Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ayodhya verdict & our secular conscience: Part One

In a large and diverse country like India, there is never a dearth of issues that stimulate the citizens to talk, argue and fight. But the credulous public mind, overexposed and debilitated by artificial trends and a plethora of confusing information are often been hypnotized by the shining pendant of a forged present and a delusional future. Moreover, a vague vision of history compels them to acquire comfort by mirroring a general trend of forgetfulness. In this spurious atmosphere, even a detrimental agenda can easily capture public imagination and receive popular support. Incapable to ponder much of its gravity, people tend to offer themselves as cannon fodder in socio-political conflicts waged against their own interests. The six-decade-old Ayodhya dispute over the ownership of 2.77 acres of “holy” land is such a thorny issue that has sharply polarized a devout Indian society along quasi-religious lines. Flaring up from time to time, the dispute has instilled a stream of dangerous ideas deep inside the country’s psyche. Acknowledged as one of India’s most divisive and contentious issues, the dispute with its high hegemonic potential has shaken the very foundation of the country’s collective identity as a nation and gradually grown into a symbol of subjectivity. Looking into the chronology of events including the wide network of relations and sectoral interests in and by which the dispute is situated and sustained for such a long time will provide us a necessary linkage to the Ayodhya verdict which was recently delivered by the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court.

We must clarify here that the density and complexity of this particular topic is such that it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to channel any discussion on Ayodhya through objective parameters. As there are no such things like a debate without a point of view, our attitudes are bound to reflect on the structure of our argument even if we honestly try to be objective and factual, even if we attempt to undertake a virtually neutral position during the course of our discussion.

I. A concise chronology (1949-92)

Although communal clashes over the Babri Masjid site date back to 1853 in pre-independence time, the true origin of the long-simmering dispute took place on the night of December 22, 1949 when an idol of Ram Lalla (infant Ram) appeared “miraculously” in the middle of the floor space under the central dome of the mosque. The Ram Bhakt’s (worshippers of Ram) full-blown claim of a divine miracle were soon negated by a police investigation which found that a group of 50-60 miscreants had trespassed the deserted mosque on that fateful night “after breaking the compound gate lock of the mosque or through jumping across the walls (of the compound) with a stair and established therein, an idol of Shri Bhagwan and painted Sita Ram, etc., on the outer and inner walls.” Calling the incident a “dangerous example,” which will have bad consequences, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru directed the Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Govind Ballav Pant to remove the idol. But the District Magistrate K.K. Nair, obviously sympathetic to orthodox Hindu interests, refused to carry out the orders in the pretext of a Hindu retaliation and instead, recommended that the Hindus should be allowed to worship the idols. The government eventually locked the gates allowing worshipping of the idol only on a single day of the year and declared the site as disputed. The conformist Nair later joined the Hindu Mahasabha and was elected as a Member of Parliament from UP.

Since 1950, Ayodhya was more or less a forgotten issue. To drive a wedge between the communities, the issue was raked up, communalized and converted into a subject of agitational politics in the mid 80’s by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the militant tentacle of the Hindu supremacist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In the first Dharma Sansad (religious parliament) convened in New Delhi on April 1984, the VHP unanimously adopted a resolution to liberate the Ayodhya site and construct a Ram Mandir (temple). To mobilize public opinion around the issue, the Ramjanmbhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti was founded under the guidance of Mahant Avaidyanath and a large number of sadhus (monks) and religious leaders were assembled under the banner. Processions and public meetings were arranged where the leaders delivered provocative speeches. But the campaign had to be called off abruptly after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. The assassination had completely off balanced the entire plot.

The 80’s revival of Hindu nationalism had received an encouraging push from Virat Hindu Samaj – an organization founded by Dr. Karan Singh, the last heir apparent of the princely state of Kashmir and a member of Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet, in response to a conversion controversy in Tamilnadu’s Meenakshipuram district where an entire village of Dalits had converted to Islam. The Congress subtly tried to use the controversy to win over a section of Hindus who were feeling vulnerable by the incidence while many recognized RSS-VHP faces like Hans Raj Gupta, Om Prakash Tyagi, Vishnu Hari Dalmia and Ashok Singhal were holding important posts in this organization. However, Karan Singh’s input to the militant Hindu movement was not as direct as the contribution of Dau Dayal Khanna, a five-time Congress MLA from Muradabad and a minister in several Congress governments of UP. Khanna is credited for laying the original idea to build a campaign around Ram’s birthplace before the VHP at a 1983 Hindu Sammelan (meeting) in Muzaffarnagar. Also present in the meeting was another veteran Congressman Gulzarilal Nanda who had served as interim Prime Minister after the deaths of Nehru and Shastri. Nanda had founded Sri Ram Janmotsav Samiti as a platform to bring together Hindu organizations including the RSS and raised a demand for the return of Ram’s birthplace to the Hindus.

The mandir-masjid debate turned into a prominent national issue when on February 1, 1986, the District and Sessions Judge of Faizabad ordered the UP government to unlock the gates of Babri Masjid and enable the devotees to worship the Ram Lalla idol. At that point in time, an overconfident Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi which had scored a massive electoral victory in 1984 riding the “Indira wave” was showing a superfluous eagerness to take sides in religious disputes. A gang of wily spin doctors in the party took control over a politically naïve Rajiv Gandhi and started to communalize the political atmosphere of the country as never before. Little they could envision that their spin doctoring and political tomfoolery will ultimately push the country towards a catastrophe.

Forty minutes after the court order, the padlocks of the Babri Masjid were opened in front of slogan shouting VHP supporters and crew members of the State owned broadcaster Doordarshan, who were conspicuously present at the spot to record the event. The prompt response by the local administration and the presence of the Doordarshan crew was an obvious proof that the center and state governments, both under Congress rule, knew about the judgment beforehand. It is widely believed that the politically motivated order was directed straight from the Prime Minister’s office.

Thinking that the conciliating act of opening the Babri locks was enough for reaping rich dividends from the Hindu vote bank, the authorities swiftly passed the case to the court again. Within three months after opening the locks, the government hurriedly passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act in a reciprocal attempt to appease the Muslim orthodoxy. Orthodox Muslim leaders were angry with the Supreme Court’s 1985 landmark judgment in favor of Shah Bano – a 60 year old Muslim woman who went to court asking maintenance from her husband who had divorced her. This Act had overridden the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Shah Bano case.

The extended RSS family, popularly known as the saffron brigade, seized this god-send opportunity to consolidate the Ayodhya movement and started mobilizing Hindus on ethno-religious line through a quasi-religious rhetoric. In no time they started raising demands that the Hindus have a moral right to build a temple in the disputed site. On February 3, 1986, the Ram Janmbhoomi Trust was set-up to force the government to transfer the property rights of Ayodhya site to the Hindus. In reaction, the Muslims formed the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee (AIBMAC) to defend the site. The RSS rediscovered the evocative symbolism of Ram; its militant leaders started preaching that no earthly authority could rule on the question of Ram’s birthplace. The newly founded political arm of the RSS, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was conscientiously watching the developments from the sidelines, dithering about whether to acclimatize with the rising trend of militant Hindu nationalism or not. Within a few years, the party opted for a reckless, fire spewing political strategy of hate under a new president – Lal Krishna Advani. In the National Executive meeting held at Palanpur in June 1989, the BJP decided to support the Ayodhya movement and took the following resolution:

The BJP holds that the nature of this controversy is such that it just cannot be sorted out by a court of law. […] The BJP calls upon the Rajiv Government to adopt the same positive approach in respect of Ayodhya that the Nehru Government did with respect to Somnath. The sentiments of the people must be respected, and Ram Janmasthan handed over to the Hindus – if possible through a negotiated settlement, or else, by legislation. Litigation certainly is no answer. (Emphasis added)

A recharged Advani accredited the Palanpur session as “a milestone” that has “finalized” the party’s position on Ayodhya and emerged as the face of the party by advocating his aggressive brand of Hindutva. During the 1989 election campaign, the Ayodhya movement adapted an extremely militant tone. But the BJP did not spend a single word about Ayodhya in their election manifesto. The party was forced to conceal their vicious agenda for the purpose of joining with the anti-Congress amalgamation against a Rajiv regime which was tainted and weakened by the Bofors kickback scandal.

In a desperate attempt to play the Hindu card, a cornered Congress entered into an agreement with the VHP. On November, just a few days before the 1989 general elections, the then Union home minister Buta Singh and UP chief minister N.D. Tiwari gave a joint consent to the VHP to perform shilanyas ceremony (laying foundation stone) on the disputed site for the Ram Temple. In a process to affirm a Hindu identity and to attract the Hindu vote, the flamboyant Rajiv began his election campaign from Faizabad calling it “the land of Ram” and appealed to voters to vote for his party if they wished to bring about the Ram Rajya (the rule of Ram). Simultaneously, to retain Muslim support, his party in UP tried to endow the Muslims by bringing a bill to introduce Urdu as an official language in certain parts of the state. But the political gamble proved futile for the Congress which failed to win a majority in the elections. In contrast, the BJP which had won only two seats in 1984 won 88 seats in the new Lok Sabha – a clear indication that the Ayodhya issue has started yielding rich political dividends for the party. With BJP’s support, V.P. Singh formed the new Janata Dal government.

When the new government failed to control the momentum of the fanatic Hindutva forces through a negotiated settlement, on August 7, 1990, V.P. Singh announced to implement the Mandal Commission’s proposal to reserve 27 per cent of government posts for the Other Backward Classes (OBC). Fearing a divide among the Hindus, the RSS came out sharply against the decision. The situation came as a double edged sword for the BJP which was now supporting the new government. The party could not condemn the decision risking the huge OBC vote bank, neither can they endorse it and deceive the upper casts – their traditional support base. To resolve this profound dilemma, Advani announced his infamous decision to undertake a 10,000 kilometers Somnath to Ayodhya Ram Rath Yatra to “mobilize public opinion and solicit its support” for the Ram Mandir. Leaving behind a trail of bloodshed, the Rath Yatra progressed through the country creating extreme Hindutva hysteria. Riots between Hindus and Muslims broke out in several parts. The momentum of the Rath Yatra came to an end only after Advani was arrested in Bihar on October 23. As a response to the arrest, the BJP withdrew its support to the V.P. Singh government. Chandra Shekhar replaced his arch rival V.P. Singh to form a minority government with Congress support. Chandra Shekhar brought both the VHP and the AIBMAC to the negotiating table in an attempt to break the prolonged deadlock but could not advance further. Less than four months after it took charge, the Chandra Shekhar government fell after Congress withdrew its support.

In the middle of the 1991 general elections, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a LTTE suicide bomber while campaigning in Tamilnadu. As a result of another sympathy wave following the assassination of Rajiv, the Congress was back to power again. Riding high on the success of Advani’s Rath Yatra, the BJP not only became the main opposition party in Parliament winning 120 seats but also won the state elections of UP. The Ramjanmbhoomi movement reached a feverish pitch in the early part of 1992 whereas the government under the new Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao adopted, as journalist N. Ram had observed, a “non-secular rule of not opposing ‘Hindu religious sentiment’ under any circumstances and of avoiding ‘confrontation’ with the saffron gentry and their lay allies”. Narasimha Rao kept on “believing” the devious RSS and the BJP leaders and was quite assured that no serious misdeed was going to be committed by them. The Supreme Court which was monitoring the day-to-day developments in Ayodhya also went by the UP chief minister Kalyan Singh’s affidavit that he will not allow any damage to the mosque.

On December 6, 1992, thousands of kar sevaks (volunteers) gathered at Ayodhya and thronged the complex. Before they started the pre-planned act, the intemperate kar sevaks carried out a dry run by vandalizing the adjoining Muslim graves. Contrary to his assurance to the Supreme Court, the mendacious chief minister kept the central forces stationed a kilometer away from the disputed area and prevented the police from taking any action against them. By afternoon, the Babri Masjid was reduced to rubbles in front of several the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and BJP leaders. The country’s nervousness before the verdict on the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmbhoomi title suits needs to be viewed within this context.

II. The Run-up & the Verdict

Since 1950, a total of five title suits were filed in the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi case. The first suit was filed on January 16, 1950 by Gopal Simla Visharad, the second on December 5, 1950 by Paramahansa Ramachandra Das, the third by the Nirmohi Akhara in 1959, the fourth by the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Wakf Board in 1961. The fifth suit was filed in the name of Bhagwan Shree Ram Lalla Virajman on July 1, 1989. The plaintiffs representing the Hindus have been claiming that the site is the actual birthplace of Lord Ram. The Sunni Waqf Board has claimed in their suit that the site is essentially a Muslim place of worship where Muslims offered prayers till December 1949 when the government locked the gates and declared the area disputed. All the suits pending in the Faizabad civil court were transferred to the Allahabad High Court in 1989.

After Paramahansa Ramachandra Das withdrew his suit on August 1990, it was on the four remaining suits that the verdict was scheduled to be delivered on September 24. But just one day before, a Supreme Court of India Bench deferred the verdict for a week following a petition that pleaded to delay it from the fear of disturbances during the Commonwealth Games and appealed for a negotiated settlement. It was a three-judge special Bench of the Supreme Court that finally cleared the way for the Allahabad High Court to deliver the verdict on September 30 by unanimously rejecting the deferment petition.

Whether the deferment by the Supreme Court has set a bad precedent or not, whether the opinion expressed by Justice H.L. Gokhale to reconcile the dispute, “even if there is one per cent chance” is realistic or not was debated intensely in the media opinion columns and television discussions. However, judicial discretion was not the real issue that needed discussion at that point. As a matter of fact, it was commonly anticipated that the Allahabad High Court verdict is surely not going to settle the dispute as the losing party will inevitably challenge it in the Supreme Court and the whole legal process could dawdle over further for few more years. It was more important to see how the past players, who were primarily responsible for elevating the issue to its infamous height, reacted to the verdict. The country was skeptical and anxious about whether the conciliatory postures of the RSS and their militant affiliates including the BJP will stay unchanged after September 30 or not.

The center and state governments took unprecedented security measures in the days leading to the verdict from a premonition that the ruling could ignite communal passion and violence. There were valid reasons for the country to be on tenterhooks. Disturbing signals had started coming in from various saffron quarters. The VHP had earlier issued a resolution asking the Hindus in the country to be “prepared” for the construction of Ram Mandir. With active assistance from other RSS front organizations, from August 16, the VHP launched a four month long campaign under the banner of Hanuman Shakti Jagran Samiti to restart the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation across the country. “We are planning to reach out to some two lakh villages, apart from the urban spheres, for two things: make a bid to transform it into a people's movement and reach out to the younger generation,” VHP international president Ashok Singhal had declared. After inaugurating the program at Nagpur, RSS sarsanghachalak (supremo) Mohan Bhagwat had said that “the Ram temple issue is beyond the jurisdiction of man-made courts […] a grand temple ought to be built, but it seems we will have to launch a struggle for it.” (Emphasis added)

The Times of India carried a report by Manjari Mishra informing about a “sudden spurt of activities in the saffron camp” in Ayodhya surrounding the Hanumat Shakti Jagran program, designed to “awaken the somnolent Hindu pride”. Explaining that the oblivious Lord Hanuman “needs to be reminded of his might now and then,” the scheming boss of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas (Ram Birthplace Trust) Mahant Nritya Gopal Das further went on to clarify: “We are seeking His intervention to rehabilitate Ramlalla.” Though the Mahant had insisted that the program is only a religious affair and “no offence meant to anyone,” the assurance could not convince the vulnerable minority community because “Last time, three months after a similar meeting was held in Ayodhya, the Babri mosque was razed to ground,” recalled Faizabad resident Khaliq Ahmad Khan. Sight of vermillion cloud terrifies the cow which has experienced a burn shed. “The timing for the launch of Hanumat Jagaran has been carefully chosen to coincide with the judgment,” explained Ram Vilas Vedanti, prominent VHP leader and two-times BJP MP from Faizabad. “We will honor the judgment if only it supports the case of Ram Mandir. Otherwise not,” thundered Vedanti in the trademark coarse language of a VHP leader. (Source)

End of Part One. Go to Part Two

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