The visible public campaign envisaged by the Hindutva fraternity, especially the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, to pressure the government into enacting a law on Ayodhya presages a delicate new phase in the intrusion of religious sectarianism into politics.

Stripped now of all residual hope of political glory, former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar could afford to speak the truth. Shortly after the collapse of the latest mediation effort on Ayodhya, Chandra Shekhar gently chastised Jayendra Saraswati, the Sankaracharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, for conduct unbecoming. There was little reward in the course he had adopted, said the former Prime Minister: "The Kanchi seer should not have got involved in politics as the Ayodhya dispute cannot be resolved through moves like the one initiated by him recently."

Also coming up with a fairly sharp assessment was former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, another politician whose fortunes have been on the wane in recent years. Of all the statements made by Jayendra Saraswati, his vow to remain aloof of the Ayodhya dispute in future had been the most salutary, said Chidambaram. By its very nature, he said, the issue was not amenable to resolution by religious leaders. Indeed, said Chidambaram, the constitutional imperative was that "all disputes must be resolved through established organs of the Republic - the executive, Parliament and the judiciary".

Jayendra Saraswati had sought and temporarily succeeded in enlarging the space for himself and his institution, but this was "only because political leaders were ready to yield that space", Chidambaram said, and added that both sides had seriously erred in this respect. "The government cannot abdicate its responsibilities" and the Sankaracharya would be well advised to return to the tradition of "detachment and silence" that was most appropriate for religious leaders.

Why have political leaders in recent times been so anxious to yield the problem-solving function within their domain to extra-constitutional bodies? Fundamentally, the current government has got itself into a pickle over the Ayodhya dispute. Having worked its way to power by consorting with the most extremist elements on the religious Right, the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party have found their more recent scruples about the Hindutva agenda likened to a form of treason. Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) chieftain Ashok Singhal has called, twice over, for the resignation of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, if he is unable to bring in legislation enabling the construction of a temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

The tenuous ties between the government and its larger ideological fraternity are now sustained by the intercession of the paterfamilias of Hindutva, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) chief K.S. Sudarshan. At a recent meeting of a committee formed to agitate for the construction of a temple at Ayodhya, Sudarshan endorsed the proposed campaign but cautioned the VHP to keep in mind the political constraints the Vajpayee government faced. For one thing, said Sudarshan, the BJP did not have a parliamentary majority on its own.

If Sudarshan said this much in his capacity as a mediator between the government and its disgruntled ideological patrons, his assurance that the VHP would be given a prominent role in building a temple at Ayodhya seemed to go beyond that role. The RSS chief seemed to speak on behalf of the government, in an assumption of authority that has little legal or constitutional endorsement. Indeed, the very visible public campaign envisaged to pressure the government into enacting a law on Ayodhya, presages a delicate new phase in the intrusion of religious sectarianism into politics.

“The people must have a religion,” said Napoleon Bonaparte, “and that religion must be in the hands of the government.” Through a concordat with the Vatican in 1802, Napoleon worked out a new balance of power between the church and the state. The Vatican was enjoined to concede a degree of power to the state in the appointment of bishops and to accept the payment of clerical salaries by the state. It also agreed to recognise the alienation of church lands as permanent.

There were some fluctuations in the balance of power between Church and state as the 19th century wore on. But by the early 20th century, the French Republic had worked out a formal doctrine of separation of religion and politics. A law enacted in 1905 restored some of the privileges of property to the Catholic Church, provided all assets were held through associations registered with the state. It guaranteed absolute freedom of faith, but denied any particular religion a special claim on the patronage of the state.

Although India did not have an ecclesiastical order akin to the Catholic Church to reckon with, the doctrine on the separation of religion and politics adopted in the Indian Constitution is broadly similar to the French model. There is firstly Article 14 guaranteeing equality before the law and Article 15 prohibiting discrimination on grounds of religion or any other criterion. Article 25 then assures every individual the right to "profess, practise and propagate" any religion. A sub-clause to this article gives the state the power to regulate or restrict "any economic, financial, political or other secular activity, which may be associated with religious practice". This clause has been subject to much judicial elaboration. But briefly put, any religious practice or convention that involves social and material reality is considered a secular matter, where the state has the power to legislate. The domain of the state's legislative jurisdiction covers personal law, social welfare, financial practices and property ownership.

Viewed in this fashion, the state has the authority to legislate on the disposition of the land at Ayodhya. But it cannot, in doing so, contravene other principles of the Constitution - notably the provisions of equality before the law and judicial review. Equally, the state would have no business legislating in a manner that would condone repeated breaches of the law and reward the perpetrators of a sequence of outrages beginning with the trespass of 1948, when a number of idols were introduced into the Babri Masjid in the communally surcharged atmosphere of Independence and Partition.

For this and other reasons, the prospect of an election fought on the issue of legislation for a temple at Ayodhya is a serious concern. It would be a campaign not merely against secularism and the rights of religious minorities, but against constitutional governance itself. Certain features of the electoral contests likely to come its way in the near future inclines the Hindutva fraternity today towards testing the limits of communal adventurism in politics. First, the elections in five States in the Hindi belt, which are due before November this year, essentially pit the BJP against the Congress(I) in bipolar contests. The BJP is not dependent on any partner for an extra accretion of votes. It will stand or fall on its own electoral strengths and strategic skills. This affords the party the latitude to pursue its own brand of politics, appeasing the hardline elements who have suffered the chagrin of seeing their maximal agenda consigned to neglect for over five years.

Second, the national general elections due by September next year will require the BJP to rework its equations with coalition partners. It could choose the line of conciliation with coalition partners, at the risk of offending its own hardliners. On the other hand, it could adopt the path of provocation and extremism as it did so successfully in Gujarat last year, confident in the belief that its allies have no place else to go and would be compelled to stick with it.

The Sankaracharya's proposals held the field for close to three weeks as a potentially viable solution to the Ayodhya dispute. This was entirely because of its many ambiguities. It proposed that the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) could consider giving a "no objection certificate" for the construction of a temple on the undisputed land at Ayodhya. What the value of this certificate would be, when there is a specific judicial injunction against altering the status of the land from the Supreme Court, was not mentioned. Again, the status of the AIMPLB, which is not a party in the title suit before the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court, was not really clarified.

after some time", following which "an amicable settlement" could be given to the court, which in turn could pronounce its verdict on this basis.

Many within the Muslim community argued that the Sankaracharya's formula, despite all its ambiguities, could be accepted by the AIMPLB as a gesture of good faith. As journalist and political commentator Saeed Naqvi put it, "The Muslim case is reasonable and logical, but it runs into this irresistible incantation of `faith', which is as much beyond reason as is the Virgin Birth, or the Prophet's journey on a winged horse."

This perception leads naturally to an advocacy of compromise on the Sankaracharya's formula. But it does not quite appreciate the symbolism of Ayodhya in the Hindutva family's political strategy to remake India. A glimmer of the larger strategy emerged in the Sankaracharya's letter of clarification dated July 1, which urged the AIMPLB to consider "donating" the disputed land at Ayodhya for the construction of a temple. Subtly deviating from his mid-June proposal to discuss the disputed land "after some time", the Sankaracharya suggested that "both the issues" (of the disputed and supposedly undisputed land) be "discussed together comprehensively to ensure a lasting peaceful and early solution".

Irrespective of the judicial merits and historical rights, "donation of the disputed area will only be the permanent solution". Having pre-empted the outcome of the putative negotiations, the Sankaracharya proceeded to demand a series of further concessions. "Keeping in mind the larger interests of the country and communal harmony," he said, Kashi and Mathura too would have to be "given to the Hindus". And in urging that "Muslims have to mentally prepare themselves for this," the Sankaracharya seemed to move from soothing reassurance to ominous warning.

In a classic formulation, a bargain is likened to a "zero-sum" game. What one party to a social and political transaction gains has to be reckoned by the other side as a loss. To make the bargain worth his while then, the latter would have to be assured of an offsetting gain in some other respect, either concurrently or at some later date. More contemporary and upbeat interpretations of the theory of social bargains maintain that today's expanding possibilities and frontiers could potentially transform the modest horizons of the "zero-sum" game into "win-win" situations, where neither of the contracting parties would need to put up with a loss, however transient.

By these standards, the Sankaracharya proposals were a "zero-sum" game with a vengeance for the Indian polity and a perennially losing venture for the minority community. If at all there is a long-term gain in the formula, this would be in the promise of security and well-being for the minorities. But in holding out this assurance, the Sankaracharya was - to put the best construction on it - rather innocent of the intentions of the likes of VHP strongmen Ashok Singhal and Praveen Togadia, whose abilities to inflict lasting damage on the social fabric would only be enhanced in the unsettled times the country is entering.

The symbolism of Ayodhya in the politics of Hindutva is best understood from the circumstances in which it made its bow in national politics. Formally, the VHP began the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign in 1984 and the Ram Lalla idols in the Babri Masjid were opened to worship in February 1986, by a politically inspired judicial order. And though there is no denying that the pitch of the confrontation was raised then onwards with competitive mobilisation on both sides, Ayodhya is best understood as a point of inflection in the rapid communalisation of politics in the 1980s. Jamshedpur in 1979, Moradabad in 1980 and Bhiwandi in 1984, witnessed violent outbreaks of communal rioting and virtual pogroms against the minorities, without the Ayodhya issue to instigate the disturbances. In this respect, Meerut in 1987 was the first of the Ayodhya-inspired pogroms - an organised campaign of terror which, in the words of the veteran social analyst Asghar Ali Engineer, represented not so much administrative failure as political design.

To the long litany of failures by the state to institute remedies and punitive sanctions for these riots must be added the shameful recent episode of the Best Bakery carnage in Vadodara. Not a more cruel reminder is needed today of the flagrant default the state has been in on its assurance of formal juridical equality to all citizens. The contrast with the state's prosecution of the guilty in the Godhra arson and massacre - where over 100 persons have been booked under the draconian anti-terrorism law POTA - could not be more brutal. As an issue, Ayodhya encompasses all these iniquities and abuses of constitutional processes. And the blatantly unfair and lopsided formulae that have been embraced for expedient reasons by sections of the minority community cannot obscure the fundamentals of what is at stake here

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