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A political ploy

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

The decision to reconstitute the Ayodhya Cell in the Central government seems to have been prompted by the Bharatiya Janata Party's desire to retain power in Uttar Pradesh rather than by its commitment to solve the Ayodhya issue.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party wants to leave nothing to chance as far as the elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly are concerned. The various measures taken in the recent past - a new reservation policy for the most backward castes, deletion of names of Muslim voters from the voters' list, and so on - were prompted by the party's desire to retain power in the State. The latest action in this connection is Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's statement that the defunct Ayodhya Cell in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) would be revived to expedite the process for finding a solution to the Ayodhya issue. The Prime Minister gave this assurance to a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) delegation that called on him on October 9.

However, nothing is known about the composition of the cell, its members, or its tasks. All that is known is that the Prime Minister has agreed to revive it, and this disclosure was made by VHP working president Ashok Singhal and Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas president Ramchandra Paramhans at a press conference. (The Nyas is the VHP's wing in charge of the temple construction.) The leaders told mediapersons after meeting Vajpayee that the latter had assured them that the cell would clear all obstacles to the temple construction at Ayodhya by March 12, 2002, the deadline set by the VHP for starting the construction.

The leaders said that the Prime Minister promised to constitute the cell within a fortnight. Later, PMO spokesperson Ashok Tandon confirmed Vajpayee's statement. Tandon, a confidant of Vajpayee, told Frontline: "The Prime Minister has agreed in principle to set up the cell. But the formal notification is yet to be issued. It could be issued very soon. The Prime Minister told the VHP leaders that the cell would be set up within a fortnight." However, Tandon added that the new cell would be different from the cell that was active during the tenure of V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar and P.V. Narasimha Rao as Prime Ministers. In the past the cell was under the PMO, but Vajpayee planned to place it in the Cabinet Secretariat, Tandon said. "This cell is likely to be headed by a retired civil servant from Uttar Pradesh," he added.

The initiative to revive the cell appears to be a political move made with an eye on the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections rather than a sincere attempt to solve the Ayodhya issue. The decision lacks credibility because in its earlier avatars the cell proved ineffective. On the contrary, it had served to keep the issue on the boil, ultimately leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. The cell was disbanded after the demolition.

The decision also appears to be a political stunt to keep the increasingly restive Hindu religious leaders in control. A section of them are getting impatient with the BJP-led government's inaction on this front. Ramchandra Paramhans told mediapersons: "He (the Prime Minister) had said earlier that the Ayodhya issue would be resolved by March 12. I wanted to test him on that. At last he has now pledged to solve the issue. Earlier he never promised us anything. Sirf sar hilaatey the (he just nodded)." The Mahant said that the construction of the temple was inevitable now and the work would begin any day after March 12, 2002. "Nobody can stop it," he said. Ashok Singhal said the cell would also facilitate negotiations with various committees and communities in order to resolve the issue at the earliest.

However, the exercise to solve the Ayodhya issue, including the constitution of the cell, has so far remained one-sided. Not a single Muslim organisation or individual of repute has been approached by the government.

The Opposition parties too think it is an exercise in deception. "They (BJP) are desperate to win the Uttar Pradesh elections. As Vajpayee himself has said, their existence depends on the elections. This is yet another case of political deception by them in order to polarise voters along communal lines so that they can win a few more votes in Uttar Pradesh," said Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet. Surjeet said the statements of the Prime Minister about resolving the issue were nothing more than political gimmicks aimed at keeping Hindu fundamentalists on leash. "He said earlier they are holding negotiations to resolve the issue. But the people they are talking to are faceless. Who are they? What is their standing? Is anybody being approached at all?" Surjeet asked.

The Congress(I) shares this view. "It is just a trick by the Prime Minister to keep the VHP and other Hindu religious leaders under check. Besides, such statements from time to time help them keep the issue alive, and this would help them in the Uttar Pradesh elections," said Subodh Kant Sahay, All India Congress Committee (AICC) secretary in charge of party affairs in Uttar Pradesh. It may be recalled that Subodh Kant Sahay was associated with the Ayodhya cell during the tenures of V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Narasimha Rao. Sahay said that the move was meant only for public consumption and it betrayed a sense of desperation in the BJP about its prospects in the U.P. Assembly elections.

However, VHP leaders are enthused by the fact that the Prime Minister has agreed to solve the issue. They said the rest could be handled by the VHP. "Mandir to ban kar rahega, sarkar chahey ya na chahey (the temple will be made whether the government wants it or not). So it is good that the government has finally come around to our viewpoint," said Singhal. He said if the kar sevaks could demolish the mosque despite the government, they could build a temple too without the government's help. "But it makes it easier if the government agrees," he said. The VHP leaders also demanded that the land around the disputed site be handed over to them for the construction of four gokul dwars.

Whatever the motives, it is a fact that the Ayodhya issue is back on the Sangh Parivar's agenda. Indications about this were given at the two-day national conference of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the youth wing of the BJP, in Agra on October 13 and 14. Although the issue did not figure in the political resolution adopted by the conference, BJP leaders who attended it waxed eloquent about the Ram temple. Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan told mediapersons in Agra: "Mandir to banane ki kasak abhi baaki hai (the desire to build the temple remains). The demolition of the Babri Masjid was a minor issue, the more important issue is to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya." Kalraj Mishra, president of the BJP's U.P. unit, said that the construction of a Ram temple was not only a national issue but a cultural issue as well. Mishra added that he supported the VHP agenda. Chief Minister Rajnath Singh too declared that the construction of the temple was a national issue. BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy asked: "What is wrong in this? The construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya is every BJP worker's desire." BJP leader Uma Bharti told the BJYM activists: "You are the same people, the youth of the nation, who hoisted a bhagwa dhwaj over a masjid. Now very soon you will hoist a bhagwa dhwaj over Lahore and Karachi."

The party's strategy appears to be to keep the issue alive without it finding any mention in official party documents. Moreover, the strategy keeps the BJP's allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) happy as it is not on the NDA agenda and hence they are spared the trouble of reacting to it.

Seen in this context, the Prime Minister's decision appears to be designed to appease the hardliner, cheer the cadre and communalise the voter. Playing politics with such an emotive issue at a time when there is a war raging at the country's doorsteps could prove dangerous, especially when tempers are already frayed owing to the recent ban on the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Unfortunately, instead of upholding the rule of law, the Prime Minister seems to have played into the hands of the VHP.

Meanwhile, the VHP is going ahead with its campaign for the construction of the temple. It has already completed the first leg of its prolonged campaign in the form of Shivarchana (prayer of Shiva) and jalabhishek (offering of water) in various parts of the country. The second phase will begin on November 26 with sants and sadhus organising yagnas across the country. The final phase would be a march to Delhi by sants from all over the country to force the government to hand over the disputed site to the VHP in order to begin construction.

On October 17, about 200 VHP activists, led by Ashok Singhal, VHP general secretary Pravin Togadia and former BJP Member of Parliament Srish Chandra Dixit, stormed into the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) of the makeshift Ram temple at the disputed site and performed puja. They raised slogans and later distributed prasad. The security personnel posted at the disputed site stood aside and watched the spectacle.

Earlier, when VHP members wanted to enter the site for puja on the first day of Navaratri and were refused permission by the security personnel, they forced their way in. (Devotees are allowed to offer prayers only from a distance, and priests alone are permitted to enter the garbha griha.) Nobody was detained or arrested.

On October 18, Vajpayee told mediapersons in Chennai that a "security lapse" was responsible for what happened in Ayodhya. "We felt that the security arrangement there was slack and it will be further tightened," he said. Meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh government has ordered an inquiry by the Additional Director-General of Police into the laxity in the security arrangements in and around the disputed site. The next day, the Central Reserve Police Force, which is in charge of inner-cordon security at the site, filed a First Information Report (FIR) against Singhal, Dixit and 40 others in connection with the storming of the makeshift temple.