November 23, 1990

The drama of the arrest

Print edition : February 06, 2015

October 18, 1990: Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav visits L.K. Advani in New Delhi to request him to call off his rath yatra. Photo: The Hindu Archives

When the Bihar government stopped L.K. Advani's rath yatra, it rocked the nation. And the government (V.P. Singh's) fell. An account of the BJP chief's arrest in Samastipur.

EXACTLY a week before the “Day” of October 30, the high-profile rath yatra which Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani was leading towards Ayodhya came to an end at Samastipur, Bihar, and Advani was arrested under the National Security Act.

Why was the rath yatra allowed to traverse the heartland of Bihar where the people are known to have strong religious susceptibilities? It is reported that a last-minute direction from V.P. Singh to permit the rath yatra to pass prevented a determined Bihar Chief Minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav, from carrying out his plan to stop the Rajdhani Express, by which Advani was travelling, on the Bihar-Uttar Pradesh border itself and fly him to Patna in a helicopter and thereafter persuade him to go back to Delhi.

As the plan fell through, Advani and his rath began their scheduled journey from Dhanbad on the second leg of the yatra, traversing the tribal belt, central Bihar and Patna, receiving a rousing welcome along the route. Advani and the rath were welcomed with garlands and flowers by crowds, including women and children.

But it was in Patna that Advani received his biggest ovation, delaying his arrival at Gandhi Maidan, the venue of his meeting, where a mammoth gathering had waited for over four hours. In the medieval city Advani and his rath were met by crowds lining up both sides of the road to shower garlands, flowers and perfume on the convoy. According to observers, the turnout at the meeting was bigger than that at V.P. Singh’s October 8 rally. There were frenzied cheers and ecstatic chants of “Jai Shri Ram”.

In his speeches, Advani said his yatra had belied apprehensions of a communal flare-up and proved that Rama was a unifying figure in Indian society. His yatra was not politically motivated and the credit for its success did not go either to him or his party but to the overwhelming reverence of the people for Rama. It was the distorted conception of secularism inculcated by political leaders which had stood in the way of the minorities developing a truly national outlook. “It is shocking that in India, Hindus who constitute the majority population have to agitate for the construction of a temple and that too at the birthplace of Rama,” he said.

Indeed, religious sentiments had been aroused to such a level that Dhanbad’s Deputy Commissioner Amanullah and Superintendent of Police (S.P.) Ranadhir Verma reportedly refused to carry out verbal orders to arrest Advani and seize his rath. They said they would rather resign because, in their view, Advani’s arrest would trigger chaos and communal riots. However, even as the BJP leaders were celebrating the success of their rath yatra in Bihar, the final touches were being given to a plan for Advani’s arrest. At 11 p.m. on October 28, after a tired Advani left Patna for Samastipur, the Chief Minister called Cooperative Registrar R.K. Singh and Deputy Inspector-General of Police Rameshwar Oraon and ordered them to arrest Advani the following morning. The Chief Minister had earlier telephonically asked the Inspector-General of Police, Darbhanga, R.R. Prasad, to proceed secretly with his arrest plan after hearing from him later in the night. Prasad was to proceed to Samastipur with senior officials. Accordingly, the Samastipur District Magistrate (D.M.) was told to be ready.

Following a message from the Defence Ministry, the Darbhanga air force base commander asked the D.M. and the S.P. of Darbhanga to clear the airstrip and make lighting arrangements for the landing of planes. The airstrip was spruced up by evening and paramilitary personnel were deployed there.

It was 2-30 a.m. when Advani arrived at the Samastipur circuit house after addressing meetings at Hajipur and Tajpur. A 10,000-strong crowd chanting “Jai Shri Ram” and “We swear by Rama that we shall build the temple only at Ayodhya” was waiting for him. Advani retired to his room after telling his associates that he was exhausted and should be woken up only if the authorities came to arrest him.

In the meantime, paramilitary personnel were deployed on the sprawling circuit house compound with 50 of them on the rooftop. Telecommunication links between Samastipur and the rest of the country were cut off. Paramilitary personnel were deployed also at the telephone exchange and the microwave station.

The D.M. received a message from Chief Secretary Kamla Prasad to keep himself ready to arrest Advani and his associates. By 4 a.m. the circuit house was like a battlefield, swarming with paramilitary personnel. At 6 a.m. a State government helicopter carrying R.K. Singh and Rameshwar Oraon landed at the local Patel Maidan where Advani was scheduled to address a meeting before proceeding to Gopalganj on his way to U.P. By the time R.K. Singh and Oraon drove to the circuit house, about 2,000 persons, including BJP workers, had assembled on the road.

Advani himself opened the door of his room in response to a knock by the D.M. The officials then showed Advani the warrant of arrest. Advani remarked, “I was expecting this.” R.K. Singh asked Advani to accompany them. “Where will you take me?” Advani asked. “Please come with us, sir,” was R.K. Singh’s reply. Advani requested the officers to allow him a few minutes to get ready. Before leaving, Advani wrote a letter to the President, informing him that the BJP had withdrawn its support to the National Front government headed by V.P. Singh, and handed it over to party secretary Kailashpati Mishra. At Advani’s request, Pramod Mahajan, MP, was allowed to accompany him. Advani waved at the restive crowd lining his route to the airstrip from where a helicopter flew him and Mahajan to Dumka. From there they were driven to the rest house at Masanjor on the Bihar-West Bengal border.

Advani, in a statement to the press released through the State BJP president, said his detention was mala fideand the charges made out were false. The Bihar government, he said, was not prompted by concern for the maintenance of public order but by political considerations in arresting him. The police reports furnished by the government bore out the fact that the rath yatra was peaceful, that it evoked tremendous public response and that the ripples of disorder at half a dozen places were caused by political elements opposed to the BJP. The police reports also revealed that at some places the Communist Party of India and the Janata Dal men tried to instigate communal trouble during the rath yatra.

Advani said it was clear the decision to stop the rath yatra was taken by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Janata Dal Chief Ministers. This gave the lie to the affirmation by the Bihar Chief Minister that the decision to arrest was his own. This amounted to a serious legal infirmity so far as the validity of the detention order was concerned.

The Chief Minister, who observed a 12-hour fast on October 30, told Frontline he would shed his blood for preserving communal amity. He said he had contained the threat of communal violence through the use of minimum force. He reiterated that he had ordered on his own the arrest of Advani and the seizure of the rath at Samastipur, “the home district of my political mentor and guru, the late Karpoori Thakur”.

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