Frontline; May 31, 1993). It is the BJP's White Paper which tells at length about Narasimha Rao's parleys with the Parivar. Narasimha Rao suppressed that in his White Paper and in his book, despite Arjun Singh's pointed reminders. Nor does he tell us about the trusts he set up, about the deployment of Chandraswami or the activities of his aides Jitendra Prasada and P.V.R.K. Prasad as late as in 1994.

As for the law, suffice it only to say that, both the Administrative Reforms Commission and the Sarkaria Commission held that the Centre had a right to deploy its armed forces in a State even if the State government did not seek their help. The latter mentioned the possibility of a State "unwilling to suppress an internal disturbance" (the Ahmedabad riots, for example). It cites three instances of such deployment by the Centre against the wishes of the State and without imposing President's rule.

A careful reader will notice that, while he makes palpably false denials of his own fully documented culpability, Narasimha Rao makes innuendoes against his leaders in the "willing to wound afraid to strike" manner - against Rajiv Gandhi for opening the locks at the masjid's gates in 1986 and permitting the shilanyas in 1989, and against Indira Gandhi, too. She had "asked to prepare various plans for the development [sic.] of Ayodhya". Exquisite. The book begins with a suggestive remark: "Conquerors throughout history have treated the conquered humiliatingly." A few lines later he disavows any intent to suggest that Babar had demolished a temple ("authenticity is still to be established").

Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister in 1991 when there was a vacuum in leadership. Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated. The Janata Dal was split. Sonia Gandhi was in grief. The Ram temple movement was nearing its peak. Narasimha Rao reached out to the Sangh Parivar for two reasons. First, he belonged to the brand of Congressmen which Nehru described in his Autobiography - communalists under a secular garb - G.B. Pant, Ravi Shankar Shukla and P.D. Tandon. Secondly, he thought he could win over the Parivar and if it did not play his game, betray it with a kiss. The BJP's White Paper acknowledges that. The BJP which "had extended cooperation of an unprecedented kind from a principal opposition party to a ruling party, revised its views on the Prime Minister and began opposing him from October... L.K. Advani who had earlier praised Shri Narasimha Rao as the best Prime Minister after Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri revised his opinion... ." It falsely cites other episodes. The break came because Narasimha Rao could not openly support the Parivar. Advani, who had called him "fantastic", began denouncing Narasimha Rao from October 18, 1992.

The hour demanded an honest, courageous and far-sighted leadership. Narasimha Rao was a man of keen intelligence, but courage and integrity were not among his virtues. His forte was cleverness, using the word consciously in a pejorative sense. Also, he was vain as the clever are prone to be - he could bluff, manage and, if need be, buy anybody. With critical Cabinet colleagues on one side and demanding Parivar allies on the other, he fell ignominiously.

He was no Nehru to give the ideological war cry. He lacked all the qualities needed to give battle-courage, determination and conviction. He told the Lok Sabha on December 21, 1992: "If a party takes Ram as the spokesman of the party and affects the minds and hearts of people day in and day out, whereas the other party does not even utter this because it is a secular party, does not want to make use of that as an issue, now it is again an unequal fight, and the Constitution does not, in my view, allow unequal fights."

He felt he could not resist the BJP's appeal. He, therefore, chose to compete with it. The Muslim vote was lost to the Congress anyway. So ignore the Muslims and go for the Hindu vote exclusively.

In this he was unwise and ruinous. For, there is an alternative. No government can, indeed, come to power without the support of Hindus, but one must not lose one's respect for this great community and imagine it will not be receptive to counsel for decency. The Hindu vote must be wooed, not on the basis of the agenda set by the BJP, but the one set by the freedom movement. The RSS-BJP parivar is a parvenu that seeks to destroy that national consensus and impose its own fascist creed.

The last chapter of Narasimha Rao's book is in the same refrain as the speech of December 21, 1992. "To the BJP also goes the dubious credit of not only hijacking the political process right into the religious ambit, but to some extent dragging other parties along with itself on the same path, if only to counter the BJP attack. The net result, however, has been that the admissibility as well as the respectability of the communal card have both been accepted, at least by necessary implication, on both sides, obviously for opposite reasons. And once the admissibility of the issue was accepted, everyone was stopped to some extent from disowning it." An abject but very revealing confession.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid was a crime as grave as the assassination of Gandhi. With the allies he wooed but could not but betray (the Parivar), Narasimha Rao also betrayed the national credo.

The soft corner remained - he ordered that the RSS supremo Deoras should not be arrested after the demolition - but his capacity to deliver on his pledges to the Parivar was gone. Sad to say, this is a profoundly dishonest book. Understandably. It accurately reflects the personality of its author.

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