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When the dead came back

Print edition : Jan 15, 2010 T+T-

NOBODY in independent India seems to have seen anything like this so claimed the loyalists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) after the April 4 rally of the organisation in New Delhi. But they do not seem to know that there is another historic first to the organisation, that of playing a political hoax non pareil in this country.

In its enthusiasm to ride the so-called Rama bhakti wave the VHP has played the cruellest of jokes on the people of India. That of creating non-existent martyrs and even branding live people as martyrs for its cause.

All this started on February 20 when the VHP leadership published a list of martyrs, kar sevaks who had died during the kar seva agitation in Uttar Pradesh in October-November 1991. The list comprising 59 names generated great interest because the toll on those fateful days was controversial and the exact figures were much awaited. (The VHP claimed that 36 kar sevaks died in police firing in Ayodhya on October 30 and November 2 and that 23 others had been killed in other places during the kar seva agitation. In addition, it asserted, 23 kar sevaks were missing.) There were rumours and even newspaper reports that more than 100 people had died.

On December 27, 1990, the Chandra Shekhar government stated in Parliament that only 15 kar sevaks had died in the police firing in Ayodhya and even challenged those who were projecting a bigger figure to come out with a single additional name. The list released by VHP working president V.H. Dalmia and joint general secretary Acharya Giriraj Kishore with much fanfare was in answer to the government challenge. While releasing it the leaders also claimed that this was only the first list. Many more names were to come was the indication.

But enquiries in Uttar Pradesh alone show that the first list itself is a false document meant to stir the Rama bhakts all over the country and gain political mileage for the VHP associate, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Of the names in Uttar Pradesh the real people killed are the ones on the government list also. The number comes to 11 but the VHP claims to have 23 martyrs in U.P. Out of the other 12 whom the VHP claims to be martyrs, four are still alive. Five others died for various other reasons which had no direct relation to the kar seva, and even many years before 1990. One is non-existent and his personality is shrouded in mystery. Two others suffered injuries in the kar seva but died many days later at their own places.

Three of the live martyrs belong to Mathura district. They are Thakur Lal Singh of Raal village, Ashutosh Das of Brindavan and Baba Raghav Das from Gadaya village. The other live martyr is Ramdev Yadav of Hajiyanbad in Rae Bareili.

Lal Singh, now around 64, still moves around Raal and adjoining places in sound health. Tall and well built, he met us at the very same temple in the village where a sradhanjali sabha was organised by the VHP and the BJP to condole his martyrdom a few weeks earlier. The local BJP MLA, Ravikanth Garg, and the district BJP president, R.P. Kamal, took part in the sradhanjali sabha and prayed that Lal Singhs soul might rest in peace. A deeply religious person, Lal Singh at that time was on a pilgrimage in Maharashtra and Gujarat. He is a bachelor and his sole occupation is religious worship and pilgrimage.

True, he was not in Raal at the time of the kar seva. True also that he did not come back many days after the kar seva. The local VHP outfit took notice of this fact and put out the version that he had died in the police firing at Ayodhya. According to Lal Singh, he was nowhere near Ayodhya on the fateful days October 30 to November 2, 1990. Only when he came back to the village some time in January did he know that he was declared to be dead and even his funeral rites were over. But in the meantime his brothers family, his only close relatives, had gained 200 kilograms of wheat given by the VHP representatives.

Lal Singh was not at all happy with all this. Yes, he liked his brothers family getting some wheat. But no, he was not going to die for the VHP people, he told us. When he came back the VHP people asked him to hide since he was on the martyrs list. They promised him money and many other material benefits. But Lal Singh clearly told them that he was not ready to oblige them. When questioned about Lal Singhs sradhanjali, R.P. Kamal, who was present at this function, was clearly on the defensive. He admitted that he was in the wrong to have participated in the sradhanjali for someone whose death was not clearly established. He also admitted that he was not sure whether there were any martyrs in Mathura at all.

The case of Baba Ashutosh Das is stranger. Never in his life had he gone to Ayodhya, let alone for the kar seva. A Bengali by birth, he had been a wanderer before settling down in Mathura. Dabbling in painting religious pictures, he often stays with Shambu Charan Pathak in Sewa Kund at Brindavan. We met him in a dingy room at Radha Shyam Sundarji mandir in the same locality. Ashutosh was taken for a ghost when he came back after visiting his parents in Calcutta, where he was during the time of the attempted kar seva. He had stayed for months in Calcutta and by the time he returned to Brindavan, the VHP list was out. Arre Ashutosh, tum to Ayodhya mein mar gaye they, tum bhooth ho kya? (Ashutosh, you died at Ayodhya, are you a ghost?) was the greeting he got everywhere in Brindavan for a few days. He was irritated by this for some time, but now he takes it coolly. The people of Brindavan also do not take him for a bhooth now.

Ramdev Yadav has also never been to Ayodhya. During the time of kar seva he was very much in his village, Hajiyanbad. How the VHP dared to put him on the martyrs list is a mystery. When I saw my name on the list I was surprised and amused. I have nothing to do with the VHP or the BJP. They are dirty people, said Ramdev Yadav when we stopped him on the street. Raghav Das is a travelling sadhu. He is not really from Gadaya village as is mentioned in the VHP list. But he often goes there, said Dinanath Tiwari, purohit of the temple in the village. Tiwari vouchsafes that Raghav Das is very much alive. He came here during the Holi festival after the VHP list was published. We told him about the martyrs list and he laughed, saying Sadhu ko kya, kabhi yehan, kabhi wahan (What is there for a sadhu, some time here and some time there).

Mangilal Satyanarayan of Faizabad, who is on the martyrs list, died 17 years ago a natural death. His wife Rashmi Devi told us that, of course, her son died during the kar seva but not her husband. The VHP seems to have made use of the fact that Mangilals son, Mahavir Prasad, had two wives, one at Faizabad and one at Gonda. They have listed the son at the Gonda address, where one of his wives lives, and the father at the Faizabad address. An interesting aside to the story is that both the wives are now claiming the Rs.1 lakh compensation to be given by the government for those killed in the police firing.

At Shahjahanpur we encountered another curious case. Even the convener of the Rama Janmabhoomi Mukti Sangharsh Samiti and the high-profile leader of the VHP, Swami Chinmayanand, could not tell us whether anyone from Shahjahanpur had died during the kar seva, but the VHP list mentions Raghuvir Sharma of Shahjahanpur, and surprise of surprises, the address given is that of the BJP office in town! Nobody in the office or around it could tell us whether anyone of that name had ever stayed there.

At Soron near Etah, a person listed as a martyr is Pannalal Khothewal. According to the VHP list he died at his village after suffering bullet injuries during kar seva. But Ishwar Kumar, who went along with him for the kar seva, vouchsafes that there was no bullet injury. He was an old, unmarried man, and both of us got lathi beatings and he could not stand it. He returned soon after with high fever. But at that time there was no one in the house to look after him. The people nearby gave some assistance. But that was not enough and he died, said Ishwar Kumar.

Khothewals sisters son Vinay Shankar corroborates the statement. We were in Agra at that time and with nobody to care, he died on November 17. But on the question of the date of death also the VHP list errs, putting it as November 11 to create a sensational effect.

There are more cases like this. But one cannot go into all the details here. (The accompanying table gives the salient details.) There is a pattern in the selection of fake martyrs by the people of the VHP. They have mostly taken old men who have no one to care for them and whose cases no one is likely to pursue. They have also tried to list people who have no regular addresses, and in this too they have selected people in remote, interior areas.

There was a pointer to the hoax on the very day the list was published. After announcing a list of 59 martyrs the VHP split it into two, putting 36 people as martyrs during the kar seva in Ayodhya and another 23 as people who died in various parts of the country while preparing for the kar seva. Accident and sickness deaths became part of this second list. These people could not be called martyrs by any stretch of the imagination but the VHP probably did not expect that the list of the dead would be probed into. That was its biggest mistake. Interestingly, it has not committed the second hoax of coming out with the promised further lists of martyrs.