Hooligans razed a mosque in Ayodhya/Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh on 6 December 1992, in the presence of Lal Kishenchand Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti and other leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party. They shared the belief that the mosque, which was built in 1527 by Mir Baqi, a general of Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, a central Asian tribal chief who invaded northern India, was built on the site of the birthplace of Ram, the hero of Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic. When the BJP came to power in 1998, it was expected that it would build a temple to Ram at the site. It did not; but the absent temple kept exploding into headlines from time to time. This column from Business Standard of 9 January 2001 discusses the masterly ambiguity of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, on the matter.
WHAT DOES THE PM STAND FOR?
In a brilliant article In India Today of 1 January, Mr P Chidambaram summed up Prime Minister’s position on Ayodhya as follows: “In effect, Vajpayee has told the Muslims: “I win, or you concede defeat.” He has told the CBI: “Your FIR is not worth the paper on which it is written.” He has told the courts: “I expect you to deliver judgment in favour of building the temple.” ”
Then Mr Vajpayee retired to Kumarakom and penned two articles, in which he tried to put the record straight. The articles were written in English and reproduced in English newspapers; they were meant for Anglophone, urban public opinion. Should that opinion now change? Is Vajpayee a secular liberal democrat? Is he the civilized face of Hindu nationalism? Or is he a sinuous politician finessing the message to different audiences? Vajpayee has, ever since he came to power, co-opted secular, moderate intellectuals – consulted them, appointed them to state councils, used them in various capacities. I was myself briefly on his Economic Council. I joined in the belief that it was important to strengthen his hand against the dark forces in his party and political family. But if he is one of them, then all these secular liberals are being duped – or duping themselves. Is he?
On the temple, I think Vajpayee is saying something like this. Rebuilding temples destroyed by Muslims in the past is not a preoccupation of the Hindu Brotherhood (to use Chidambaram’s term) alone; the Congress has equally advanced the agenda. Witness the Somnath temple, supported by Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad. Witness the opening of the gate to Babri Masjid under Rajiv Gandhi’s rule. Witness his beginning his election campaign near Ayodhya. Now, what could be more national than the Indian National Congress? The Brotherhood is only carrying forward its national programme – a programme the Congress is too embarrassed to proclaim, but too pragmatic to reject.
On Ayodhya, Vajpayee says that he has been misunderstood: a temple in Ayodhya was a part of national sentiment, but became disqualified when the Babri Masjid was pulled down. He said then that he regretted it, and he would like all to remember that, for he does not like to repeat the expression of regret. Because the temple fell out of national sentiment, a process is now necessary to readmit it. That process consists of a favourable court judgment, or an agreement between “representatives” of Hindus and Muslims. After that, who can object to the building of the temple?
Reacting to criticism, he says in the articles that an agreement between community representatives would not be enough; a favourable court judgment is essential. Until it is given, the government will prevent anyone who tries to build the temple.
I was confused by the term “national sentiment”. I think Vajpayee means something like national sentimentality, national heritage, national consciousness, or national culture. I do not know whether the Ram temple belongs to any of these. But there is obviously something like a national culture; it includes, for instance, the filmi songs we all know, the Indian food we go looking for when we go abroad, or our urge to beat the other guy to it on the roads.
There is similar confusion about secularism. Vajpayee says the BJP is a secular party, because Indians would never elect a communal party. This is so absurd an argument that any logical reaction to it would be impolite. But it makes perfect sense once one recalls Advani’s saying that those who passed as secular were really pseudo-secular; only the Hindu nationalists were secular. On that logic, the Indian electorate has now rejected the pseudo-secular Congress and opted for the secular BJP. India will reach new heights of secularism when the temple gets built; the more mosques are pulled down and the more temples are built in their place, the more secular the country will get. It is too bad that some of us abhor the prospect of such excesses of secularism.
On those terms, Vajpayee is the most secular Prime Minister we have ever had. The difficulty comes when he urges that we should put controversy about the temple behind, achieve consensus and get on with development. An admirable sentiment; the problem is, consensus on what. Vajpayee lauds the country’s diversity. But if diversity is such a good thing, does he not think that attacks on churches and Christians call for something more from the Prime Minister than a call for debate? That he himself should combat the campaign against non-Hindu religions carried on by the members of the brotherhood? That he should tell Rajnath Singh that he has no business banning beauty contests? And halt Sushma Swaraj in the censorship she has introduced in Door Darshan in the name of “Indian values”? He will say that he is against such intolerance and that he has said so. But from the Prime Minister and leader of the BJP one expects a bit more than occasional elliptical statements and sustained inaction.
Until he does that extra bit, I am inclined to believe that Vajpayee is everything he claims to be, but that what he means is different from what his words mean to us. During its decades in the wilderness, the BJP developed a vocabulary and a mythology that are foreign to the rest of India. Although Vajpayee has stepped into the wider world, his language hovers somewhere in between. He is not communicating, at least to me; and hence he does not convince.
But he has raised an issue that should concern us all. Babri Masjid is gone forever; there is just a bare piece of ground left. There is a ramshackle temple in the place; some distance away, the VHP is stacking carved pillars for a more permanent one. This will not go on forever; the clock is ticking. If we do not want a temple, what do we want in its place? It is not enough to be against the construction of a temple on the site; it is necessary to make up one’s mind what one wants instead.
In particular, parties and politicians must make up their minds, for finally they will decide what will happen. No party is prepared to say a mosque should be built in the place; none is prepared to say that something other than a temple or a mosque – a garden, an agiari, a statue of Mother India, anything else – should occupy the space. Negative positions seldom triumph in the end. Unless the secular – sorry, pseudo-secular – parties come up with an agreed alternative, the threat of the temple will remain.
And it is futile to read meanings anxiously in the Prime Minister’s words. They have their private meanings; and he can always change his mind. Whether the temple is built or not will be decided, not by what he says, but by whether the BJP on its own wins power at the centre, and till then, by what the political establishment allows it to get away with. The future of the temple lies in the political arena, not in Vajpayee’s mind.