Ram Temple Construction

Ram temple, the last resort

Print edition : August 14, 2020

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath with Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, during a visit to the Ram Janmabhoomi site to inspect the work relating to temple construction, in Ayodhya on June 28. Photo: PTI

The: Ram Janmabhoomi Tirth Kshetra Trust general secretary Champat Rai (second right) at a temple construction workshop in Ayodhya, on July 21. Photo: PTI

Vinay Katiyar, founder-president of the Bajrang Dal and three-time BJP MP of Faizabad (Ayodhya). Photo: PTI

The Hindutva combine once again takes recourse to the Ayodhya issue by conducting a ground-breaking ceremony for the Ram mandir construction to divert attention from the Modi government’s mismanagement of the COVID pandemic and military reverses in Galwan Valley.

Vinay Katiyar, founder-president of the Bajrang Dal, the militant youth wing of the Sangh Parivar, used to refer to the Ayodhya Ram temple issue as a perennial source of political energy for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Sangh associates. In the 1990s, Katiyar was elected to the Lok Sabha from Ayodhya three times. He used to describe his electoral victory as an indication of the special blessings showered by Lord Ram on him and his party. “Whenever Vinay Katiyar and the BJP have faced difficult challenges politically and organisationally we have always turned to the Ayodhya issue and have benefitted every time without fail,” Katiyar often remarked, referring to himself in the third person.

Indeed, in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the BJP was the principal opposition party at the national level and the Bajrang Dal was constantly in an agitation mode, they frequently invoked the Ayodhya issue. When the BJP under Narendra Modi stormed to power at the Centre in 2014, with a majority of its own, Katiyar said it was possible that many in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and perhaps even in the BJP, may have felt that the utility of the Ram mandir slogan had largely diminished in this situation but he himself was sure of its lasting value. As the Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, which has been formed to facilitate the construction of the Ram temple at the site where the Babri Masjid once stood in Ayodhya, gets ready for the “bhoomi pujan” (ground-breaking ceremony) for the temple on August 5 in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Katiyar and his associates in the temple town aver that their faith in the validity of the temple issue stood vindicated.

In fact, many Katiyar followers in Uttar Pradesh argued that the “return of the Ayodhya Ram temple issue at the current juncture” had special relevance in national politics. Frontline’s interactions with Sangh Parivar activists in different parts of northern and western India made it clear that they shared similar perceptions on the special significance of the issue in contemporary national situation. Although the views expressed by these Sangh Parivar leaders and grass-roots workers were different in terms of detail, there was a common drift in the their expressions.

They dealt mainly with five points. First, the BJP and its government at the Centre and in the States did not face any big or concrete political challenge primarily because the opposition is generally in disarray and without a strong leadership. Second, the near-total surrender of the media, especially the electronic media, before the Prime Minister and Home Minister Amit Shah has also greatly facilitated this domination. Third, in spite of the absence of concrete political resistance, more and more laypeople were getting disillusioned with the BJP and its leadership on account of various factors, including galloping prices of essential commodities and other basic requirements. Fourth, the mismanagement of COVID relief activities by the NDA governments, especially in the northern States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, has aggravated this popular resentment. Fifth, the domineering perception on the ground with regard to the Sino-Indian conflict are not in consonance with the “all is well” position adopted and propagated by the leadership at the Centre, including the Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Home Minister.

Some of the senior activists and grass-roots workers said that these negative perceptions of the government’s stand on the Sino-Indian conflict were dominant among the security forces too, both among serving officers and the retired personnel.

Disquiet in armed forces

A senior RSS activist based in Jaipur, himself a former middle level officer in the Indian Army, said: “Discussions are happening in the armed forces on social media platforms, especially WhatsApp groups, by serving and retired army officers on the border situation, The drift of these discussions is not positive. The general tone and tenor of the discussions are hugely critical of the mismanagement of the border situation by the Modi government. Sometimes the purport of these discussions leak out to the general public, compounding the perception problems caused by the military situation.”

Frontline could independently verify the prevalence of this perception among servicemen on the border situation. An animated conversation in a couple of ex-servicemen groups on July 21 revolved around the question of how the Chinese were still holding on to the “encroached territory in spite of multiple rounds of talks at the diplomatic and military levels”. The conversations underscored the point that the Chinese were not fulfilling the agreements on disengagements along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh and that as many as 40,000 troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were still stationed in the region. The discussions pointed to the need for revival of senior-level interventions involving the National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi so that disengagement in regions such as Galwan Valley, the finger area (Pangong) and Patrolling Points could resume. They also stressed that the Chinese had shown signs of actual disengagement around the second week of July, but in the third week there was a great deal of hesitancy on their part.

Given these developments, it was surmised in one of the groups that it would be logical to presume that the Chinese were in no hurry to move out of the forward areas along the LAC in eastern Ladakh. The biggest worry among BJP and Sangh Parivar activists privy to these discussions is that these revelations tend to work against, and at times blow to pieces, the grandiose pronouncements made by the Prime Minister on not losing an inch to the Chinese. “Clearly, Ayodhya and the spirit of Lord Ram is godsend resource to have at this point of time,” the Jaipur-based senior RSS activist told Frontline.

Although not viewed as seriously as the reactions from the armed services and the general public on the border situation, some developments in relation to the handling of the COVID situation are rankling the Sangh Parivar rank and file. A senior RSS activist based in Lucknow said: “The daily exposures on ground-level mismanagement have not led to a concerted movement by the opposition and that is a big relief. However, some happenings at the level of higher judiciary and bureaucracy are a cause for concern.”

Pandemic—a demand for inquiry

One of the concrete developments in this connection is the appeal moved by six retired bureaucrats—K.P. Fabian, M.G. Devasahayam, Meena Gupta, Somasundar Burra, Amit Bhaduri and Madhu Bhaduri—in the Supreme Court seeking an independent inquiry by a commission appointed under the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, into the Central government’s “gross mismanagement” of the pandemic in India. It pointed out that the Centre’s response to the pandemic had a deleterious effect on the lives and livelihoods of the citizens of the country and was a “severe infraction of the fundamental rights of people”. This made it a definite matter of public importance and warranted the appointment of a commission, the appeal said.

It highlighted the fact that the government failed to “undertake timely and effective measures for containing the transmission of the disease within India” although the World Health Organisation (WHO) had issued a notification on the matter in January. The appeal also pointed to the “government’s failure” to adhere to “statutory obligations under the Disaster Management Act, 2005”, including drawing up a National Plan or issuing guidelines for providing minimum standards of relief to vulnerable sections of society “as well as the colossal oversight to consult the National Task Force, which consisted of experts in the fields of epidemiology and public health, before the imposition of the nationwide lockdown and its subsequent extensions”.

Commenting on the appeal, a senior RSS leader based in Lucknow said that it would collapse at the very outset in the Supreme Court. Still, the view among Sangh Parivar leaders is that the court proceedings in this case need to be followed closely so that it did not trigger public reactions.

Celebratory mood

But the mood in Ayodhya among Katiyar and his followers as well as activists of other Sangh Parivar outfits, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the key organisation involved in the Ayodhya Ram mandir movement, is celebratory. Swami Govind Dev Giri, treasurer of the Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, told Frontline that the Prime Minister’s arrival for the bhoomi pujan would speed up the construction of the temple and a grand mandir would be ready, probably by the end of the year. Katiyar pointed to the symbolism associated with holding of the ground-breaking function on August 5. He said: “August 5 this year marks the first anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of the State of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, clearly a red letter day, which led to the fulfilment of a long-standing promise of the Sangh Parivar to the people of Hindustan. If you look at the sequence of events everything has happened with divine blessings. In November 2019, three months after the abrogation of Article 370, the five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court directed the handing over of the ‘disputed’ land to Lord Ram’s devotees. Now, we are on course.”

On their part, opposition parties, including the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), have questioned the timing of the bhoomi pujan. Congress leader and Maharashtra Revenue Minister Balasaheb Thorat said it was a clear gimmick to divert attention from the Centre’s failures on many aspects of governance, including the management of the COVID situation. NCP leader Sharad Pawar observed that the “eradication of COVID-19 is the priority of the Maharashtra government, but some people think constructing a temple will help in its mitigation”.

Barring voices like those of Pawar and Thorat, the overall response from the opposition to the bhoomi pujan announcement has been muted. A cross-section of Sangh Parivar activists pointed out in their interactions with Frontline that playing the Ram temple card offered better protection for the BJP government against public resentment than resisting any concerted move by the opposition to build a movement around the dominant issues of the day.

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