Assault on Ayodhya

THE VISHWA Hindu Parishad's (VHP) storming the makeshift temple on October 17 was not a stray incident. It has a context, a past and an ominous future. The future pattern of events was set by the Dharam Sansad meeting on January 18-21 at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. Three phases of a future concerted campaign were revealed. The first phase was the `shivcharan' and `jalabhishek' ceremonies from September 17 to October 16. This was to be followed by a second phase of collective `japayajnas' from November 26. The third phase of building the Ram temple was to commence after March 12, 2002. On February 24, 2001, the VHP unequivocally demanded the return of the temple land. On March 27, the Ram Temple Construction Committee reiterated its three- phase plan and threat. All this was unequivocally conveyed to Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee in February-March 2001. The Prime Minister was silent.

The plan to forcibly take over the Ayodhya site is a menacing reality. On September 8, the VHP president, Mr. Ashok Singhal, again confirmed the plan, adding that a `chetavni yatra' with 5,000 sants would take place from January 22 to 27, 2002, with a mammoth gathering on Vasant Panchami at Ayodhya on February 17 to offer `purnahuti' (the final offering). Strictly according to plan, the VHP launched `jalabhishek' on September 17. Leaving nothing to doubt, on October 17 VHP stormtroopers led by Mr. Singhal entered the makeshift temple contrary to the law and explicating an affront to secular sensitivities. A nine-year norm from 1992 to 2001 was brutally broken. Unrepentant, by October 20, a clear post- Dussehra plan was unfurled which was, at once, divisive and provocative. `Ramnaam sankalp raths' (Ram chariots) would go from house to house throughout the country to identify true believers, flag their houses and issue a rosary (tulsi mala). In Lucknow, near Ayodhya, four such chariots are to start on November 10. The whole country was to be mobilised - but especially the State of Uttar Pradesh. Some Muslims have responded to this provocation by speaking the language of jehad.

We need to pause. This temple construction is not just linked to the impending elections in Uttar Pradesh. It threatens to split the country, with the BJP politicians looking the other way. Mr. Vajpayee has not shown statesmanlike qualities in dealing with this issue. Recall his `Musings from Kumarakom' in December 2000 in support of the temple. The storm of protests to these musings did not deter him. By February 2001, he was forced into a silent acceptance of the VHP's ultimatum to build the temple. On April 11, Mr. L. K. Advani talked of the de jure temple at Ayodhya to the Liberhan Commission. In this mood, talks of a negotiated settlement are a farce. The VHP has made it clear that there is nothing to negotiate. That is why the 1991-93 talks broke down. On August 27, 2000, Mr. Vajpayee misled Parliament to assert that meaningful talks were going on. But, with whom? In fact, no significant talks were taking place. He assured the press that the Ayodhya problem would be solved by the VHP's deadline of March 2002. So, the Government was dancing to the BJP's tune. This was really a green signal to the VHP and others to go ahead with their plan.

On October 11, Mr. Vajpayee decided to constitute a Ayodhya cell - apparently to evolve a negotiated settlement. But, this too, is a diversionary tactic in advance of the VHP's manoeuvre. It is impossible to believe that Mr. Vajpayee and his Government were not aware of the plans to enter the temple site. On October 17, the VHP stormed the makeshift temple. Mr. Vajpayee described this incident as ``unfortunate, serious and a setback''. But, surely, he knew what was going on. Then, the Government pretended to take neutral action. Officials were summoned. The Uttar Pradesg Government ordered a probe. A conciliatory cover-up began. A real response was required. Mr. Vajpayee was clearly marking time until March, 2002 by when the VHP and others would precipitate a fait accompli.

India should not need reminding of the ghastly destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. But, despite the sense of horror at what happened, the Union and Uttar Pradesh Governments (both controlled by the Congress after President's rule was imposed on Uttar Pradesh) allowed matters to drift so that in December 1992, a `makeshift' temple emerged on the site of the masjid's rubble. This should never have happened. Those who had destroyed the masjid received their conspiratorial reward of a makeshift temple at the controversial site. Mr. P. V. Narasimha Rao's Congress enhanced this reward with the Ayodhya Ordinance protecting the status quo as on January 7, 1993.

This was a communal status quo. The correct date of the status quo should have been that of December 6, 1992, so that neither the temple nor masjid could operate from that site. This elliptical status quo which rewarded those who had destroyed the masjid was blessed by the Supreme Court in 1994 in the interests of peace by a divided judgment. The discomfiture of the judges can be gauged from Mr. Justice Bharucha's dissent for himself and Mr. Justice Ahmadi. No doubt, the crisis has to be quelled. But, Mr. Justice Verma's majority judgment legitimating the Congress's status quo makes uncomfortable reading since it legitimises prayer at the temple - no less on the startling basis that Muslims can pray anywhere even in the open. However, the majority judgment is good law and must be followed.

What is the meaning of `status quo' of the site? Clearly, it preserves limited prayers at the makeshift temple. But, the Ayodhya Act, 1993, has to be read with the court's judgment and the Union's affidavit to the court describing the status quo. The status quo clearly meant that only the `pujari' could enter the makeshift temple. Others could not enter it, but could only offer respectful prayers. The VHP's storming the temple on October 17 was a gross violation of a peaceful practice and a statutory and judicial status quo that had been accepted for nine years. These acts were illegal, a contempt and trespass and forcible entry. But there is no one who can take the matter further. The Supreme Court could issue a notice; but, it may not do so on its own even though a differently composed Supreme Court did convict Mr. Kalyan Singh for wilful neglect and disobedience of the court's orders on Ayodhya.

In a sense, both Mr. Vajpayee and the State Government have preempted an adverse court order by admitting the mistake and ordering a probe. Like the Liberhan Commission, the Uttar Pradesh probe will drag on. There are some allegations that the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) may have acquiesced to the VHP's forced entry. If Mr. Vajpayee is serious, he will ensure that criminal investigation and disciplinary action is taken immediately. He should consider initiating a contempt action. But, he will not do so since his approach to Ayodhya is partisan but under a `secular' garb.

The situation that is emerging is alarming. It is worse than the warning signals of 1992. The plans made at the Kumbh Mela in January 2001 were not mere declarations. They were serious threats. They have been acted upon. They will divide the nation. The VHP and others will not wait till the Ayodhya case is over or for a negotiated solution. Mr. Vajpayee's gameplan is no less clear. He will watch and allow a communal situation to develop. India will be bitterly split apart. Ayodhya is Indian secularism's biggest test. India failed in December 1992. It cannot fail in March 2002.

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