Stalemate over Ayodhya

Print edition : August 15, 2003

CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee, Congress(I) leader Priyaranjan Das Munshi and TDP leader Yerran Naidu in Parliament House on July 21, when the monsoon session of Parliament began. - ANU PUSHKARNA

The Parliament session opens with a standoff, with a combined Opposition vociferously denouncing the exclusion of the conspiracy charge in the CBI charge-sheet against top BJP leaders in the Babri Masjid demolition case.

ONCE the Ayodhya issue takes centre stage, everything else fades into the background. This reality of the Indian polity was evident more than ever as the monsoon session of Parliament began on July 21. For two days running, neither House of Parliament could transact any business because the Opposition kept pressing for an adjournment motion on the alleged role of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in diluting the charges against Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi and the Bharatiya Janata Party's chief ministerial aspirant in Madhya Pradesh Uma Bharati, among others, in the Babri Masjid demolition case.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, for its part, charged that the Opposition was reacting on the basis of inadequate information. The stalemate ended only when the presiding officers of both Houses allowed the Opposition to present their case for the adjournment motion. It is another matter, though, that both the presiding officers rejected the Opposition plea. However, in the process the country's premier investigative agency, the CBI, came under a cloud.

The drama unfolded on the first day of the monsoon session when the entire Opposition, in a rare show of unity, demanded that the question hour be suspended to discuss the adjournment motion. The Opposition chorused that the CBI had "dropped" the charge of criminal conspiracy to demolish the Babri Masjid against Advani, Joshi and some others. Amidst stormy scenes, the Opposition demanded the resignation of the BJP leaders and an explanation from Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee himself about the circumstances that led to the filing of the new and diluted charge-sheet against the accused persons.

An unrelenting Opposition kept up the chant of "Prime Minister jawab den" (the Prime Minister should give an answer). Some members even stormed the well of the House, forced Speaker Manohar Joshi to adjourn the House. Priyaranjan Das Munshi (Congress-I), Ramjilal Suman (Samajwadi Party), Raghuvansh Prasad Singh (Rashtriya Janata Dal), G.M. Banatwala (Indian Union Muslim League) and others alleged that the Prime Minister had pressured the CBI into dropping the conspiracy charges against Advani, Joshi and other BJP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders in the case being heard in the Rae Bareli court.

The Speaker, rejecting the Opposition demand, quoted from a "letter" from Law Minister Arun Jaitley, which said that not only was the subject matter sub judice and hence could not be debated, but "the CBI has not diluted any case, dropped any charge against the accused person. Section 120 B (relating to conspiracy) was never a charge in the Rae Bareli charge-sheet, the question of dropping it does not arise". Reading further from the letter, the Speaker added: "The information with the (Opposition) members is not correct. Therefore, I do not agree to suspend the question hour." He, however, offered to take up the adjournment motion during zero hour, but the Opposition rejected it, thereby forcing him to adjourn the House for the day.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee addressing the BJP National Executive meeting in Raipur on July 19. To his right are party president M. Venkaiah Naidu and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani.-

Clarifying the government's stand later, Arun Jaitley said: "The entire premise that the CBI has diluted or dropped charges against Advani and others is factually incorrect... there has been no interference by the Centre, no dropping of charges by the CBI." He said the Congress(I) had "withdrawn a record number of cases against its leaders in 1980" but the Vajpayee government had not interfered in any way in the Babri Masjid demolition case. In the Rae Bareli court, he said: "It was for the Judge to accept, add to or delete charges made out by the CBI, it was for the court to decide, not Parliament... it would be unprecedented if parallel arguments on what charges should be framed are made in Parliament. That would negate the rule of law."

Congress(I) spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy, however, refuted Jaitley's arguments. He pointed out that the CBI had filed two charge-sheets, on October 5, 1993, and January 11, 1996, in the masjid demolition case. Both, including one relating to the charge of conspiracy, were considered together by the special court in Lucknow, and "neither the High Court of Allahabad nor any other court had quashed the charge-sheets". He said those charges were based not just on first information reports (FIRs), but on "investigations by the CBI and they cannot be wished away". He said it was a pity that the CBI had been "reduced to a pliable political tool" by the NDA government.

The arguments, counter-arguments and stalemate continued in Parliament on the second day too and both Houses were again adjourned without any business being transacted. On July 23, though, the presiding officers of both the Houses allowed the Opposition to plead their case on the admissibility of the motion. While the Opposition demanded to know categorically from the government whether it was true that the CBI had ever levelled charges of criminal conspiracy against the accused, and whether it had ever said in court that there was enough evidence to justify these charges, and if yes, under what circumstances this charge had been dropped now, the Union Law Minister merely repeated the points that the issue was sub judice and so it could not be discussed in Parliament. He also said that the charge of criminal conspiracy was not there in the original charge-sheet of February 1993, and hence the question of dropping the charges did not arise. He also said that it was the jurisdiction of the court to decide under what sections charges should be framed, and that it was not for Parliament to decide on this issue.

The Speaker agreed with the Law Minister and rejected the adjournment motion. He said he was rejecting the Opposition demand because if a discussion "takes place by way of an adjournment motion, culminating in a decision, the possibility of the court being influenced cannot be ruled out". But, he said, he was prepared to allow a discussion on the issue for a short duration, as it would not entail a decision from the House. The Opposition was left with no option but to walk out. The same scene was enacted in the Rajya Sabha too.

But more than the facts of the case, which would become known in due course as the trial in the Rae Bareli court progresses, what is important is the fact that despite all its pronouncements to the contrary so far, the BJP has finally succumbed to the collective pressure of the Sangh Parivar, which has succeeded in getting Ayodhya back on the political centre stage as the general elections approach. The BJP's doublespeak is alarming. Ever since the NDA government was formed in 1999, the BJP was saying that it will not make Ayodhya an election issue, and that it was in favour of solving the issue either through dialogue or through court intervention as per the NDA agenda. It also said it did not support the VHP demand for legislation to pave way for the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. But now the BJP has not only adopted the VHP's stand, but it has also formalised it. The BJP can now approach the electorate with the slogan: "Give us a majority so that we can enact a law to pave way for temple construction at Ayodhya".

AT the BJP's National Executive meeting in Raipur from July 18 to 20, which was attended by the entire top brass of the party, a resolution calling for a law to build the temple at Ayodhya was adopted. Like the VHP, the BJP too put the onus on its NDA partners and the Congress(I), to facilitate the passing of such a law, asking them to cooperate. By adopting this method, the BJP hopes to put the political parties in pro- and anti-temple categories. Such categorisation, it hopes, will help it in the general elections because it will inevitably lead to the polarisation of voters along religious lines. The BJP said that even though the common agenda of the NDA made no mention of a legislative initiative to resolve the temple issue, the party was of the view that that alternative should be explored. It, however, added that the present arithmetic in Parliament was not in favour of such a legislation.

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