Omissions and commissions

Print edition : April 28, 2001

Depositions by P.V. Narasimha Rao and L.K. Advani before the Liberhan Commission of Inquiry amount to exercises in rationalisation and evasion.

THE committee rooms in Delhi's Vigyan Bhavan seem a world removed from the battleground of Ayodhya where the Hindutva forces launched their frenzied assault against secularism and the rule of law. And the lapse of more than eight years may have dimmed the violent passions that were stirred up by the campaign to supplant an Islamic place of worship with a temple to a revered hero of Hindu myth.

After a long spell of fruitless endeavour and legal wrangling, the M.S. Liberhan Commission of Inquiry into the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya seems to have hit a productive vein of public disclosure. The depositions it has managed to secure in the last few weeks represent milestones in the effort to establish the truth behind the dark deed of December 1992. And after the official efforts to dignify the feeble and ineffectual response to an unprecedented challenge to the authority of the state, the Liberhan Commission perhaps holds the promise that a more complete and accurate picture will be available for the record.

L.K. Advani arriving to depose before the Liberhan Commission.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Evasion of the Commission's summons may have been a viable strategy for some of the principal actors of the demolition drama at Ayodhya. But after several attempts to secure their appearance had been frustrated, Justice Liberhan made it known that he would not hesitate to resort to issue non-bailable warrants. For the many Ayodhya crusaders and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders who are now ensconced in responsible positions in government this would have been a serious indignity. Recent months have thus seen the appearance of Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi and Minister of State for Sports Uma Bharati. But the deposition by Home Minister L.K. Advani, which immediately followed the appearance of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao has been the highlight of the Commission's deliberations so far.

Viewed in conjunction, the depositions by Advani and Narasimha Rao provide key insights into the political power-play that preceded the demolition. The then Prime Minister, for instance, has placed on record an elaborate rationalisation of his sequence of actions, which then seemed like an abdication of responsibility. Despite initiating broad-ranging consultations over possible means to defuse the sharpening crisis, Narasimha Rao told the Commission, he was not given sufficient political and legal backing for any firm measures that he may have been contemplating. At a meeting of the National Integration Council he was warned by none other than the Communist Party of India veteran Indrajit Gupta that imposition of President's Rule in Uttar Pradesh may not be an option. And the Supreme Court had refused to countenance his plea that the Central government should be empowered as a "receiver" to take the area of the Babri Masjid into its custody.

In advancing the alibi of helplessness, Narasimha Rao also implicated his former Cabinet colleagues. He stated before the Commission that he had during a two-day visit abroad late in November 1992 fully authorised his senior colleagues in the Ministry, notably S.B. Chavan, Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar, who were respectively the Ministers for Home, Human Resource Development and Defence, to fashion an appropriate resolution of the problem. This was a "window of opportunity" that he had presented them, which they unfortunately squandered, said Narasimha Rao.

The former Prime Minister admitted that there was a contingency plan, authored by Home Secretary Madhav Godbole, which had been placed before him. But he thought the plan, which charted out a sequence of demands that the Centre could place on the State government, culminating in the event of their cumulative non-fulfilment in the imposition of President's rule, to be unworkable. The invocation of Article 356 was contingent on the satisfaction of the President. And as a constitutional expert, President Shankar Dayal Sharma, claimed Narasimha Rao, may have been sceptical of the grounds advanced for the imposition of Central rule.

These must seem rather curious averments, since Sharma had on the day of the demolition issued one of the strongest presidential fiats ever witnessed in independent India. His directive to the government of the day to do all that was necessary to preserve the peace and ensure the rule of law might have been an unusual step for a constitutional head of state. But in the circumstances then prevailing, it was widely endorsed as the proper thing to do.

Narasimha Rao's self-extenuating pleas only reinforce the impression that he was suffering from a complete paralysis of political initiative in the days leading up to the Ayodhya demolition. This had been induced as much by his own reluctance to take firm action as by the Congress party's prolonged record of waffling when confronted by the challenge of Hindutva communalism. For at least the five years of Rajiv Gandhi's tenure as Prime Minister, the policy of the Congress was to stoke rival forms of competitive communalism. The capitulation to Islamic fundamentalists in the Shah Bano case was followed in quick time by a blatant overture towards Hindu extremists. If the Muslim Women's Bill was the "Muslim card", the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid which enabled access to the Ram idols that had been surreptitiously introduced there in 1950, was the "Hindu card".

There were several opportunities in the following years for the Congress to step off this hazardous tight-rope between two forms of extremism. But these were not taken. By 1989, the game was up. The BJP had snatched the "Hindu card" from the faltering grasp of the Congress. From then on, the BJP was to set the agenda with its provocative campaigns of mobilisation. To respond effectively, the Congress needed to repudiate much of its legacy from the late-1980s. And that was a challenge to its political ingenuity from which it came off rather poorly.

Significantly, after the Ayodhya demolition Narasimha Rao committed himself fairly unequivocally to the reconstruction of the Babri Masjid. This assurance has been conspicuously absent from all the subsequent political campaigns of the Congress. Again, the Narasimha Rao government chose the path of indifference and silence immediately after the demolition, when certain individuals with fairly transparent political motivations petitioned the Allahabad High Court for the unfettered right to worship at the makeshift temple that had been installed at the site of the Babri Masjid. The 1986 court order opening the locks of the Masjid had effectively legitimised the act of trespass of 1950. The 1992 "darshan" order compounded this by effectively legitimising the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.-K. RAMESH BABU

IN the course of his two-day long deposition before Liberhan, Advani, who had led one of the three convoys of kar sevaks that converged on Ayodhya to perform their act of vandalism, made an elaborate play on precisely these points. On the first day Advani spoke with feeling and passion about the acute distress the demolition had caused him. This had been his stated position in the immediate aftermath of the event and it continued to be so, he said. He had no intention at any stage to advocate or condone the demolition. Rather, his purpose was to achieve the peaceable relocation of the Babri Masjid with all the respect and deference due to a place of worship. But he was helpless in controlling the kar sevaks who acted that day in frustration and rage at the continuing prevarication of the government.

Advani's statements effectively affirm that the Muslim community, in atonement for all its historical sins, should have acquiesced in the effacement of a part of its cultural heritage. This would be the only means for them to buy peace with the Hindu majority. It was only their continuing obduracy - encouraged by the Congress government - that led to the tragic event at Ayodhya.

In disowning or pleading ignorance of all the inflammatory rhetoric that had been unleashed by his confederates in the Hindutva family, Advani has again been consistent to his long held position. But there is no escaping the inference that he is being disingenuous, since many of the most violent incitements were fashioned by the participants in his 1990 rath yatra. Disavowing this perfectly reasonable belief, Advani quoted from Koenrad Elst, a Belgian theologian who earned a brief notoriety in India with his rather crass rationalisation of the Ayodhya movement. Far from being an incitement to violence, Elst seemingly said, the rath yatra was "an island of orderliness".

Anupam Gupta, counsel for the Liberhan Commission, had his own scholarly references at hand, and these were of decidedly greater authenticity than Elst's work. But Advani's counsel objected to his effort to place on record a scholarly account of the rath yatra from an authoritative collection of essays published in 1996.

The following day, Advani came up with a more subtle sequence of arguments, which cleverly wove its way through the weak spots of the Congress position. The "disputed structure" at Ayodhya had always been a temple, he claimed. Although it had the superstructure of a mosque, it had been revered as a temple marking the birth place of Lord Ram since 1950. The court order permitting devotees access to the idols in 1986 had conferred this de facto situation with de jure legitimacy.

Under some sharp cross-examination Advani was compelled to admit that his use of the term "de jure" was rather loose. He conceded that the courts could, in deciding on the issue of title to the site, reverse the 1986 order. But it was nevertheless the fact, he said, that it has "by now been accepted by all that on the place believed to be Ram's birthplace, there is only a temple".

In a significant statement that could have repercussions for the political balance of power within the Hindutva fraternity, Advani also asserted that with the temple now an accomplished fact, he did not endorse the demand for a new structure commemorating the birth of Ram. Effectively, this is a signal to the hardline elements within the BJP and its large ideological family that the temple construction project may not be a politically rewarding pursuit in the years to come. If anything, Advani's craftsmanship of the ideological rationale of the Ayodhya movement, speaks of a shrewd political sense. Now with the purpose of power achieved, he believes that further insistence on the theme would be counter-productive. This could well reflect an accurate reading of ground realities. But the purpose of calling to account those culpable for independent India's greatest political outrage still remains to be consummated.

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