The temple stand-off

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

Defence Minister George Fernandes and Finance Minister Jaswant Singh with Jayendra Saraswati, and Vijayendra Saraswathi at the Kancheepuram Mutt on June 22. - M. LAKSHMAN

Defence Minister George Fernandes and Finance Minister Jaswant Singh with Jayendra Saraswati, and Vijayendra Saraswathi at the Kancheepuram Mutt on June 22. - M. LAKSHMAN

Contrary to the hype about the Kanchi Sankaracharya's proposals, there actually seems to be no solution in sight to the Ayodhya problem owing to the adamant stands taken by the opposing parties, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

ONE step forward, two steps backward. This has been the pace of progress in resolving the Ayodhya dispute in the past decade. Now, the latest initiative made by the Kanchi Sankaracharya, Jayendra Saraswati, appears to be doomed even before it has reached the negotiating table. The seer's proposal to the Chairman of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), kept under wraps so far, has already hit roadblocks. Reacting to the Sankaracharya's optimism that the Ayodhya issue will be resolved on July 6, the AIMPLB stated: "Depending upon what the proposal is, July 6 could only be the beginning of getting the issue resolved. The meeting on July 6 cannot be the final solution."

The Board remains sceptical about the outcome of the July 6 meeting in Lucknow to discuss the proposal, because it doubts whether the Sankaracharya will be able to involve all those who have been associated with the dispute. In fact, without saying it in so many words lest they should be accused of being cynical about the seer's sincerity, the Board's members have raised doubts whether he will be able to take the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) along if the Board agrees to his formula. "Unless he can persuade the VHP to give an undertaking that they will abide by the agreement, there can be no progress. Even if we agree for some suggestion, how can the issue ever get resolved if the VHP keeps raising it?" asked Dr. S.Q.R. Ilyas, the spokesman of the AIMPLB and the convener of its Babri Masjid committee.

The Board's stand itself gives rise to doubts about any out-of-court settlement. The AIMPLB has made it clear that there can be no bargaining on the "disputed" land. Given the fact that the VHP would settle for nothing less than the disputed land in any out-of-court settlement, the possibility that the seer would be able to achieve any breakthrough seems remote. But with AIMPLB chairman Maulana Rabe Hassan Nadvi describing the latest proposal by the Sankaracharya as a "step forward" and as being "positive in nature", it can be assumed that there must be something that the Board is finding worthy of discussion this time.

"Since we had refused to discuss the Sankaracharya's proposals last year because it was incomplete and inchoate, treating the Ayodhya issue in piecemeal and not in its entirety, we assume the seer has taken care to eliminate those loopholes this time," said Dr. Ilyas. He said that the Sankaracharya had, in March last year, when the VHP was pressing for a bhoomi puja programme, suggested that Muslims allow a symbolic puja and the commencement of work on the temple in the undisputed part of the land and that the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas would abide by the court verdict on the disputed land.

The AIMPLB, however, had rejected the proposal, which only talked about immediate commencement of temple construction but gave no assurance to Muslims that if the title suit went in their favour, they would be allowed to build a mosque there. The Board had also found that there was no guarantee the temple construction plan would be suitably amended so as to shift the location of the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum), in order to make way for a mosque in case the court order went in favour of Muslims. So if the Board finds the Sankaracharya's proposal "positive" now, "there has to be some movement forward," said Dr. Ilyas. In his opinion, though the Board says there can be no bargaining on the disputed land, there are two possibilities: one, the Sankaracharya offers the disputed land to Muslims, and two, he gets the VHP to give a written undertaking that they too will abide by whatever agreement is arrived at. The third option - to wait for the court order - is always there, he says. According to him, the Board has always been ready for a negotiated settlement provided all other parties (read the Sangh Parivar) agreed to abide by such a settlement. "If the Sankaracharya has been able to obtain an assurance from the Sangh Parivar that they will abide by the agreement, then we have no problem talking to him or anybody else for that matter. Otherwise, let the courts decide," said the AIMPLB spokesman.

AS for the VHP, it is betraying signs of frustration at being left out of the Sankaracharya's initiative. Hence it has stepped up its rhetoric that ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) or no ASI, Sankaracharya or no Sankaracharya, the temple, including its sanctum sanctorum will be built on the disputed land. The VHP leaders, in their various statements after the Sankaracharya made his proposal, even questioned his authority to handle the issue; they said no formula could work if the VHP was not a party to it. The international president of the VHP, Ashok Singhal, even went to the extent of saying that the Sankaracharya, being a Shaivite (worshipper of Siva), had no authority to talk about a Ram temple, which should be left to the Vaishnavites.

The ASI's findings too have made VHP leaders jittery. In its June 10 progress report, the ASI, contrary to the Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey made by Delhi-based Tojo Vikas International, has said that there is no evidence of "structural anomalies" in the trenches dug up at the site to indicate that a temple existed there. This belies the entire basis of the VHP's Ram temple movement, that the mosque was built after demolishing a grand Ram temple there. The ASI report has categorically stated that the "structural anomalies" indicated by Tojo have been partially confirmed only in some trenches while there is no sign of them in the majority of others. Besides, the artefacts discovered during digging, as listed by it in the progress report, also do not point towards the existence of a temple at the spot. For example, the ASI lists brick walls, glazed tile fragments, terracotta figurines and so on among its finds. While brick walls and glazed tiles are clearly associated with the Muslim era, terracotta figurines are not religion-specific, say a number of historians led by Irfan Habib, who held a press conference in Delhi recently to rebut the VHP's claims that the ASI findings point to the presence of a temple there.

According to Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, Reader in History at Aligarh Muslim University, who addressed the press conference with Habib, the discovery of a large number of bones of animals with cut marks, besides other things, points to the presence of a slaughter house there while the discovery of a number of human skeletons in almost all the trenches, which appear to be unburnt and lying in a position in which Muslims usually bury their dead, points to the presence of a graveyard at the spot. This discovery belies claims that a temple ever existed there, Rezavi said. Rezavi made these observations after visiting the excavation site on two occasions, between April 12 and 19 and between May 3 and 7.

Such archaeological facts have certainly unnerved VHP leaders who have revived their slogan that it was a matter of faith for them and no court or ASI can decide the issue. The VHP has also personally targeted the Prime Minister for attack, saying he was only trying to ensure his re-election by getting the Sankaracharya to hammer out a deal with Muslims in return for sops like job reservation. The VHP has made it clear that no formula on Ayodhya can work if the VHP was not involved in it. "Let me tell you, no settlement on Ayodhya is possible without the VHP, which has been at the forefront of the Ayodhya movement for the past 18 years," Ashok Singhal declared at a press conference in Delhi. "After all, how can you take any decision by ignoring the key players?"

The VHP's rabble-rousing general secretary Pravin Togadia, has been even more shrill in his statements. Attacking the Prime Minister for backing the Sankaracharya, Togadia said even if a compromise with Muslims led to the construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site, it would be unacceptable to the VHP as it would not allow Muslims to decide where the temple should be built. He said the Kanchi seer was being used by the Prime Minister's Office to arrive at a hasty settlement with Muslim organisations before the 2004 general election. "Our people have died for the Ram temple and now the PMO wants to ignore our struggle and deal with Muslims. They ignored us for the past five years. And now suddenly, why are they sending formulas to Muslims?" he asked.

The VHP continues to demand that the disputed land be given to Hindus for constructing the temple. With the Bharatiya Janata Party covertly backing the VHP stand and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) fully supporting it, a solution seems impossible in the near future.

BJP general secretary Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi conceded at a press conference that any lasting solution to Ayodhya could emerge only if the VHP too was involved in the effort at some stage. But Muslim intellectuals and those associated with the case in the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court remain sceptical of the entire exercise, which they say is geared towards reviving the issue for the next general elections. "Since the stand of both parties is so well known, the exercise is only aimed at taking the issue out of the judicial purview, into the hands of the clergy once again, so that once again the issue is out on the roads, and passion and frenzy can be whipped up. This formula has proved effective for the BJP in the past, and it only wants to try it once more," said a Muslim community member associated with the movement for the mosque for a long time. Asked why the AIMPLB was playing into the hands of the Sankaracharya if it would only fetch political advantage for the Vajpayee government, he said it was because Muslims did not want to be seen as shying away from efforts to find a solution. "We don't want to be accused of running away from dialogue. Let there be dialogues if they think that can lead to a solution. In our opinion, the only solution can be through court. At the most the Sankaracharya can use his influence to get the government to implement the court order and to persuade the VHP to abide by whatever the court rules."

MEANWHILE, the Ayodhya issue has taken an interesting turn, one that could prove embarrassing for the government. Former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Kalyan Singh has said that if required he could give a statement in the Rae Bareli court, which is hearing the Babri Masjid demolition case, that the mosque was demolished as part of a conspiracy hatched by Vajpayee, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, and RSS and VHP leaders. Addressing a press conference in Lucknow on June 20, Kalyan Singh said: "I was the Chief Minister then but they kept everything under wraps and even forced me to sign on the dotted line."

Kalyan Singh made the allegation a day after the Union government accused his government of failing to deploy enough Central forces to protect the mosque in 1992. "Under the assurance of senior BJP and RSS leaders, I had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court that the masjid would be protected ...but all of them betrayed me," said Kalyan Singh, who has since been expelled from the BJP. He said it was a well-planned conspiracy and that in order to save senior BJP and RSS leaders, a false affidavit was filed before the Liberhan Commission blaming his government and the then Central government headed by P.V. Narasimha Rao for the demolition of the mosque. "It is a lie. Neither my government nor the Narasimha Rao government could be blamed for the demolition of the mosque," said Kalyan Singh. He said a meeting was held in the central office of the RSS, at which Advani, Joshi, the then RSS chief Rajendra Singh (Rajju Bhaiyya), senior RSS leader K.S. Sudarshan (at present the chief of the RSS) and VHP leaders Ashok Singhal and Giriraj Kishore were present. He added: "I was also present at the meeting." He said a letter was drafted by late Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia and Swami Chinmayanand, now Union Minister of State for Home, saying that the kar seva at the disputed site would be symbolic and the government would protect the disputed structure. He said it was on the basis of this letter that the Supreme Court allowed kar seva in Ayodhya.

Kalyan Singh's angry rejoinder came after the Centre, deposing before the Liberhan Commission, accused him of failing to perform his duty of saving the mosque. "In such a situation, which all of us agree was a sensitive situation, the State government failed in its duty to deploy the stationed Central forces," the Centre's counsel Lala Ram Gupta told the commission. Maintaining that no contingency plan had been prepared, either by the State government or the Centre, to prevent the frenzied crowd and kar sevaks from reaching the disputed structure, counsel said: "In my view, the State government failed in its constitutional duty, and so did the Centre."

What appears intriguing is the timing of various moves on the Ayodhya issue. While on the one hand the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has begun the trial of Advani, Joshi, Uma Bharati, Singhal and others for their role in the demolition in the Rae Bareli court, the Prime Minister is pushing forth the Sankaracharya's initiative, on the other. Even if the Prime Minister's efforts fail to make any headway, the case in the Rae Bareli court will be progressing. And if senior BJP Ministers get indicted by the court in the course of trial and quit on these grounds, the BJP will get a very potent issue to talk about during elections once again.

It is worth mentioning here that Singhal has appealed to Advani to take over the reins of the Ayodhya movement once again and take the initiative of getting legislation passed in order to get the temple built. There certainly appears to be some method in the two apparently separate moves on the Ayodhya issue, and it would not be surprising if at some later stage the two coalesce and merge with each other, say political observers.

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