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The Ayodhya game, again

Print edition : Feb 28, 2003

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Another round of elections is due, and the Sangh Parivar queers the pitch on Ayodhya yet again. Will the BJP's allies in government keep quiet again, too?

in New Delhi

HAVING realised the efficacy of the Hindutva card yet again in Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party has shed all its inhibitions on the contentious Ram temple issue in Ayodhya. Obviously with an eye on the coming elections in several States this year, possibly followed by early Lok Sabha polls, the party is all set to revive the issue in league with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Despite the fact that it had vowed to keep the issue on the backburner till a solution emerged either through the judicial process or through mutual discussion as per the National Democratic Alliance's agreed National Agenda for Governance, the BJP-led NDA government went ahead and petitioned the Supreme Court on February 5, seeking to vacate its March 13, 2002 interim order banning all religious activity on the acquired 67.703 acres of land around the disputed site in Ayodhya.

The fact that the government is in favour of handing over this piece of land to the VHP-controlled Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas is obvious because the application in the court was filed immediately after Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee held a meeting with the Kanchi Shankaracharya, who in recent times would seem to have taken upon himself the saffron cause with respect to Ayodhya. The Kanchi seer had already met with VHP leaders in New Delhi and expressed the opinion that the "undisputed" part of the land in question, about 43 acres, could be handed over to its owner, the Nyas. Immediately after meeting the Prime Minister, he had met Law Minister Arun Jaitley.

The Centre said in its application that the "continued state of uncertainty (regarding the undisputed land) is not in public interest". It pointed out that the court's interim order was meant to be for a period of 10 weeks, after which the issue had to be referred to a larger Bench. Besides, the situation that prevailed when the interim order was passed was very different from that prevailing today. As different from March last year, there was no apprehension of a breach of law and order or violation of earlier court orders. "The state of uncertainty with regard to approximately 67 acres of land is likely to generate problems even in future and it is therefore necessary that the position becomes clear by a final decision of the court," the application said.

The Supreme Court had in its interim order on March 13, on the eve of a shila daan programme that had been announced by the VHP, banned any form of religious activity on the acquired land. In giving this order the court stayed its own order of 1994 in which it had said that the undisputed part of the land could be handed over to its owners in the future. Of this undisputed part, over 43 acres is vested with the Nyas both in its capacity as a "permanent lessee" and as owner. The Nyas owns only one acre of land, and the rest of the land was given to it on lease by the Kalyan Singh government in 1992 to develop a Ram Katha Kunj (park). But the Centre acquired the entire stretch of land in 1993, in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. The issue of handing over the undisputed area to the Nyas came to a head in March 2002 when it demanded that the 43 acres be returned to it for performing shila daan. That programme was to have marked the start of temple construction. The VHP's aggressive posture had threatened communal harmony, and a certain Mohammad Aslam Bhure along with others petitioned the Supreme Court seeking a ban on any religious activity on any part of the acquired land.

The Centre was then seen to be buckling under the VHP's pressure tactics - as it is doing now again. The Prime Minister had at that point asked Jaitley to look into the question of how the case relating to the disputed land could be expedited and into the legal and constitutional aspects of handing over the undisputed extent of the land to the Nyas. Jaitley had apparently told the government that it would not be advisable to hand over the land because it could create communal tension. But when the time for shila daan approached, and the matter came up in the Supreme Court, the government was seen to be buckling under the VHP's pressure again.

Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee told the court then that allowing the temporary use of the undisputed land for a brief duration for the performance of a symbolic puja would not constitute a violation of the status quo. He said the requirement of status quo pertained only to the "disputed land". He argued forcefully that a symbolic round of puja, with 300 to 400 sadhus participating and kar sevaks being allowed to watch from a distance without actually entering the land, could be considered.

The Supreme Court, however, overruled the Attorney-General's contention. A three-Judge Bench ordered that "no part of the acquired land shall be handed over to anyone by the Central government.'' It added: "The same shall be retained and no part will be allowed to be used for any other purpose till further orders." The court ordered that no religious activity should be allowed on the acquired land. The Bench, comprising Justices B.N. Kirpal, G.B. Pattanaik and V.N. Khare, categorically said: "We direct that on 67.703 acres of land located on plot no.159/60 in village Ramchandrapuram vested in the Central government, no religious activity of any nature by anyone, including bhumi puja, shila puja and shila daan shall be allowed till further orders."

The following day the court clarified that the order covered the whole area vested with the Central government and not just the two revenue plots mentioned in the order. The clarification was issued after VHP leader Ashok Singhal claimed that the order covered only the two plots, whereas the acquired land encompassed over100 revenue plots. Therefore the VHP was free to go ahead with its shila daan elsewhere on the acquired land, Singhal had insisted. The court's modified order stated: "In the meantime, we direct that on this 67.703 acres of land located in revenue plot nos 159 and 160 in village Kot Ramchandra, as well as and including the land described in the schedule to the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993 (Act No 33/1993), which is vested in the Central government, no religious activity of any kind by anyone, either symbolic or actual, including bhumi puja or shila puja shall be permitted or allowed to take place."

It is this order that the Central government now seeks to get vacated. Obviously the government has decided to consider the VHP's demand of handing over the undisputed extent of land to it. On January 3 the VHP demanded that the government hand over the undisputed land before a Dharma Sansad, a parliament of holy men, began in New Delhi on February 22. The VHP warned the government about a "people's movement" should it fail to meet the demand. The Dharma Sansad is expected to announce yet another programme for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

"The Margdarshak Mandal is meeting on February 21, while the Dharma Sansad is meeting from February 22 to 24 to discuss the Ayodhya issue. We demand that our land be returned to us before that," VHP senior vice-president Giriraj Kishore said in New Delhi. He said the VHP had constituted a committee to implement the decisions of the Dharma Sansad. This panel, led by S.C. Dikshit, former Director-General of Police, Uttar Pradesh, and former BJP Member of Parliament from Varanasi, includes senior VHP leaders Rajendra Singh `Pankaj' and Champat Rai. "We have no faith in the politicians. We will follow every word of the decisions taken by the Dharma Sansad," Giriraj Kishore declared. He said that unlike last year the VHP would not allow itself to be taken for a ride by the government this time.

The government, too, it is clear, has agreed to play ball with the VHP this time, at least to the extent possible. Minister Jaitley has defended the government's stand and rejected the Opposition charge that it had indulged in communal politics by moving the Supreme Court. He said it was the only logical course open to prevent a Hindu-Muslim confrontation. Asserting that the government would make every effort to achieve a negotiated settlement on the temple issue, Jaitley said the appeal filed in the Supreme Court was a step in this direction. "It is perfect and only in consonance with the NDA agenda of finding a speedy solution," he said.

INDEED, it was only a matter of time before the BJP made its actual intentions on the temple issue known. Once the party outlined its poll strategy for the States going to the polls later this year, it was clear that it had decided to fall back on its old staples of the Ram temple, a uniform civil code and Article 370. On January 20 the BJP declared that the party would fight the elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi - where the Congress is in power - on the poll planks of temple, civil code and Article 370. This was decided at a high voltage meeting in which Kailash Joshi, Raman Singh, Vasundhararaje Scindia and Madan Lal Khurana, the chiefs of the party in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi respectively, were present. The BJP's five national general secretaries were present, as were party president M. Venkaiah Naidu and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani.

"There is no question of backing out from the issues of Ram Janmabhoomi, a common civil code, and Article 370 which the BJP wants abolished. The BJP is strong on its ideology and the NDA partners have been apprised that its agenda for governance is for the Centre," Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a BJP spokesman, said. According to him, Advani had told the four BJP State chiefs that the party would bring into play strategies based on the Hindutva ideology in their States too. Advani asked them to begin a jan sampark (mass contact) programme in this regard, he said.

BJP leaders in Uttar Pradesh too have given ample indications that the party was back playing the Ayodhya card in the State. State Urban Development Minister Lalji Tandon and party chief Vinay Katiyar, who is the MP from the area, visited Ayodhya in the first week of January and announced as much. They declared that the temple construction was very much on the party's agenda. Tandon announced a Rs.28-crore development package for Ayodhya and kicked off 54 development schemes, including those relating to infrastructure and civic amenities. Some of these schemes had been announced two years ago, but had failed to make any progress. "All this is being done to restore the glory and grandeur of this town, so that it stands in readiness to welcome Lord Ram," Tandon said. He also asserted that the party's coalition partner in the State, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), would not be allowed to come in the way of the plans. "Just as we have not expressed any objection to the BSP undertaking development schemes in the name of its own icons, we expect it to allow us to pursue our agenda," he said.

What, however, remains to be seen is the NDA allies' reaction to the developments. On similar occasions in the past the allies have taken refuge in the argument that as long as the government was not deviating from the NDA agenda it was all right with them. This time, however, some noises have been heard. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the crucial external supporter of the NDA government, has warned the BJP against deviating from the NDA agenda and advised it to "stick to governance and not dabble in controversial issues". Senior TDP leader K. Yerran Naidu said the government's move was improper because it was not in consonance with the agreed agenda.

The Samata Party, which initially showed signs of being opposed to the government approaching the Supreme Court, changed tack. Its leader George Fernandes said there was nothing wrong in the government approaching the court for directions. He said if need be he would try and convince the other alliance partners about the matter.

The Opposition parties have, as was to be expected, denounced the move. The Congress(I) said it was typical of the BJP to bring the issue to the boil every time an election was round the corner. "Can anybody explain why this appeal was not filed some months earlier? There was not a single reason for vacating the Supreme Court order of March 2002," said Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi, himself a Supreme Court lawyer.

Both the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said the status quo should prevail in Ayodhya till the final order of the court in the main suit came and that no construction or any other activity should be allowed on the acquired land. "Any move to the contrary would have a very evil impact on the communal situation in the country," they stated. The CPI said it was an "attempt to distort the judicial process and make a mockery of the law".

The BJP, however, remains smug in the belief that as in the past, this time too the allies, reluctant to walk out of the government, will find their own excuses to continue their support. Besides, only recently they witnessed the results of an aggressive Hindutva campaign in Gujarat and may hope to reap similar mileage in other States. "Why should NDA unity be at risk? The government has merely sought the vacation of the Supreme Court order in Ayodhya. Everything will depend on what the honourable court says," BJP spokesman Naqvi said.

Although it is clear to anyone that this is just another act of political jugglery by Vajpayee to walk the tight rope of governance and keep the Sangh Parivar happy at the same time, there is no denying the fact that the issue has enough heat to bring the country to the boil. The compulsion to create an emotive issue ahead of a crucial round of elections guides Vajpayee right now.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board has opposed the government's stand. The legal cell of the Board, which met on February 9, decided to file either a rejoinder or an affidavit when the case came up for hearing. "In our opinion the situation under which the Supreme Court had passed the March 13 order remains unchanged," said the convener and spokesman of the AIMPLB committee on the Babri Masjid, Dr. S.Q.R. Ilyas. Dr. Ilyas pointed to the fact that the VHP had announced its Dharma Sansad where a programme for temple construction was to be declared. The VHP has been making statements that go contrary to the spirit of the Supreme Court order, he added. "Besides, the March 13 order had been passed in view of the Supreme Court's earlier 1994 order through which the court had appointed the Centre as the receiver of the acquired land till the final adjudication of the case. The acquired land, the court had said, could only be distributed to its owners or lessees and only after the final adjustment of the disputed land. Hence the Centre cannot give away any part of the acquired land to anyone till the controversy about the disputed land is settled," Dr. Ilyas said.

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