Frontline Volume 19 - Issue 07, Mar. 30 - Apr. 12, 2002
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU


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COVER STORY

TEMPLE INTERRUPTED

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has yet again been thwarted, with the Supreme Court making an intervention. Now, the internal dynamics of the Sangh Parivar being what they are, the developments of mid-March cannot but impact on the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN
in Ayodhya and New Delhi

FOR EVER reluctant to yield ground, but easily roused to indignation, the Hindutva forces have of late had ample occasion to vent their ire at the Supreme Court. Between successive visits to the auction block to hawk the crown jewels of the Indian public sector, Union Disinvestment Minister Arun Shourie found time to berate the Supreme Court for its impertinence. Hearing a plea for imposing certain restraints on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) plan to mobilise its cadres at Ayodhya on March 15 for the ritualistic inauguration of the construction of a temple, the Supreme Court had wondered out loud about the credentials of the organisation that was at the centre of all the attention. That was for Shourie an unpardonable affront to the religious sentiments of the majority community.

SUBIR ROY
On March 15 at the Digambar Akhara, Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas president Mahant Ramchandra Das Paramhans and Shatrughan Singh, an official of the Prime Minister's Office, among others, with the stone pillar handed over.

Shourie was quite understandably irked by the satisfaction that secular groups and campaigners had seemingly drawn from these observations of the Court. But then, he asked, what credentials did the petitioner have to take up this matter? Why was the Supreme Court not quite so keen to ascertain this point? And having succeeded in invoking majority religious sensibilities to dent the credibility of the Supreme Court, Shourie moved on, neither waiting for answers nor even allowing the furore in Parliament over his remarks to discomfit him.

The fundamentals of the rule of law being rather dimly perceived principles for the Hindutva campaigners, Shourie evidently was unaware that any Indian citizen is entitled to approach the courts when he or she perceives the need for a judicial directive to prevent a serious breach of public peace and order. He also chose to ignore the fact that Mohammad Aslam, alias Bhure, the petitioner who sought judicial restraints on the VHP's plans to carry out a ceremony laced with characteristic menace, has been involved with the litigation on Ayodhya for at least a decade.

Shourie's indignation, though only remotely connected to fact, was perfectly comprehensible in terms of the raw nerve that the Supreme Court's observations had touched. Indeed, the central question that has been raised by the rush of events over the last month - the atrocity on the Sabarmati Express at Godhra, the carnage in Gujarat, the ceremony at Ayodhya on March 15 and the fractures within the ruling coalition at the Centre - is precisely on how far the VHP, a body of uncertain provenance and unproven legitimacy, can be allowed to dictate terms to the political order in pursuit of its sectarian agenda. The Opposition parties are already convinced that the VHP, with its frequently reiterated disdain for the rule of law, rightfully belongs within the ranks of unlawful organisations. Certain segments of the ruling coalition have also joined this chorus. The rather sharp observations of the Supreme Court would in this sense only have strengthened this line of thinking.

For Shourie, though, this whole line of reasoning is misplaced since in matters of faith and religion, standing is not acquired by winning elections, but rather from the "esteem in which people come to hold one". Indeed, a rather sound indicator of the esteem in which the VHP is held is the reaction of Ayodhya's Mahant Jagannath Das to the events of March 15, widely published in the Hindi language press: "What is their legitimacy? This (the Ayodhya campaign) is for them just a way to generate money." Once closely associated with the VHP, Jagannath Das explains his decision to sever all contact with the organisation thus: "The VHP is packed with dalals (brokers) who trade religion for power."

But what, it may be asked, is Jagannath Das' standing? Simply put, he is the head of the Nirmohi Akhara in Ayodhya, a religious institution going back a few centuries, which filed a suit in January 1885 with the sub-judge of Faizabad, seeking consent to construct a temple over the Ram Chabutra, adjacent to the Babri Masjid. The sub-judge held then that two large religious structures in close proximity could potentially be a threat to public order. Permission was declined, though the Nirmohi Akhara has since kept up its effort. Over the following years, the Akhara's rather limited project often tended to get sucked into the vortex of communal politics at the regional and national levels. The climax came in 1949, when militant Hindus in the surcharged aftermath of Independence and Partition smuggled idols of Lord Ram into the Babri Masjid while the administration remained quiescent. Subsequently, a number of petitioners claiming to speak on behalf of their respective communities have appeared on the scene, though Jagannath Das insists that there are just two claimants today to the site where the Babri Masjid stood: the Nirmohi Akhara and the Sunni Central Wakf Board of Uttar Pradesh.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad president Ashok Singhal faces Ram Sevaks in Ayodhya.

The VHP had, Jagannath Das alleges, through fraud and deceit secured an earlier Mahant's consent to represent the case for the Ram temple at Ayodhya. Shown a document drafted in English, Mahant Ram Kewal Das signed on the dotted line with little knowledge of the implications of the action. On objections being raised at a later stage, the agreement that provided the VHP with a toehold in the Ayodhya litigation was annulled by the court. Jagannath Das is confident that he has the documentation to support his claim to the site. By custom and tradition, he says, the Nirmohi Akhara is the only institution which has the authority to build the magnificent temple that it has long been petitioning for. But for that it is necessary first to allow the judicial process to run its course.

The head of the Nirmohi Akhara is livid at the VHP's wanton destruction of the heritage of his institution. Beginning in June 1992, the VHP, operating under the benign gaze of the Kalyan Singh government, took over much of the land abutting the Babri Masjid and razed no fewer than 16 temples that were under the administration of the Nirmohi Akhara. "This was," says Jagannath Das, "a deliberate attempt to destroy all the symbols of the Nirmohi Akhara so that we could not in future lay claim to the land." But he is not one to give in easily. He has filed a Rs.2,000-crore suit against the VHP for damages suffered in the land clearing operation that preceded demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the VHP's ritual donation of a stone for the construction of a Ram temple on March 15, apart from the tight security arrangements under which it was conducted, was the complete boycott of the event by the local religious institutions. When Frontline met them shortly after the ceremony was concluded, Jagannath Das and Mahant Gyan Das, head of the Nirvani Akhara, were dismissive, asking what earthly meaning the donation of a stone could have when the foundations had been ostensibly laid in 1989. Referring ironically to the ritual donation of the stone by the head of Ayodhya's Digambar Akhara to Shatrughan Singh, an official of the Prime Minister's office, Jagannath Das observed that this was perhaps the first time a Brahmin had bestowed his material favour upon a Kshatriya. And Gyan Das topped this comment with the observation that Shatrughan Singh could possibly use the stone he had received to grind masala in his kitchen, for all that it was worth.

Other religious heads chose a more understated form of expressing their disapproval. Mahant Nritya Gopal Das of the Chhotichhavani Akhara in Ayodhya, a member of the top leadership councils of the VHP-sponsored Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, committed himself to some religious functions at Brindavan just on the crucial days that were announced for the Ayodhya mobilisation. Swami Narayanachari of the Dant Dhawan Kund temple chose simply to stay away. And after the district administration found a convenient storage point for the stone in the Bada Sthan temple in Ayodhya, it has been inundated with requests from the Mahant, Devendra Prasadacharya, to take it away since he fears that his temple could become a focal point of interest for VHP cadres.

Since the Central government imposed an unprecedented security cordon around Ayodhya following the Godhra atrocity of February 27, the arrival of volunteers for the VHP programme had slowed to a trickle. Long-distance bus services were suspended, as were trains traversing the adjacent town of Faizabad. A rigid system of permits governing entry into and movement within Ayodhya was introduced, causing some heartburn among the local residents, who chose, significantly, to direct their ire at the VHP rather than the administration which had imposed the restrictions. On the eve of the scheduled ritual, the most robust estimates of the number of VHP volunteers who had signed on for action put it in the region of 400. For the most part, they were sheltering in Ayodhya's Karsevakpuram camp, from where the quantum of daily purchases gave out a telltale signal of a programme that had failed to draw sufficient strength of numbers to pose a serious political message. A modest number of participants, it was thought, would be rustled up from among the local populace, but the mood in the VHP camp was grim, particularly after the Supreme Court ruled definitively that no religious ceremony of any sort could be conducted within the land acquired by the government.

Facing every indication that its greatly hyped mobilisation would end in fiasco, the VHP played its final card. The instrument of the VHP's ambitions presented himself in the form of Ramchandra Das Paramhans, the nonagenarian mahant of the Digambar Akhara and one of Ayodhya's seniormost religious figures. Having stayed out of the early part of the current mobilisation, Paramhans, the president of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, found himself as March 15 approached, to be the sole link between the VHP and the traditional religious orders of Ayodhya. An emotional and volatile personality, Paramhans appeared at a scheduled briefing for the media, which had massed in force at Ayodhya, to announce early on the evening of March 14 that if he were to be denied permission to offer obeisance to his revered Lord the next day at a place of his choosing, then he would summarily end his tenure on the planet.

SUBIR ROY
An activist in front of an encased model of the proposed temple.

The mahant's intention to terminate his "jeevan leela" caused a frisson of excitement amidst the media contingent, which had been growing increasingly restive at the persistent stalemate between the VHP and the administration. It brought the titular raja of Ayodhya, Vimalendra Mohan Pratap Mishra, hurtling out of his elegant Raj Sadan to try and persuade Paramhans to relent from his terrible resolve. He found a deeply disturbed and obdurate mahant, complaining bitterly about the endless judicial delays that had frustrated his efforts, about his advancing age and finite lifespan, and the prospect that he would be remembered after his expiration as a man who could never deliver on his promise. As Mishra sat with the mahant, he recalls, frantic telephone calls came in from Union Home Minister L.K. Advani and Union Minister of State for Sports and Youth Affairs Uma Bharati. Also seeking to speak to the Mahant was Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee himself, but his repeated calls were rebuffed.

Mishra regrets that Paramhans has been drawn so irretrievably into the VHP's political designs, but nevertheless retains deep sympathy for the nonagenarian priest because of old family ties. An apolitical person with a liberal outlook, Mishra has repeatedly turned down requests from the BJP and the Congress to sign on for a political role. Only retiring to his residence late on the night of March 14, Mishra was back at Paramhans' side early the next morning, to try and persuade him to see reason.

By this time, mediation efforts were beginning to make some headway. An official of middling seniority in the administrative hierarchy, State Urban Development Authority director Navneet Sehgal, had been drafted into the mission as a negotiator on behalf of the State government. A former District Magistrate of Faizabad and a supposed confidant of top BJP leader Lalji Tandon, Sehgal was known to be working on a formula that would allow the VHP volunteers a proximate approach to the disputed site without quite infringing the Supreme Court's directive. He had a tricky job on hand. Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code was in force in the entire town, which made assemblies of five or more individuals an offence. But entry in groups of 15 or less was always permissible into the core of the disputed site, where the Ram Lalla idols stood under the makeshift canopy that had been erected on December 6, 1992.

Concurrently, the Divisional Comm-issioner of Faizabad, Anil Kumar Gupta, made it known that he would in his capacity as receiver for the land under dispute, be willing to receive the donation planned by Paramhans, though only at a venue well outside the perimeter identified by the Supreme Court. Early on the morning of March 15, Paramhans made it known that too great a fetish need not be made of the exact spot of Lord Ram's birth. Rather, if he were to be allowed access to the Ram Kot area, which is by legend the village of Ram's birth, he could well receive a revelation and wrap up his ritual there.

This premonition of a revelation provided the administration something to proceed on, since a venue for the ritual could potentially be found in the Ram Kot area that did not remotely approach the disputed perimeter. But between the capricious Paramhans and the militantly inflexible VHP leader Ashok Singhal, it was difficult to arrive at an agreed formula that would be immune to last-minute changes of intent on the part of the assembled volunteers. The job was especially delicate since the presence of Vinay Katiyar, the Bajrang Dal leader and MP from Faizabad, made a fracas and a departure from the agreed formula a distinct possibility.

SUBIR ROY
At the pillar fabrication workshop in Ayodhya.

Paramhans hardly helped alleviate these anxieties with a sequence of contrary statements on the morning of March 15. Basking in the attention of the media at his operational base in the VHP karyashala, or workshop, where the fabrication of stones and pillars for the proposed temple has long been under way, Paramhans was on the telephone line virtually without break. One of his callers that morning was former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, with whom he ran through a recapitulation of modern Indian politics, replete with telling asides on Jawaharlal Nehru's attitude as contrasted with Vallabhbhai Patel's rather more wholesome approach. Just before noon, Singhal and Katiyar arrived at the workshop. Looking grim as if they carried the heavy burden of state repression entirely on their shoulders, they informed the media that there would be no violation of the court's directives, nor any possibility of untoward incidents.

Sehgal, who was by now a semi-permanent fixture at the VHP workshop, continued to insist that the plan would allow for a small contingent of Paramhans' intimates, along with Singhal and Katiyar, to proceed to an agreed venue in the Ram Kot area for the symbolic offering of a stone. But the VHP was obviously playing for more, insisting that it should be allowed to mobilise numbers sufficient to establish that there was broad popular endorsement of its campaign. Divisional Commissioner Gupta had by then fallen abruptly from favour. The VHP insisted that he was singularly responsible for the "repression" that had been unleashed against its cadres and Paramhans derided him, using the name of his caste, as a "bania" who did not deserve the exaltation of receiving the consecrated stones from him. This led to the fresh manoeuvre from the Central government, of rushing Shatrughan Singh, a Kshatriya by caste, post-haste to the scene.

Security personnel on duty at the sensitive stretch between the VHP workshop and Karsevakpuram, meanwhile remained mostly in the dark. Coherent directives on how to deal with any apprehension of a breach of peace were obviously lacking. The District Magistrate as also the Senior Superintendent of Police both remained incommunicado, leaving the administration of security arrangements to the Inspector-General of the Provincial Armed Constabulary(PAC), Harbhajan Singh, and the Additional Director-General of Police, A.K. Mitra. The central paramilitary forces on duty, notably the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Rapid Action Force (RAF), remained clueless about where to look for directions in the breach caused by the absence of the two district-level officials responsible for the maintenance of law and order.

Shortly before the "auspicious" hour that had been fixed for the ritual, Paramhans announced his intention to set off in strength for the Ram Lalla shrine in the company of all his adherents who had gathered at the workshop. Immediately afterwards, a group of sadhus broke through the security cordon at the gate of the workshop and set off towards Karsevakpuram. CRPF and RAF personnel were on the ready to arrest them for a breach of orders under Section 144, but were compelled to let them through by instructions received by wireless. The first hints of disgruntlement at the crumbling security arrangements were then evident, with CRPF and RAF personnel grumbling aloud about the simulated fervour the sadhus had put on display for the benefit of the assembled media persons. Entry into Karsevakpuram was the last indulgence that they would be shown, insisted a CRPF officer. The moment they stepped out, they would be placed under arrest.

But that was not how things panned out. A PAC officer visiting Karsevakpuram soon worked out a plan for a limited number of volunteers and sadhus to proceed for the rituals to an agreed venue. But evidently there was no agreement even at this late stage on where the limits of the VHP's march would be drawn. By the time the procession of sadhus had left Karsevakpuram and joined up with another stream coming out of the VHP workshop, the numbers had swelled to over 300 and the security personnel were beginning distinctly to fear the worst.

With spectators lining the street leading to Ram Kot and occasionally joining in, the VHP by now had the means at its disposal to escalate matters, even at the risk of a confrontation with the security forces. An escape avenue presented itself when the procession made its way past the Digambar Akhara. As the vanguard inched ahead of the Akhara's ornamental main entrance, it was called back because Paramhans had apparently had the vision that he should perform his ritual obeisance to the stones at his own institution. That provided the occasion for Mishra and the State government's crisis management team on the site to work on wearing down Paramhans with regard to his insistence on being allowed entry into Ram Kot.

V. SREENIVASA MOORTHY
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Pratinidhi Sabha meeting in progress in Bangalore on March 15.

The persuasive powers of the erstwhile ruler of Ayodhya were especially crucial here. By now placated by the distance that he had been allowed to cover in triumphal procession along with his followers, Paramhans gave in to the insistence of the Raja that he conclude all his rituals within the premises of the Akhara. And once he nodded his assent, he was quickly hustled offstage by Mishra perhaps to ensure that he did not change his mind. Responding to the continual requests from New Delhi, Singhal and Katiyar too gave in. For the assembled kar sevaks, who had imagined that they were embarked on another adventure in storming the heavily fortified mound where the Babri Masjid stood, the moment was one of betrayal. Although Paramhans was safely out of the way, Singhal had to bear the brunt of the kar sevaks' irritation, even ire. He was later driven, along with Katiyar and Paramhans, to the Ram Lalla shrine for a visit that was not in breach of the regulation that no more than 15 visitors be allowed at a time.

THE VHP, which claimed to act in the name of a part divine and part popular will that could not be denied, had clearly capitulated. It now remained for its leaders to implement the face-saving manoeuvres. Paramhans himself lapsed into his accustomed obscurity while Singhal embarked at once on an indefinite fast to press for the lifting of all restrictions on entry into Ayodhya. The State administration, now under an obliging fellow-traveller of Singhal's, was quick to accede and ensure that he was not put to any undue physical inconvenience. Praveen Togadia, international general secretary of the VHP, insisted that in receiving the consecrated stones for the temple, the Central government had endorsed the plan for the construction of a temple.

As the VHP leadership set about the task of retrieving lost ground with their cadres, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the temple project spoke to the interests of none of the constituencies they claimed to represent. The local religious leadership remained hostile, as did most of the local population, which only joined in the March 15 event in modest numbers, less out of conviction than out of resentment at the heavy security blanket they had been enveloped in. Clearly, then, the only constituencies that the VHP can really claim to represent are the rioters who recently paraded their talents with such chilling effect in Gujarat, and the materially wealthy but politically disempowered expatriate Indian, who enjoys a rare salience in the attentions of the BJP-led government today.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leadership, which exerts overall moral control over the larger fraternity, though, shows no inclination to back away from a campaign that is clearly losing momentum. At a recent meeting of its Karyakari Mandal in Bangalore, it adopted a resolution lauding the "great mass movement in the national history" that sought to build a temple at Ayodhya. It deprecated the failure of the Supreme Court to clear the way - an act of default, which it claimed, had hurt the "sentiments of millions of Hindus". "No social harmony can be achieved by litigation or by deployment of forces," it warned, setting the stage for the resolution of the RSS Pratinidhi Sabha the next day that stated that the well-being of Muslims depended upon the goodwill of Hindus.

This suggestion, that the religious minorities lived at the sufferance of the self-proclaimed guardians of majority interests, was denounced by Opposition parties as being "repugnant" and contrary to the rule of law. But the hotheads within the Hindutva ranks are in no mood to yield ground. B.P. Singhal, a BJP Member of Parliament and younger brother of the senior VHP leader, has within the party councils and outside, demanded that Prime Minister Vajpayee should resign rather than remain hostage to the interests of the BJP's allies in the ruling coalition.

The Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court has meanwhile decided that it will record evidence in the title suit pertaining to the Babri Masjid on a day-to-day basis. Historians and archaeologists who have intervened in the debate over the provenance of the site, have volunteered to depose before the commission which will record evidence on behalf of the court. The elder Singhal has asserted that the time available is limited, since the purnahuti yagna that has started at Ayodhya is scheduled to end by June 2, following which the VHP would be obliged to begin construction. Vishnu Hari Dalmia, another member of the VHP's leadership councils, has said that if the judicial findings go against the "Hindu claim", then a body known as the "sant samaj" would decide the future course of action. Apart from the contempt that the remark expresses towards the basic principles of constitutional functioning, this reflects a startling, perhaps deliberate, ignorance of the judgment that the sants of Ayodhya have already pronounced on the VHP.

A body that has traditionally done little else than cater to the fantasies of a paranoid fringe, the VHP grew over the last two decades on account of the tacit and often open backing of one or the other party - the Congress in the 1980s, the BJP and the Shiv Sena in the 1990s. But with the experience of Gujarat still fresh in memory, it has become for any party seeking to project the image of being a responsible claimant to governmental authority, an embarrassment if not an untouchable. And if the BJP sustains its intimate flirtation with it, as it is perhaps fated to by the circumstances of the VHP's birth, then the Vajpayee government could well be plummeting towards an early demise.

The VHP has done its own cause little good with the destructive rampage it organised in the premises of the Orissa Legislative Assembly at Bhubaneswar, in ostensible fury at the thwarting of the temple plan at Ayodhya (see separate story on page 19). This has placed it in public perceptions on a par with the groups that will attack the most hallowed institutions of democracy in pursuit of their sectarian ends. It also puts the VHP at odds with the Central government's principal preoccupation today, which is the fight against terrorism. As Faizabad's main newspaper Jan Morcha observed in an editorial after the March 15 ritual was concluded without incident: it is impossible to square the battle against terrorism with patronage of the VHP campaign. If the definition of terrorism is a wilful recourse to violence in disregard for the authority of the institutions of a democratic polity, then the VHP campaign seems to fit the description perfectly.

There is of course considerable ambiguity over how much ground the government has yielded to the VHP by deputing a senior official of the Prime Minister's Office to receive the ritual offering of a pillar for the construction of a temple. The Hindutva outfit remains fixed on its goal of constructing the innermost sanctum of the proposed temple right on the spot where the Babri Masjid stood. As long as this intent remains unaltered, any handing over of land to the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas could potentially be in conflict with the judicial process under way to establish title to the disputed land. There is little that the government can do to appease the VHP while remaining within the confines of the rule of law. It has, in other words, little room for manoeuvre in keeping its restive allies on-side while also fighting off the now more vigilant Opposition.


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