A matter of credibility

Published : Nov 10, 2001 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's pronouncements on the Ayodhya issue over a period of time have been markedly contradictory - or worse.

FOUR things have become clear by now. First, that his professions notwithstanding, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee performs to a script written by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is its political front, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) its temple wing and the Bajrang Dal its armed wing. Secondly, Vajpayee has little clout in the BJP itself. Thirdly, for all his appeasement of the RSS, it is in no mood to listen to him and is determined to have its way. Lastly, the hoax of the National Democratic Alliance is exposed. Its separate agenda which excluded the triple controversial issues - a Ram Temple at Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution on Kashmir's special status, and a uniform civil code - lies in the dustbin. It is a BJP regime and Vajpayee himself raked up Ayodhya in his capacity as Prime Minister, despite repeated promises in 1998-99 that the NDA would not take up the issue. The BJP did not issue an election manifesto for the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Only the NDA did. Ayodhya does not figure in it. Vajpayee is acting without and even against a mandate.

Indeed, its convener, George Fernandes, was brought back into the Cabinet on October 15 precisely in order to facilitate that sordid enterprise. The Telegraph reported the next day: "Well-placed NDA sources said... Fernandes would be expected to play a key role in the Ayodhya issue, on an unofficial level... Fernandes would be engaged in 'back-room' manoeuvres... 'his advocacy of the Ram temple could go a long way in neutralising opposition from the so-called liberal and secularists,' said sources" (October 17). The Asian Age had the same story to report: "Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee decided to induct Mr. George Fernandes, not to strengthen the country's defences, but to protect his party from the onslaught expected from the NDA allies when the Centre and the Uttar Pradesh government decide to implement the Ram Mandir agenda" (October 17).

In the process the Prime Minister has undermined his own credibility. He had categorically said in Lucknow on August 26: "There is no question of his (Fernandes') return (to) the government. In fact, Fernandes himself does not want to come back to the government till all allegations against him (are) cleared" (The Hindustan Times, August 27). Far from the Venkataswami Commission giving him a clean chit, it upheld the genuineness of the tapes shortly before Fernandes got back into the Cabinet.

Vajpayee said also that "Talks.... are going on at various levels. I am confident of finding a solution to the Ayodhya dispute before March 2002." This was the deadline set by the VHP's Dharma Sansad on January 20. Why does the Prime Minister have to comply with it? His claim about talks was instantly, flatly denied by all the principal parties involved - the Babri Masjid Action Committee, and the Babri Masjid Coordination Committee, and the Muslim Personal Law Board, on the one side, on August 27, and by the VHP, on the other. It went so far as to declare, on August 28, that it was not ready for any dialogue. When the issue was raised in the Lok Sabha the very next day (August 27), the Prime Minister pleaded: "I don't consider it wise to name the parties involved in the public interest." This provoked S. Jaipal Reddy to ask: "How can the Hon'ble Prime Minister hold discussions with anonymous groups?"

Zafaryal Jilani, convener of the BMAC, who has appeared as counsel in the Ayodhya cases and is known for his integrity, summed up the common reaction to Vajpayee's claim: "It is a politically motivated statement aimed to give a moral boost to the declaration of the VHP. It is unfortunate that a man of his (the Prime Minister's) stature should have indulged in such petty politicking... This means that the country is now at the mercy of the VHP. He is playing with fire... The allies of the BJP are indirectly - by keeping silent - abetting these people" (The Times of India, September 4).

Yet another pledge by Vajpayee was broken. In his Kumarakom Musings he wrote: "There are only two ways to resolve this contentious issue; the judicial route or the route of negotiations leading to a mutually acceptable solution." Significantly, he omitted the old BJP plea for "legislation" to build a temple - a law based on the majority vote. Murli Manohar Joshi urged that before the Liberhan Commission. As pointed out earlier, such a law would be unconstitutional in the light of two rulings of the Supreme Court in S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India (1994) 3 SCC (imposition of President's rule in BJP-governed States) as well as in the Ayodhya Case Ismail Faruqui & Ors. vs Union of India & Ors. (1994) 6 SCC 360. It would be a law which favours one side and aborts pending judicial proceedings. There is a civil suit on title which is being heard by a Special Bench of the Allahabad High Court at Lucknow and criminal proceedings before the Sessions Judge there against L.K. Advani, M.M. Joshi, Uma Bharati and the lot. Despite the High Court's suggestion the Uttar Pradesh government refuses to issue a notification to remove a technical hurdle which impedes joint trial of the two criminal cases.

In Musings, Vajpayee promised the nation: "I never stated that the temple should be built at the disputed site without either a judicial verdict or an amicable agreement between the two communities. This is how it should be in a law-governed country. I wish to make it absolutely clear that the law will take its course, should any organisation attempt to disturb the status quo. The Government will not remain a silent spectator and adopt delaying tactics, as unfortunately happened eight years ago."

On October 17, top leaders of the VHP, including its president Ashok Singhal with about 250 of their followers, stormed the sanctum sanctorum (garbha griha) of the makeshift Ram temple at Ayodhya and performed aarti there. They jumped over the cordon, broke a Central Reserve Police Force barricade and forced their way in. Vajpayee reacted the next day by saying "the security has to be tightened". He did not condemn the outrage. There is some laxity of security in most cases of successful terrorist attacks. One condemns the perpetrators, first, and next urges tightening of security. Home Minister Advani did not condemn this incident either. Instead, on October 21 he justified the BJP's participation in the Ayodhya movement. "If we had not started the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the BJP would not have been where it is today." To win the coming Uttar Pradesh elections it is prepared to have another go at it, evidently even if it divides the nation. Ashok Singhal called it a "shock treatment" to the Centre (The Telegraph, October 26). Apparently worse can follow. This is where Vajpayee's appeasement has brought him and the country - his credibility diminished, the country's peace threatened. On January 25, 2001, the Bajrang Dal's convener Surendra Jain announced plans to recruit about three million youths for the temple movement.

On September 9, 2000, in New York he revived the temple issue but pleaded lack of "a clear two-thirds majority". He revived it as Prime Minister and head of the NDA government in the Lok Sabha on December 6. Gone was the NDA's "freeze" of the issue. This followed the famous dinner he gave to the top brass of the RSS on December 1. They could not have succeeded, as they did, if they did not enjoy Advani's backing. The choice before Vajpayee was surrender to them or resignation. He has chosen the former. The VHP gave him a precise ultimatum: "If the government fails to hand it over to the RJB (Ram Janmabhoomi) Trust by Shivratri in krishna paksha of Falgun month of the Hindu calendar next year, we will forcibly occupy it any time and any moment" (The Hindustan Times, January 20) - that is, March 12, 2002. The Prime Minister of India meekly complies with this deadline set by an ultimatum.

He met VHP leaders on February 24. They wanted "immediate return of 67 acres acquired by the government around the disputed site" and a boundary wall in order to forestall the court's verdict. "If the Ram temple is not built during your tenure as Prime Minister, when will it be built?" one of them asked him (The Hindu, February 25). Advani encouraged them by contending that a "de jure temple exists" (April 11).

That makeshift "temple" has neither legal nor moral validity. The then Home Secretary Madhav Godbole has described how "the temple" came up: "During the night of 7 December, (Rangarajan) Kumaramangalam, who was then Minister of State for Law and Parliamentary Affairs, rang me up several times asking me to make sure that the Ayodhya complex was captured by central forces during the night. He said that continued construction of a Ram temple by the kar sevaks was causing a lot of embarrassment; that he would have to resign and the central government itself might have to go if the complex was not taken over and construction of the temple stopped. 'Since the construction of the temple itself was unauthorised,' Kumaramangalam asked, 'can it not be destroyed while taking over the complex?' He said he had spoken to the Prime Minister, who agreed this could be done. When I pointed out that, as the late hour (it was around 1 a.m. on December 8), the Prime Minister must be sleeping, he said that he had woken up the Prime Minister and had spoken to him on the phone. He suggested that I should give suitable orders to the concerned police officers. I said that it would not be correct to do any such thing and that all that we could try to do was to take over the complex. The rest would have to be left to the courts to decide. I had kept the HM (S.B. Chavan) informed of this telephone conversation" (Unfinished Innings; Orient Longman; pages 389-390). Jyoti Basu was for their immediate removal. The Ayodhya complex was captured at 4 a.m. on December 8.

As Sushma Swaraj said on April 14, 2000 in Bhopal, the Ram temple movement was "purely political in nature and had nothing to do with religion". It is the lure of power which drives the Vajpayee regime to these lengths. The "temple" set up after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on its site has no sanctity. It was the result of a crime. When Godbole visited Ayodhya on December 29, he neither took darshan nor accepted prasad. A devout Hindu, he "sincerely believed that God could not reside in the temples, the construction of which was associated with so much deceit and wanton violence" (pp. 406-7). One wishes he had acted on Kumaramangalam's order and had the idols removed.

On October 10, Vajpayee assured the VHP leaders when they met him that he would solve the issue by March 12, 2002. A week later came the storming at the site of the Babri Masjid in breach of orders of courts of law.

In the Ayodhya case, the Supreme Court ordered maintenance of the "status quo as on January 7, 1993", when the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act came into force, "modifying the interim orders in the suits to that extent by curtailing the practice of worship by Hindus in the disputed area to the extent it stands reduced under the Act". Section 7 (2) of the Act enjoined the Central government to "ensure that the position existing before the commencement of this Act... is maintained". That was a majority ruling by the Chief Justice of India M.N. Venkatachaliah and Justices J.S. Verma and G.N. Ray. The minority, Justices A.M. Ahmadi and S.P. Bharucha, ruled that "the Act and the Reference (for Advisory Opinion) ... favour one religious community and disfavour another". The two Judges sharply criticised Section 7(2). It took "no account" of the demolition of the mosque or the existence of a dispute or of the fact that "until the night of December 22-23, 1949, when the idols were placed in the disputed structure, the disputed structure was being used as a mosque and that the Muslim community has a claim to offer namaz thereon" (1994) 6 SCC 360 at p. 437).

On February 23, 1996, the Allahabad High Court made an interim order reducing the 15 m limit for darshan of the idols. On May 10 1996, the Supreme Court granted a stay against that Order and reaffirmed the stay on August 9, 1996. The VHP leaders wilfully violated this Order on October 17, 2001. It constitutes gross contempt of court. Advani's assertion on October 19 at the Foreign Correspondents' Club that the VHP leaders had not broken any law when they forcibly entered the site of the mosque is palpably untrue. He has indicated more than once that he would condone the VHP and the Bajrang Dal's misdeeds whether in Gujarat or elsewhere. In this instance he refuses to enforce the law which requires respect for orders of the Supreme Court. His oath of office requires him to "do right to all manner of people in accordance with the Constitution and the law, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will." For a Home Minister to condone such a wrong is reprehensible.

Nearly 60 years ago the Calcutta High Court delivered a judgment of great importance couched in excellent prose. The court criticised the Chief Minister of Bengal, A.K. Fazlul Huq's misconduct in interfering in the trial of a criminal case by a District Magistrate. Chief Justice Derbyshire observed in Pollard vs. Satya Gopal (AIR 1943 Cal. 594):

"If the legitimate and proper transport of food can be interfered with and the malefactors protected by the Chief Minister of the province when they are brought before the Courts of law, there is an end of law and order in the province.

"The result is that instead of the orderly distribution of food there is a scramble for it in which the weakest suffer. Mr. Fazlul Huq was Minister for the Home Department at the time this rice looting took place. The looted rice was intended for the Berhampore Jail. The administration of jails is a matter with which the Home Department is charged. But neither the solemn oath nor public responsibility prevented him from doing this nefarious work.

"A person who takes an oath or makes an affirmation to tell the truth in a judicial proceeding and breaks it is guilty of perjury and may be punished at law by the Courts. A person, however, who on taking up an office is required by law to take an oath of office that he will faithfully perform the duties of that office takes what is called a promissory oath. The breach of a promissory oath, in the absence of a special provision of law to that effect, is not punishable at law. As far as I am aware there is no punishment in law for the breaking of the promissory oath taken by Mr. Fazlul Huq when he assumed office as Chief Minister.

"But the clear violation of it brands a man as unfit for public office. If solemn promissory oaths by persons who take high office in the State are to be disregarded as mere formalities there is no possibility of good government. Mr. Huq is left to the contemplation and judgment of his fellowmen."

ON May 16, 1989, Union Home Minister Buta Singh said that the government was not averse to finding a solution to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue through mutual goodwill and understanding side by side the court proceedings.

He was responding to a suggestion made by the leaders of the Opposition in Parliament in the course of a two-day-long discussion on communal issues.

The Home Minister, while appreciating the constructive and positive suggestions made by the members, said that it was necessary to isolate mischief mongers and anti-social elements.

He appreciated the suggestion that the administration should be decommunalised at local levels. In this regard, he said, guidelines had already been sent to the State governments.

The meeting was convened by Buta Singh as a follow-up to the Prime Minister's statement in the Lok Sabha that a meeting of Opposition leaders would be convened before holding the full-fledged meeting of the National Integration Council to discuss the communal situation.

The Home Minister also welcomed the consensus that emerged that religion should not be exploited to propagate the issue of communalism.

Atal Behari Vajpayee said that the dispute could not be solved in the court of law. It should be solved with goodwill from both sides. In this connection, he said, the site under dispute should be handed over to Hindus who as a goodwill gesture maintain the structure as it is, without there being any worship by either community. A temple and mosque should be built nearby the disputed shrine, he said.


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