The failure of the Kanchi Sankaracharya's Ayodhya initiative has led to a hardening of stances, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's threat to launch a mass agitation reveals the contours of a project to raise the communal temperature in time for the elections.

The Kanchi Sankaracharya's initiative to find a negotiated solution to the vexed issue of Ayodhya has, predictably, failed. But the issue appears all set to claim political centre stage. The Sankaracharya's failure to convince Muslims to "gift" the disputed land in Ayodhya to Hindus for the construction of a Ram temple and eventually hand over the sites at Kashi and Mathura, has paved the way for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to take its agitation to the streets and raise the communal temperature in time for the approaching elections.

Close on the heels of the meeting held by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which rejected the Sankaracharya's formula, the VHP held a meeting of sants in Ayodhya to decide on the future course of action. The meeting concluded that only legislation could pave the way for the construction of a Ram temple. VHP leader Ashok Singhal targeted Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and demanded his resignation as he had "failed" to enact legislation facilitating the construction of a temple as promised. Singhal said that he was not attacking the Prime Minister per se but was merely suggesting an "honourable" way out of the situation arising from the latest fiasco. "The Prime Minister has suffered a personal loss of face because the Sankaracharya's move was backed by him. He has not been able to resolve the issue through dialogue, nor has he been able to get legislation passed as he had promised. Now the only honourable way out for him is to resign and go back to the people to seek their full support so that the party can come back to power with a full majority and enact the required legislation," Singhal told the media after the meeting with sants in Ayodhya on July 8.

According to him, the Sankaracharya and the Prime Minister had done Hindus an injustice because the former went to the AIMPLB with "folded hands" for a "no-objection certificate" to build a temple for Ram. The VHP's shrill tone post-July 6 suggests that it is preparing to take things into its own hands. After the July 8 meeting, the VHP announced that it would hold a session of the high-powered panel of the Ram Mandir Nirman Andolan Samiti on July 11 to decide the future course of action. From July 13 to October 2, VHP workers would fan out into two lakh villages across the country and tie ‘Sankalp Sutras’ (resolution bracelets) on people to create an atmosphere conducive to the construction of a Ram temple.

However, the Bharatiya Janata Party has dismissed with contempt the VHP's demand for Vajpayee's resignation BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu said: "This is a baseless demand. There is no question of accepting it". After a meeting with Vajpayee, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and Finance Minister Jaswant Singh on July 8, Venkaiah Naidu said that although the Ayodhya issue was not discussed at the meeting, which was called to prepare the agenda for the party's Raipur meet, the party was in favour of the construction of a Ram temple and was of the opinion that the Ayodhya problem could be solved only through negotiations among the parties concerned, a court order or legislation. "As the BJP does not have a majority in Parliament, it will be not be possible to resolve it through legislation," Venkaiah Naidu said.

Although the AIMPLB has firmly ruled out any bargain on the disputed land, it wants to give the impression that there is still room for dialogue. The Board's rejection of the Sankaracharya's formula does not mean that it is opposed to a dialogue, said S.Q.R. Ilyas, the AIMPLB's spokesman and the convener of its Babri committee. The Board's thinking became evident on July 8 when it asked the government to involve itself in "sincere" negotiations, and said that scope for an "honourable" compromise still existed. AIMPLB member Syed Shahabuddin said that Muslims had no objection to the construction of a temple anywhere outside the disputed 4,000 sq. ft of land in Ayodhya and sought modification of the map of the proposed temple. Another AIMPLB member, Kamal Farouqi, said that the scope for negotiations still existed and hoped that "there can be a talk of compromise, which is honourable, judicious and keeps in view the sentiments of all, particularly the most aggrieved Muslims whose mosque has been demolished by the Sangh Parivar."

Participating in a discussion on ‘Ayodhya - The way out’, Shahabuddin said: "The judicial process should go on. Talks can also go on." While favouring the judicial route to solve the vexed issue, Shahabuddin said that he saw a "ray of hope at the end of the tunnel" and expected a decision on the matter in just over a year's time. Referring to the Sankaracharya's initiative, Shahabuddin said that "no talks took place in the real sense" as it was only an "exchange of letters". The government, he said, should assume responsibility for holding "sincere" talks "privately" with the parties concerned.

The AIMPLB's rejection of the Sankaracharya's proposals should not be surprising, especially after his statement to a news channel that "there was no need for a mosque at the disputed site in Ayodhya". Knowing the stated positions of the two warring parties, the AIMPLB and the VHP, such an outcome was only to be expected because the Sankaracharya sought the unconditional surrender by Muslims of the three shrines in Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura. The VHP and the Sangh Parivar have been reiterating that Muslims should "gift" the disputed land in Ayodhya to Hindus, that they should eventually withdraw their claims on Kashi and Mathura because they were places revered by crores of Hindus, and that any dispute over these places would vitiate communal harmony.

In the interview to the news channel, the Sankaracharya reportedly said: "There is no need for another mosque in Ayodhya, where there were eight mosques already." According to AIMPLB sources, it was this statement that ensured the rejection of the formula by the Board even before its much-awaited meeting on July 6 began. According to Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, AIMPLB vice-president, although the second letter seems to have been drafted under pressure from the Sangh Parivar, the Board was still open to the prospect of talks. Although the Sankaracharya's first letter to AIMPLB Chairman Maulana Rabe Hassan Nadvi was encouraging, his second letter, sent in response to some clarifications sought by Nadvi, was disappointing, he said. Personally, he said, he felt that a Board's committee should meet the Sankaracharya to suggest its proposal for resolving the issue.

The Board seems to be coming around to the idea of accepting a temple in the undisputed part of the acquired land, provided the Sankaracharya is able to extract an assurance from the VHP that it would abide by the court ruling regarding the disputed land and a modified temple plan as per the agreed formula is shown to the AIMPLB. In March last year too, the AIMPLB rejected the Sankaracharya's proposal because he could not get an undertaking from the VHP that it will abide by the court ruling on the disputed site if it was allowed to begin the construction of a temple at the undisputed site. Besides, the Board was not shown any modified temple plan.

The first letter of the Sankaracharya, Board members said, appeared to consider these objections, but the second letter spoiled everything. "The Sankaracharya's statement clearly showed how he worked under pressure from the Sangh Parivar, which had in any case challenged the seer's authority to negotiate on behalf of 820 million Hindus of this country," said G.M. Banatwala, Indian Union Muslim League president and member of the AIMPLB. He termed the Sankaracharya's moves as a `political stunt'. Another executive member of the Board, Zafaryab Jilani, who is counsel for the Sunni Central Waqf Board and convener of the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC), said: "I find it strange that the Sankaracharya was referring to the construction of some new mosque; perhaps he has not realised that Muslims are seeking the reconstruction of the razed Babri mosque".

A formal resolution adopted by the Board's executive committee said: "The gift of the Babri site as proposed by the Acharya would not promote communal harmony or national integration because such a gift would be under duress and not based on the principles of fair play, justice and constitutionalism." AIMPLB member Sajjad Nomani said that any fresh move would have to come from the other side. "The Sankaracharya had initiated the (previous) move by coming over to meet Board President Rabe Hassan Nadvi here and if he deems it proper, he may again make a fresh move with a proposal, which could pave the way for an amicable settlement. In case there is any move to bring a proposal to resolve the crisis through talks, it would have to be rational, reasonable, within the framework of the Indian Constitution, and in accordance with the past resolutions of the board," he said.

The Sankaracharya's original formula, in the letter dated June 16, described earlier as "positive" by the Board, had five points, which included a no-objection statement from the AIMPLB for the construction of a temple on the undisputed and acquired land; a discussion to find an amicable settlement with regard to the disputed area, which could be submitted to the court for a final verdict; and the construction of a wall separating the disputed area from the undisputed area. If a final settlement was reached on the undisputed area, the Sankaracharya and the AIMPLB President would ensure that it received support from other religious groups; once a cordial understanding reached between the two sides, the Centre could be approached for its effective and time-bound implementation, the Sankaracharya suggested. However, the Board found the Kanchi Acharya's formula lacking in "material particulars" and to be silent on some major issues, especially in respect of an assurance by Hindus to abide by the court verdict in the Ayodhya title suit. The Board therefore sought clarifications and received another letter, dated July 1, from the Sankaracharya, in which he totally "resiled" from his earlier proposal, leaving no scope for further discussions, Board members said.

The resolution, read out by counsel for the Board, Y.H. Muchala, said that "the proposals for the settlement of the dispute must be within the parameters of the basic values of the Constitution, namely, the rule of law, secularism, equality of treatment to all without discrimination on the ground of race or religion and respect for the religious sentiments of the Muslims." The Board went on record saying that it looked upon the Acharya's proposals of July 1 as "thinly veiled threats to Muslims" to submit and surrender themselves unconditionally to all the unreasonable demands made by the Sangh Parivar. "Such proposals were unjust, unreasonable and totally inconsistent with the dignity, honour and self-respect of Muslims," it said. The Board's President, general secretary Maulana Nizamuddin, and members Abdul Rahim Qureshi, Syed Shahabuddin and Jafaryab Jilani, were among those present at the press conference in Lucknow, where the resolution rejecting the Sankaracharya's formula was read out.

Reacting to the Board's action, the Sankaracharya said: "My efforts at finding a solution to the Ayodhya issue are over. I will not interfere hereafter. However, my doors are always open if somebody comes to me on this issue." He said that he had no new proposals to offer. He, however, made it clear that in his opinion "a solution to the Ayodhya issue will not be pos<147,2,1>sible through court. It is possible only through talks". He rejected the Board's accusation that his formula contained "veiled threats", saying that "there is no threat or anything in my formula. I have mentioned that if not today, some time or the other places such as Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya have to be given to Hindus. Muslims have to mentally prepare themselves for this. I prepared and submitted the formula in the larger interests of the nation and communal harmony in particular." Although he would not be in the picture as far as Kashi and Mathura were concerned, some organisation or the other might rake up the issue, he said. Responding to the statement of the AIMPLB that the site of the Babri Masjid was the property of Allah and could not be alienated by sale, gift or otherwise, the Acharya said that the Babri Masjid was only a "memorial" of a Muslim king and not a place of worship. Besides, he said, the Wakf property could be donated and there was nothing wrong in it. "By doing so, the prestige of the Muslim community would only go up. There are several instances where a Wakf property has been donated," he said.

The Sankaracharya expressed surprise that the Board found his first letter "encouraging" and second "disappointing", because the latter was only intended to clarify certain points. There was only one departure in the second letter, which was necessitated by the ruling of the Supreme Court on the Ayodhya issue. In his second letter, the Sankaracharya had proposed that Muslims donate the disputed area to Hindus while in the first he had merely talked of a "no objection" statement to enable the construction of a temple on the undisputed/acquired area. In his second letter, the Acharya wrote: "Though the disputed area may belong to the Wakf Board and is a place of faith to Muslims as well, since the place is of great faith and reverence to Hindus, the Muslim community and the Wakf Board may mentally think that they donate the said area to Hindus." He explained that the Supreme Court had ruled that the disputed and undisputed land would have to be dealt with together and that the status quo applied to both. He had, therefore, appealed to the AIMPLB: "If daily prayers are being offered in any mosque, asking for that place is not justifiable. In view of the fact that at present the area is without any building and an idol of Ram is placed there, it will not be right or possible to remove Ram from that place and construct a mosque over there in the interest of communal harmony. Local Muslims are already offering prayers in their mosques, that the idol of Ram is being worshipped, that the area is disputed, and keeping in view the larger interests of the nation and the communal harmony in particular, the Muslim community and the Wakf Board can decide to donate that area, which is a place of matter of faith and belief to the Hindus of the country. By doing so and presenting it before the court, we may be able to obtain a court judgment faster and earlier."

Explaining the reason why he took up the initiative, the Sankaracharya said: "They asked me during the Bhoomi puja at Ayodhya to work for a compromise solution and so I held extensive talks. Now, when I went for the Sindhu Darshan festival, they told me that it was time to revive the initiative, which I did. It came on its own, it may go for now, but will come back on its own. One thing is clear, there can be a permanent and peaceful solution only through talks. A court ruling may not satisfy any community, or may even favour both. But we must ensure there is communal harmony, which can be achieved only through talks. If they succeed, that will be ideal for the nation. Without talks there can be no solution; only passion and tension will rise."

Tension is rising, indeed. The VHP has started raising the temperature, planning a nationwide agitation in the coming days. Reacting to the Sankaracharya's efforts, the VHP's rabble-rouser, Praveen Togadia, said: "Hindus have made a tactical error by asking only three out of 30,000 temples, which were demolished and where mosques were built in the last few centuries. We had been asking for Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya only. Even then, they are opposing like hell." He further said: "We are not at the mercy of Muslims. To build a Ram temple we don't need their support or help. We will trample the ideology that opposes the Ram temple in Ayodhya. We will go ahead and build the Ram temple."

Of concern is the fact that the VHP has the full backing of its patron, the RSS. In its national executive meeting at Kanyakumari on July 5-6, the RSS declared that it wanted temples established at Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi at the earliest. Briefing reporters, RSS spokesman Ram Madhav said that an early solution did not mean a hasty solution. It was unanimously decided to try to build a consensus on the issue for the sake of national interest and honour, he said. He also made it clear that the RSS would back the VHP's demand for legislation to pave the way for the construction of the temple. The RSS, he said, appreciated the Vajpayee-led government's constraints in this regard because it did not have the required majority. However, he added: "We have made our stand clear. We want the government to explore the possibilities of a legislative option towards paving the way for the construction if the negotiations fail."

Meanwhile, Ashok Singhal has given enough hints that the VHP was all set to raise the issue during election time. He said: "Sonia Gandhi, the Samajwadi Party, other parties and those belonging to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) should decide not to issue the whip in pursuance of their party policies and should allow Members of Parliament to vote freely. In case a whip is issued, we will have no option but to launch a mass movement against these parties which oppose the construction of a temple." Although the BJP has made it clear that it was not in favour of legislation because the issue was not on the NDA agenda, it remains to be seen how long the party can resist the pressure from the Sangh Parivar. The BJP will discuss its future strategy on the issue at its three-day national executive meeting to be held in Raipur from July 18.

Keywords: VHPSankaracharyaAyodhya