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The Ayodhya game

Print edition : Feb 02, 2002 T+T-

The government's decision to consider the VHP's demands relating to its temple construction programme brings the issue to the fore.

THE Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has upped the ante on Ayodhya once again and the Vajpayee government does not seem to be in a position to check the latest build-up. The first signs of the government yielding to VHP pressure became tangible on January 27 when it decided to explore the "legal and constitutional aspects of handing over the undisputed plots of land to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas". The decision was announced after a 12-member delegation of sants called on Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and demanded that the government hand over the "undisputed" plot of land around what is claimed to be the birthplace of Ram. The government had acquired it in 1993. The VHP plans to start the construction of a temple at the site after March 12, as decided by the Dharma Sansad (meeting of religious leaders) at the Kumbh Mela last year.

The government also agreed to consider the VHP's demand to expedite the judicial process with regard to the cases related to the Ayodhya dispute pending in different courts. The matter has been referred to Law Minister Arun Jaitley, but no time-frame has been set for action.

The VHP has decided to go ahead with its mass mobilisation programmes despite the government's request to put them off. Thus the last leg of its temple construction programme, purnahuti yagna, would begin on February 24. Addressing a rally after meeting the Prime Minister, VHP leaders declared that the temple construction would begin within 100 days of the yagna. The delegation was led by VHP president Vishnu Hari Dalmia, international president Ashok Singhal and Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas chairman Mahant Ramchandra Paramahans.

After a three-hour-long meeting, Paramahans stated: "The Prime Minister had told us that he would remove all obstacles in the way of temple construction by March 12, 2002. We came here to remind him of his promise. That deadline is not over yet so we are not pressuring the Prime Minister further. But we want to state categorically that the construction of the temple will begin after March 12 irrespective of the government, irrespective of court orders." He said that the temple construction programme did not depend on any government or court and that the temple would be built on "the strength of Ram bhaktas (devotees)". The mahant said: "Whether it was the government of Jawaharlal Nehru, or Rajiv Gandhi or Narasimha Rao, we have taken something from each of them. We will have the temple from this government." According to him, the temple was already there; the only thing that remained to be done was to give it grandeur and "that will be done now".

The government's decision on the VHP's demands was announced at a press conference by National Democratic Alliance (NDA) convener and Defence Minister George Fernandes, who was present along with Home Minister L.K. Advani and Vijay Goel, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, at the VHP delegation's meeting with Vajpayee. George Fernandes said that the Prime Minister had not given any assurance to the sants that the issue would be sorted out by March 12 and that he had only agreed to explore the possibilities.

THE VHP's contention, disputed by legal experts, is that barring 2.77 acres, which includes the 80/40 feet plot on which the Babri Masjid stood, there is no dispute over the land measuring 67 acres. This entire area was acquired by the Central government in 1993 after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. As per the Supreme Court's orders, the Centre is the receiver of the 67 acres and it would be the Centre's responsibility to ensure that the status quo is maintained on this plot of land and that no addition or alteration is made to the existing structure until the original title suit about property rights is disposed of by courts.

The VHP, however, says that since the area outside the 2.77 acres is undisputed, there is no legal hurdle in handing it over to the VHP, which is the original owner of this land. It plans to start constructing a temple on this part of the land and let the original title suit be decided in due course. "We can build the temple on this undisputed area surrounding the disputed site. Nobody can stop us from doing that," VHP vice-president Acharya Giriraj Kishore said recently (Frontline, January 4, 2002). But, according to legal experts, even though the area outside the 2.77 acres is not disputed, the Centre cannot hand it over to anybody without the permission of the Supreme Court.

Syed Shahabuddin, member of the Babri Masjid Committee in the Muslim Personal Law Board, said: "The Supreme Court has appointed the Centre receiver of this entire 67 acres of land and has asked it to maintain the status quo till it is decided where the temple should be built. So, legally speaking, they cannot tamper with the entire 67 acres, even though the area outside the 2.77 acres is not disputed."

But prima facie the NDA government seems to accept the VHP's contention, which is evident from its decision to have the legal and constitutional implications of handing over this land examined. Significantly, at a meeting that preceded the VHP leaders' meeting with Vajpayee, the Marg Darshak Mandal, which guides the VHP's programmes, passed a resolution unanimously, declaring its intent to begin the construction of the temple after March 12. The resolution, a copy of which was handed over to the Prime Minister, said that the VHP would not make any compromise on this issue.

THE strains within the NDA over the issue surfaced at a meeting convened by the Prime Minister on January 26. While the Bharatiya Janata Party's allies had no objection to Vajpayee meeting the sants, they asked him not to yield to the VHP's demand for the "undisputed" land. They said that the Prime Minister should stick to the NDA's stated position on the issue - that is, resolve the matter through courts or through negotiations. The meeting was attended, among others, by Sharad Yadav (Janata Dal-United), George Fernandes (Samata Party), Ram Vilas Paswan (Lok Jan Shakti), Om Prakash Chautala (Indian National Lok Dal), Mamata Banerjee (Trinamul Congress) and Omar Abdullah (National Conference).

The Telugu Desam Party, which does not attend NDA meetings, has warned the government against buckling under VHP pressure. The Polit Bureau of the TDP, which met in Hyderabad under the chairmanship of party president and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, told the NDA government to take stern action against any organisation trying to build a temple at the disputed site. It said that the final verdict of the courts must be awaited or the matter should be decided through mutual agreement and that no organisation should be allowed to act unilaterally.

THE VHP's chetawani yatra (warning rally), which started from Ayodhya on January 20, culminated in New Delhi on January 26. The sants held a rally at the Ramlila grounds on January 27, where they announced that the temple construction programme would begin as announced earlier. Although the VHP and the BJP insist that the yatra had nothing political about it, the active participation of BJP members in the yatra all along its route left no one in doubt about its real objective. It is undoubtedly an attempt to mobilise Hindus in the context of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.

However, reports suggest that popular participation was negligible all along the route. This was obvious at the Ramlila grounds too, where only hard-core supporters of the Sangh Parivar were present to cheer the sants.

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