Need for consensus

FAR FROM ENDING the controversy over allowing access to Hindus for worship at the Bhojshala temple complex, the directive of the Archaeological Survey of India to the Madhya Pradesh Government to permit dawn-to-dusk prayers on Tuesdays may well set off another bout of confrontation between Hindus and Muslims. In a State where the stakes are high for the BJP and the ruling Congress in an Assembly election year, the ASI order could mark the boiling over, and not cooling down, of the simmering communal tensions. After all, the ASI directive comes after the Congress Government led by Digvijay Singh communicated the absence of a consensus among the local Hindus and Muslims on this sensitive issue. Not surprisingly, the ASI, which comes under the Union Culture Ministry, went beyond the recommendation of the State Government that Hindus be allowed to offer worship for two hours on Tuesdays. It also relaxed the restriction on making offerings to the presiding deity. Apparently, the BJP-led Government at the Centre thought there was no political mileage to be got from sticking to the State Government's recommendation. After all, Muslims too were allowed to perform `namaaz' for two hours on Fridays at the Kamaal Moula mosque in the same complex. In this context, the ASI directive appears to be appeasement of organisations such as the Hindu Jagran Manch which have been generating communal heat on this issue.

In the political blame-game, the Madhya Pradesh Government too seems to have considered it unprofitable to facilitate a consensus among Hindus and Muslims. The strategy of the Digvijay Singh Government appeared to be more focussed on exposing the communal politics of the BJP in the actions of the Centre, and not really on reducing tensions on the ground. The BJP, for its part, was ready to play along, confident that there was more to gain than lose by politicising the issue. The party's face in Madhya Pradesh, Uma Bharti, was constantly in touch with the Union Culture and Tourism Minister, Jagmohan, through the twists and turns of the controversy. On several occasions, Ms. Bharti showed herself to be more in the know of the Centre's thinking on the issue than the Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh. Indeed, Ms. Bharti did nothing to hide the fact that the BJP and the Centre were on the same side. Rather than treat the issue as one involving questions of maintaining communal harmony and law and order, both the Centre and the State Government reduced it to a political fight. At first, the ASI asked the State Government to open the premises for Hindus depending on the law and order situation. However, with Mr. Singh demanding a clear-cut directive from the Centre, the ASI has now ordered the opening of the Bhojshala for Hindus for worship even while insisting that maintaining law and order remains the responsibility of the district administration. Both the Centre and the State gave the impression of not wanting to take responsibility for their actions.

What portends danger for the secular fabric of the country is that the controversy is of a piece with the BJP's earlier attempts to raise disputes over places of religious worship and polarise society on communal lines in furtherance of the majoritarian agenda. Although agitations on this issue have so far been confined to the district level, the BJP and its front organisations have demonstrated their capability of expanding the conflict area whenever convenient as they did in Ayodhya. To prevent another Ayodhya-type situation, the effort must be to find a consensus at the local level involving all the stakeholders, rather than let the conflict take on the proportions of a Centre-State confrontation, or worse, a BJP-Congress political battle.