INDIAN PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI’s ruling BJP might be secretly gloating over the Ayodhya verdict – and even claiming credit for fulfilling one of its long-held governance agendas – but its highly respected former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had called the December 6, 1992, Babri Masjid demolition by Hindu mobs led by the party leadership as the “worst miscalculation” and “misadventure” and even contemplated leaving the party over its failure to keep its word to respect the law and the Constitution.
In an extensive interview with this writer within days of the apocalyptic event at Ayodhya, Vajpayee, then an opposition leader, poured out his misgivings over the developments and bemoaned that “voices of reason” were lost in the party.
Later, as prime minister for three terms, Vajpayee did little to heal the wounds, only going to show that a government’s decision-making is often dictated by the expediency of electoral politics, convictions of personal ideologies and political weaknesses rather than by raj dharma, or value-based governance, that Vajpayee had preached to then Gujarat Chief Minister Modi.
It was the Congress government again, in 1992, led by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, whose strange reluctance to act despite his officials’ advice to take over the disputed site and dismiss the BJP state government of Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, led to Hindu fanatics destroying the Babri Masjid, leading up to the present situation.
Twenty-seven years later, Modi did call for moderation and unity – before and after the November 9 Supreme Court verdict which, strangely, seems to have been a foregone conclusion to Hindu cohorts – and said it should not be seen as a victory or defeat by anyone.
In the town of Ayodhya – the epicentre of the 150-year-old religious dispute – celebrations among local Hindus were muted as they did not wish to create communal tension in a town where Muslims live in large numbers “like brothers“. But questions are naturally being raised about the majoritarian tilt of hitherto secular state institutions and their “changing relationship with faith” and the gradual “redefinition of India’s constitutional secularism“.
The opposition Congress party, hitherto the flag-bearer of constitutional secularism, welcomed the verdict with a caveat that all communities “maintain our centuries-old culture of living together” and “shut the door” on “politics of division“. In this kerfuffle to join the ‘unity’ bandwagon, what is forgotten is not so much the BJP’s cynical political mobilisation in the late eighties in support of the Ram Janmabhoomi cause that led to it from being a two-MP party in 1984 to a 300-plus MP ruling party three decades later, riding on the Hindutva bandwagon, but the way the Congress capitulated to majority sentiments, since 1949, when an idol of Ram was surreptitiously placed inside the Babri Masjid by around 50-60 persons.
The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru flagged to the Uttar Pradesh state government the “dangerous example” it was setting and its “repercussions” on the rest of the country. But then UP’s Congress Chief Minister Govind Ballabh Pant “actually did little,” citing Hindu “sentiments” and the matter was left unresolved till 1986.
This was when then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi – in former Home Secretary Madhav Godbole’s words – “asked the Congress-ruled UP government to convey to the court its no objection to the opening of the lock on the gate of the disputed structure and permitting worship (puja) at what was now a temple inside a mosque!” Godbole has written an authoritative book ‘Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir Dilemma.’
A dormant issue was suddenly given life by the then Congress government as Rajiv Gandhi wanted to counter-balance the favours shown to Muslim fundamentalists when he countermanded the Supreme Court judgement on giving of alimony to divorced Muslim women.
That singular decision of symbolically allowing Hindus to worship inside the Babri mosque in 1986 – in the hope of getting the Hindu vote – became the impetus for the resurgence of the BJP and was the driving force in its quest for power in New Delhi. It was the Congress government again, in 1992, led by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, whose strange reluctance to act despite his officials’ advice to take over the disputed site and dismiss the BJP state government of Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, led to Hindu fanatics destroying the Babri Masjid, leading up to the present situation.
It was, in each case, gross dereliction of duty by the government of the day that not only made a mockery of the Constitution but went to show, as Godbole said, “that the ostensible ‘long arm of the Centre‘ can be totally paralysed if there is no political will to act”.
The Supreme Court, by its unanimous decision on one of the most contentious political and religious issues of the country since Independence, may have signalled that the country needs to heal the rupture and move on, but history will find the Congress as culpable in this sordid drama as the BJP for subordinating constitutional ideals to its naked ideological agenda.
— Tarun Basu/New Delhi
(The writer is President, SPS)