Upping the ante

Print edition : March 02, 2002

Even as the Prime Minister's position on the temple project in Ayodhya remains ambiguous, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad steps up the heat with large-scale mobilisation of activists and devotees.

WHAT next in Ayodhya? This question seems to be bothering many people after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared in Lucknow on February 16 that the Ayodhya problem could be resolved only in a court of law. A stubborn Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has, however, declared that it will transport the carved stones from the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas karyashala at Karsevakpuram to the site where it wants to build a temple, about 2.5 km away, and start the construction on March 15. In fact, it has started the shila pujan programme, that is, the consecration of each carved stone that will be used for the temple. It has also started a yagna in the vicinity of the model of the temple kept at Karsevakpuram, as the herald of the actual construction work.

Volunteers in Ahmedabad head for Ayodhya on February 22.-SIDDHARTH DARSHAN KUMAR/AP

Do all these mean that Ayodhya is in for a repeat of December 6, 1992, when frenzied kar sevaks pulled down the Babri Masjid despite the promises of the government in Lucknow that the structure would be protected at all costs? Top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party watched the spectacle of the law of the land being razed to the ground.

Although the Prime Minister categorically said at a press conference in Lucknow on February 16 that nobody would be allowed to take the law in his own hands, what creates doubt is the BJP government's track record on this count. Besides, it appears that Vajpayee is trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. While on the one hand he has lulled his partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) into inaction by declaring that the temple issue can only be resolved in the courts, on the other he has kept the pot boiling by asking his Law Minister to see whether the so-called "undisputed" portion of the acquired land in Ayodhya could be handed over to the VHP.

The reference to the Law Minister was made on January 27, when a delegation of sants met Vajpayee and demanded that the obstacles in the way of the temple construction programme be removed before March 12. Significantly, even after his announcement in Lucknow that his efforts to find a negotiated settlement had failed and that the dispute could now be resolved only through courts, the Law Ministry has not stopped examining the matter. "The Law Ministry will submit its report to the Prime Minister soon, in any case before the March 15 deadline. Only after that shall we know the shape of things to come," said Ashok Tandon, a spokesperson of the Prime Minister's Office. He said that the fact remained that a portion of the acquired land outside the disputed area, measuring 80 ft x 40 ft, where the sanctum sanctorum of the temple would be, was lawfully held by the VHP until it was acquired by the government. There was no dispute about its ownership, he said. "This is exactly what the Law Ministry is supposed to be doing - looking at the legal and constitutional angles of handing over the land back to the rightful owner," Tandon said. He also clarified that since the acquisition was done through an act of Parliament, the Law Ministry was also examining whether the issue would have to be taken back to Parliament in order to "de-acquire" it. He made it clear that now that the Uttar Pradesh elections are over, the Law Ministry was expected to submit the report "very soon". Had the report come during the elections, he said, the media and political parties would have accused the BJP of politicising the issue for electoral gains.

Tandon clarified that the Prime Minister's remark about the issue being resolved in court was made only with regard to the "disputed 80 x 40 feet area" and not the entire extent of acquired land. He said: "At least three things are clear now: the dispute over the disputed area can be resolved only through court; the Law Ministry's opinion on the area beyond the disputed area will decide the future course of action with regard to the VHP's demand; and law and order will be maintained at all costs and nobody will be allowed to take law in his own hands."

This assertion has many loose ends and it remains to be seen how these are going to be tied up. For example, the VHP's demand that the area beyond the disputed portion be given back to it. VHP leaders have said that they want to start construction "only in the undisputed area" and that in the meantime the legal process about the "disputed area" can be expedited. The VHP calculates that by the time the proposed temple structure reaches the disputed area, the court proceedings will be over. But the hitch here is that any court ruling against the VHP would become infructuous because the disputed area would have by then been surrounded by the temple structures, making it practically impossible to build a mosque there. Besides, the VHP is on record as having said that it would not abide by the court order because it was not for the court to decide the birthplace of Ram. It is a matter of faith (astha ka sawal hai) for it. In this situation, if the Prime Minister allows the VHP to start any work, albeit in the undisputed area, would it not amount to invalidating the entire legal process to decide the ownership of the disputed land? The other legal problem is that the Supreme Court has appointed the Central government as the receiver of the entire 67 acres of land and the government is on record as having said in Parliament that it was responsible for maintaining the status quo with respect to the area, without in any way adding to or altering the existing structure there.

What, however, has complicated the matter further is the fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) supports the VHP programme. Immediately after Vajpayee's statement and the VHP's declaration of its resolve to go ahead with the temple construction, RSS spokesperson M.G. Vaidya told mediapersons in Nagpur that the government should concede the VHP's demand that the land be handed over to it and in the meantime have the legal process expedited. For an amicable solution of the Ayodhya problem, he said, it was necessary for Muslims to realise that no namaz had been offered at that place for the past 70 years. He also said that Muslims should realise that it was now impossible to build a mosque at that spot because a temple stood there once and hence they should agree to have a mosque at some other place in Ayodhya. Vaidya generously offered to mediate between Muslims and the VHP in order to find an amicable solution and a suitable location for the mosque.

In this situation, will the Vajpayee government be able to withstand the combined pressure of the RSS and the VHP? It was Vajpayee who brought the temple issue to the fore in December 2000 by claiming, without any apparent provocation, that the construction of a temple in Ayodhya was the "expression of national sentiments" which had remained "unfortunately unfulfilled". He was responding to a query from mediapersons on the Opposition demand for the resignation of three of his Ministers (L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti) for their alleged complicity in the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

What has complicated the issue further is the secrecy that the Prime Minister attached to his "talks" with the parties concerned to find a "negotiated" settlement, which are said to have failed. Vajpayee has not disclosed whom he talked to and whether he talked to individuals or organisations. The VHP and the Babri Masjid Action Committee have denied that they were involved in any talks; nor were they aware of anyone else talking to the Prime Minister, they said. None of the prominent Hindu or Muslim individuals who have taken an active interest in the issue has admitted to being a party to the talks. "He was not talking to organisations but individuals in their personal capacity," said Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, the Civil Aviation Minister and a confidant of Vajpayee in this issue. Similar was the refrain of Tandon. He said: "Vajpayee was trying to gauge their (prominent individuals') mood through informal talks whether a solution can be found through dialogue." The Prime Minister's ambiguous stand and the VHP's increasing belligerence have only complicated the matter.

ONE interesting but little-publicised development in this connection was the congregation of Shankaracharyas and other religious leaders at Dighauri in Madhya Pradesh at the behest of Chief Minister Digvijay Singh. Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi attended the meeting on February 22, the concluding day. Although the Congress(I) leaders were keen to establish that there was nothing political about the meet and that it had nothing to do with the Ayodhya issue, facts speak otherwise. Sonia Gandhi left for the meeting immediately after she sent a letter to Vajpayee, demanding an all-party meet on the Ayodhya issue. She wrote that secular forces in the country were concerned about the developments in and around Ayodhya and that the VHP's plans had heightened their anxiety. She said that there seemed to be a convergence of opinion across the political spectrum that the dispute must be left to the courts to settle. "It would be in the fitness of things that you kindly convene an all-party meeting at the earliest and consolidate the opinions of all sane elements," she said.

At Dighauri, Sonia Gandhi was blessed by the Shankaracharyas of Dwarakapeeth, Puri and Kanchi. She performed a 40-minute-long Rudrabhishek amidst the chanting of mantras at the newly-consecrated Guru Ratneshwar temple, where a Sivalinga has been installed. She was accompanied by Digvijay Singh, the official host of the meet, Chhatisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi and Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. All India Congress Committee treasurer Motilal Vora and senior Congress(I) leader Kamal Nath also were present.

Although Congress(I) spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy reiterated that it was a personal visit by Sonia Gandhi to celebrate the 78th birth anniversary of the Shankaracharya of Dwarakapeeth, Swaroopanand Maharaj, a personal friend of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the timing of the visit was significant. The statements by the Shankaracharya added to the significance. Talking to mediapersons, the Shankaracharya said that though he agreed that a temple had to be constructed in Ayodhya it was not possible until the land was legally handed over to Hindus. He urged the Central government to solve the issue immediately because otherwise "it could lead to violence". He said that "if a negotiated solution is not possible we have no option but to wait for the court's verdict".

Sources in the PMO said that the Prime Minister would only be too happy to convene an all-party meeting on the Ayodhya issue and a mutually convenient time could certainly be found. Informed sources said that an all-party meeting would give the Prime Minister an opportunity to reiterate his point of view and send a signal to the VHP that the Centre had no option but to abide by the majority political opinion in the country.

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