Political expedition

Print edition : March 16, 2018

The Ram Rajya Rath Yatra prepares to leave for Rameswaram from Ayodhya on February 13. Photo: AMAN KUMAR/AP

Shila pujan, or consecration of stones, performed by Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, president of the Ram Janmabhumi Nyas, at Karsevakpuram in Ayodhya. A file picture. Photo: By SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Sangh Parivar projects the Ram Rajya Rath Yatra as a spiritual event, but its political implications are all too obvious in the light of this year’s Assembly elections and the fast-approaching Lok Sabha elections.

“PURELY spiritual matter with no political implications.” This is a phrase that has appeared repeatedly in the unique and devious “multi-speak” lexicon compiled, perfected and followed by the Sangh Parivar and its many associate organisations in the past several decades. Such declarations have always been followed up by actions with unmistakable political objectives. The Ram Rajya Rath Yatra, flagged off from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh on February 13 on the occasion of Maha Sivaratri and scheduled to reach Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu on March 25 on the occasion of Ram Navami, is the new “instrument” in the usage of this shifty expression and its practical manifestations.

Champat Rai, general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the organisation that calls itself the “ideological sword arm” of the Sangh Parivar, who flagged off the yatra, said: “The heightened interest shown by the media in the yatra is completely misplaced.” He insisted that neither the VHP nor the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) had any role in organising it. Speaking to Frontline, he said: “The 41-day yatra, which will pass through six States and cover 6,000 kilometres, is just a nuanced repetition of the annual spiritual propagation carried out by the Sree Rama Dasa Mission Universal Society [which has its origins in Chengottukonam near Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala but has a registered office and widespread charitable activities in Maharashtra] in different parts of the country.”

“This spiritual propagation was started many decades ago by Sampoojya Jagadguru Swami Sathyananda Saraswathi Thiruvatikal and has been continued even after he attained samadhi 11 years ago. It was carried out in different parts of the country over the years; this time it is on the Ayodhya-Rameswaram route,” he said. Rai was quite emphatic that the inclusion of Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, which are bound for Assembly elections, in the route of the yatra was quite accidental.

At the time of writing this report, on February 20, the yatra had reached Bhopal, its first major destination in Madhya Pradesh. Before reaching Bhopal, the yatra passed through Varanasi, the Lok Sabha constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh, a place with mythical connections to the Ramayana. After Madhya Pradesh, the yatra will move on to Maharashtra and from there pass through Karnataka and Kerala before culminating in Tamil Nadu. The yatra is expected to cover 224 Lok Sabha constituencies.

The primary objective of the “spiritual propagation” in these constituencies is to “create awareness” about the “importance of building a grand temple for Lord Ram at his birthplace in Ayodhya” and thereby “strengthen the awareness on the concept of ‘Ram Rajya’, the best form of administration ever possible”. The Ram temple theme is highlighted in the yatra visually, too. The vehicle that has been converted into the “Ram Rajya Rath” is modelled on the proposed Ram temple. Equally importantly, it was flagged off from Karsevakpuram, the VHP’s headquarters in Ayodhya, where it set up a “Ram Mandir workshop” in 1990. Prefabrication work for pillars and other components of the proposed Ram temple has been going on there since 1993. As part of advancing the “best of administration” as visualised in the concept of Ram Rajya, the yatra has raised demands such as inclusion of the Ramayana in school syllabi across the country, declaration of Thursday as the official weekly holiday instead of Sunday, and the proclamation of a “National Hindu Day” after consultations with sants and mahants.

The route that the yatra took in its first week reveals a lot. Although leaders such as Rai have asserted that the yatra has no direct links with the Sangh Parivar, meetings after meetings on the yatra route have witnessed the participation of activists of the RSS, the VHP and affiliated organisations.

Recurring theme

The so-called Muslim outreach organisations of the Sangh Parivar, the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, has been accorded an important role at many receptions to the yatra. A clutch of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, including Union Minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, Lok Sabha member Lallu Singh and Ayodhya Mayor Rishikesh Upadhyay were part of receptions held at different places. Cumulatively, these events exposed the hollowness of the repeated claims about the non-political nature of the yatra. A recurring theme at the meetings, advanced by Lallu Singh, Niranjan Jyoti and other leaders, was the connection between establishing “good governance” Ram Rajya and building a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya.

“Good governance Ram Rajya needs the blessings of Lord Ram. And those blessings will come in abundance once we ensure the completion of the much desired Ram mandir. And this is the right opportunity, both socially and politically, to take the Ram mandir construction to completion. For, both the State government in Uttar Pradesh and the Union government are led by redoubtable Hindutva leaders such as Yogi Adityanath and Narendra Modi. The Ram Rajya Yatra is merely emphasising these details through its various programmes,” pointed out Mahant Suresh Das of the Digambar Akhara in Ayodhya, mincing no words about the political implications of the yatra.

Long-standing observers of the Ayodhya developments and the Sangh Parivar not only point to the evident political dimensions of the new expedition but also draw parallels with past developments when the Sangh Parivar used similar ploys and camouflages. Sheetal Singh, Editor of Jan Morcha, published from Faizabad, Ayodhya’s twin town about 8 km away, told Frontline that in the early and mid 1980s the Sangh Parivar had taken out many small yatras accompanied by loud assertions regarding the absolutely religious and spiritual nature of those exercises and strong denials about their political connections. “The Ram Janaki Yatra of 1984 from Varanasi to Ayodhya and other small manoeuvres between 1985 and 1989 were similar in nature. However, as they finally rolled out, after gathering momentum through kar sevas at Ayodhya and nationwide communal campaigns, the end product had political objectives written all over it. And almost always these objectives signified disastrous consequences for the people. The present game is also bound to be no different,” Sheetal Singh told Frontline.

The talk in Ayodhya and Faizabad in the Hindu and Muslim communities matches perfectly with Sheetal Singh’s observations. The dominant perception among both the communities is that with nothing much to show for the four-year-old Modi government as well as the approximately one-year-old Yogi Adityanath government, especially in terms of concrete and positive results on the social and economic fronts, the BJP and its allies in the Sangh Parivar have no option but to turn to the tactic of communal polarisation and that Ayodhya could well give them a handy trigger for that.

“What have we got in these four years other than grandstanding and motor-mouthing? And what else can they do other than injecting communal poison in the name mandir-masjid?” a Dalit living on the outskirts of Ayodhya said. It is not only Dalits belonging to the Hindu and Muslim communities who feel this way. A large number of upper-caste Hindus, including traders and sants and mahants, who control several temples and other religious institutions, share the perception that the Sangh Parivar will take recourse to the construction of the Ram temple, or attempt to do so, in order to raise the emotive appeal before the 2019 general election. These sections are of the view that the VHP-Bajrang Dal Hindutva cadres seem to have “acquired some new teeth in the recent past while garnering their political and organisational machinery towards this end”.

This has been evident since the last anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, on December 6, 2017. The Sangh Parivar outfits celebrating Vijay Divas (Victory Day) were more aggressive and militant than usual on that day and were indulging in one provocative act after the other.

“There was also talk in Sangh Parivar circles right through December about organisational initiatives that would help put sustained pressure on the Supreme Court as it starts hearing the Ayodhya dispute case from early February,” said a veteran Hindu trader of the temple town.

Indeed, the launch of the Ram Rajya Rath Yatra by itself did not match the levels of aggression of December 6 last, but the undercurrent of aggression was palpable. But beyond these gradations in terms of emotive intensity, people like Iqbal Ansari, son of the late Hashim Ansari, the original litigant in the Babri Masjid legal dispute, see some meticulous and insidious planning in the way things are being advanced by the Sangh Parivar. Ansari told Frontline that the days since last December had enhanced a sense of deja vu. “I was in my twenties when the masjid was brought down 25 years ago. I have vivid memories of that fateful day as well as the methodical build-up to that event the Sangh Parivar, especially two of its militant outfits, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, had been involved in for over a year leading to the demolition. It was nothing short of warfare, with thrusts, forays, withdrawals and parries, at times volatile and tempestuous and at others manipulative or dogged. But, at the end of it all, they made sure that the historic masjid was demolished, decisively marginalising the minorities of the twin towns of Ayodhya-Faizabad. Those were horrid days marked by fear and disquiet. Twenty-five years later, as I see sections of the Hindutva brigade aggressively taking over the streets of Ayodhya, what I feel is an overwhelming sense of deja vu. Am I seeing the preparations for yet another round of disastrous events? Are the minorities going to get even more marginalised? I ask myself,” he said.

Iqbal’s father, Hashim, had consistently highlighted for over six and a half decades from 1949—when idols of Ram, Sita and Lakshman were surreptitiously placed inside the Babri Masjid—to his death two years ago what the Hindutva expedition was doing to the twin towns and its minorities. Following Hashim’s death, Iqbal assumed his role not only in the legal dispute but also by becoming active in the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee along with his father’s colleagues, Mohammed Afaque Khan and Khaliq Ahmad Khan.

Analysing current and past events, Khaliq Ahmad Khan pointed out certain nuances that he had noticed.

“It was 28 years ago that the then BJP president Lal Krishna Advani launched his rath yatra with Ayodhya as the destination. He never reached Ayodhya, but the communal polarisation and hatred that the yatra charted marked the path for the BJP’s rise as a sectarian political force in the country. When that yatra was launched and when it was stopped, there were attempts to terrorise the minorities. But it did not have the sanction and support of the political system and the government. Now, 25 years later when a relatively muted yatra goes out of Ayodhya towards the rest of the country, the effort is once again to terrorise the minorities, and it is aided and abetted by the political machinery. There is a perception that as a terror tool the present climate and its instruments are much more effective and powerful than the ones that were employed in the past,” Khaliq Khan said. He doubted whether it was such an easy, open-and-shut case but was certain that the Ram Rajya Rath Yatra’s efficacy in the above terms would be tested acutely in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. And the test results will give rise to several follow-up actions: kar sevas, demolitions and, of course, constructions.