A symbolic act, by all conventional definitions, involves a demonstration of intent, perhaps an evocation of a material outcome that is desired but not achievable on account of a variety of constraints. In the lexicon of Hindutva, though, the phrase has acquired a totally different connotation. The last time the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) organised a symbolic act at Ayodhya, it had the all too physical effect of causing the complete effacement of a monument that had weathered the elements and the vicissitudes of human history for close to five centuries. And in the train of that vandalism came a bloody sequence of riots across the country that left thousands dead, community relations embittered, and civic institutions in a state of disarray.
As the VHP prepares for another round of ritual mobilisation at Ayodhya, it has shown little inclination to heed counsels of moderation and caution. It has relented fractionally from its earlier intent to begin a ‘yagna’ at Ayodhya on March 12, but only in order to accommodate an astrologically more propitious date. The authority of the country’s institutions and the sanctity of legally constituted processes of dispute settlement are clearly secondary considerations for the VHP. Indeed, it has coerced a government that is plainly petrified when not in open connivance with its designs to institute new means of problem solving that threaten to undermine and perhaps quash the accepted institutional processes of a secular and democratic society.
When the Sabarmati Express was attacked at Godhra in Gujarat with massive loss of life on February 27, condemnation was swift and unequivocal. Few people paused to fix the identity of the perpetrators of the outrage before issuing the most unambiguous denunciations. Showing a rare awareness of where the origins of the cycle of violence and retribution lay, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Home Minister L.K. Advani at once called upon the VHP to suspend its agitational programme at Ayodhya.
The VHP clearly was not listening. As Gujarat plunged into a week-long pogrom, planned and executed by the cadres that had been created and nurtured on the vision of a magnificent temple at Ayodhya, a desperate Prime Minister chose first to consult with the secretive leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), a body that has limitless resources to orchestrate violence, but little credibility as a forum for enlightened public policy guidelines. The Prime Minister obtained little solace from this quarter, since the apex organisation in the Hindutva family was not about to abandon the project on which it had built its constituency over the last decade.
A degree of sobriety was induced by two factors. There was, first, little ambiguity about the profound sense of public revulsion and horror that was stirred up by the carnage in Gujarat. And second, the most serious communal bloodbath in the decade of globalisation was an international public relations disaster for a government that has been seeking to strut its stuff as a dependable ally in the war against terrorism, committed to the rule of law when appropriate, unafraid to seek legitimate recourse to arms when compelled to. Far from asserting its authority, the government was seen internationally as all too willing to surrender its legitimate monopoly over coercion to the fury of criminal mobs intent on targeting innocents.
Some of the more abject of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s allies in the ruling coalition, notably Samata Party leader Jaya Jaitley, sought to rationalise the anti-Muslim violence in terms of public anger against the supposed indifference that the secular intelligentsia had shown towards the Godhra atrocity. Jana Krishnamurthy, national president of the BJP, added his more partisan voice to this chorus. Meanwhile the egregious Chief Minister of Gujarat, a total innocent in administration and governance but a battle-scarred veteran in mob incitement, presided over a week of shame in the country’s history. The Central government could not, however, concede any ground to the apologists for mob violence. Vajpayee had first to respond to the increasing signs of restiveness that some of his coalition partners were displaying. As the more obsequious of his allies leapt to the defence of the Gujarat government, he moved to shore up a consensus with more scrupulous elements, including the deeply disturbed Opposition. A joint appeal for calm was crafted with the participation of the main Opposition parties on the second day of the violence. And on the third day of the riots, Vajpayee went on national television to denounce the Gujarat riots as a “disgrace” and a “scar on the nation’s conscience.”
Although strangely subdued to begin with, Home Minister Advani also was fairly unequivocal on his first visit to Gujarat since the riots began. Irrespective of the provocation, he said, the riots that claimed hundreds of lives in Gujarat were as reprehensible and as base an act of terror as the event that ostensibly triggered it.
With two of the leading lights of the Hindutva family in open dissent with the Ayodhya campaign, the VHP for the first time found that it had to go beyond the formula it had unilaterally sought to impose – that a yagna would be conducted on the supposedly “undisputed” parts of the land at Ayodhya and construction started adjacent to the perimeter of the Babri Masjid compound, which constituted the core of the half-century old litigation. The VHP’s pretence that there is no dispute over this land is of course disingenuous, since a Supreme Court injunction obliges the Central government to maintain the status quo within the entire area acquired by it in 1993, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
In January, Vajpayee had sought an easy way around the conundrum by referring the question to Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley. But Jaitley, who left a lucrative legal practice to take up ministerial responsibilities, was canny enough not to seek to grasp the hot potato that was thrown his way. With his mind now focussed by the new mobilisation at Ayodhya and the carnage in Gujarat, Jaitley has moved a petition before the Allahabad High Court asking it to expedite hearings of the title suit on the Babri Masjid compound. It is yet unclear whether the High Court will concede this request, first because a title suit is not known to be so easily disposed of and not least because of the surcharged political atmosphere in which it will be compelled to hold its hearings.
In a situation muddied by VHP hyperbole and official equivocation, a small group working under the tutelage of Defence Minister George Fernandes sought to move beyond the deadlock by drawing in a larger cast of characters and exploring newer options. For a brief while it seemed that the intercession of Sankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati of Kanchi would provide a way out. But this was a false promise, partly because the concessions that the VHP was willing to offer were either illusory, derisory or negligible. First, there was the offer to confine the proposed ‘yagna’ of March 15 to a symbolic affair and wait till June for final clearance to commence construction. This was diluted a little later, when the VHP insisted that it would not merely offer a symbolic ‘yagna’ but also move its prefabricated pillars to the supposedly undisputed land.
The Sankaracharya of Kanchi insisted that the VHP leadership should make a clear affirmation of faith in the process of the law, challenging them that this was a minimum standard of public accountability expected of an organisation that claimed to act in the name of a symbol of probity. After much evasion and dissimulation, such an assurance was given by the VHP’s international working president Ashok Singhal, only to be promptly disavowed by Acharya Giriraj Kishore, another of its main functionaries. And when the historical precedent was considered, it was pointed out that precisely such an assurance had been given by the VHP in November 1989, as a reciprocal concession for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to allow a ‘shilanyas puja’ at a site abutting the Babri Masjid compound.
There was little symbolic about the shilanyas puja. It left a trail of bloodshed in the country. And the solemn assurance that the VHP then gave was rather quickly forgotten, when the theme that the judiciary has no competence to adjudicate on a matter of faith was emblazoned across the Hindutva constellation’s political manifesto. Ironically, this was exactly the kind of rhetoric that Advani and Vajpayee, in their avatars as power-seeking rather than power-wielding politicians, proved eager to endorse and echo, little suspecting that it would return to haunt their days in governmental authority.
It is precisely this tarnished history that accounts for the paralysis of decision making that afflicts the Central government. In their reactions to the Gujarat riots, even though delayed, Vajpayee and Advani succeeded in saying what was intuitively obvious to millions of others. But in their attitude towards the Ayodhya mobilisation, they have simply failed to articulate a credible position.
In his speech opening the Budget session of Parliament President K.R. Narayanan affirmed the government’s commitment to maintaining the status quo at Ayodhya. Although the President’s address is considered the most authoritative annual statement of government policy, the Ministers of the Union Cabinet have since been engaged in a bid to find ingenious ways of altering the status quo while pretending that all remains the same. Vajpayee for his part is known to have expressed his resentment at the obstreperousness of the VHP. But he has defaulted on his responsibility to say so publicly. Instead, he has allowed a variety of extra-constitutional figures to speak on behalf of the government.
Shortly after visiting Delhi for mediation efforts with the VHP and Muslim community representatives, the Sankaracharya of Kanchi made public his formula for seeing through the current crisis. It turned out that he had preempted both the response of the government and the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board. The latter has attained, contrary to its mission and mandate, a role in public policy that is perhaps an obverse of the salience the RSS enjoys. But perilously for his own authority, Prime Minister Vajpayee seemed only to be bending with the wind, now allowing the Sankaracharya to make an authoritative statement that the government had agreed to a symbolic ‘yagna’ and the movement of pillars to the ‘undisputed’ land, and then assuring the leadership of the Muslim community that there would be no violation of Supreme Court injunctions. Finally, in the manner of one whose faculties have been paralysed and stands in need of a superior wisdom, Vajpayee seems likely to leave the entire onus of deciding whether any activity can be permitted in the acquired land to the Supreme Court.
The formula offered by the Sankaracharya was simply infeasible because the VHP insisted that it would not depart from its original plan for a temple, which proposes to locate its innermost sanctum on the precise spot where the Babri Masjid stood. Considering that this was really the central issue in the dispute before the judiciary, there was no way that any government could accede to the demand for commencing activity on the site, even in a ‘symbolic’ manner, when the VHP’s track record makes it clear that every concession it succeeds in wheedling out is only further grist for its own obduracy.
The involvement of Sankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati in a mediation effort has not been out of character. The Kanchi sage has often sought a political role for himself in the past and has frequently displayed an ideological bent that puts him out of sympathy with the country’s religious minorities. The leadership of the Muslim community rendered him the reverence that was his due, though they were seemingly never convinced that he could propose a formula that adequately dealt with the complexities involved. His credibility was not enhanced by the rather crass stratagems that the VHP employed, of seeming to yield ground while actually giving nothing away to either his moral authority or to the judicial process.
A schism in the ecclesiastical order of the Sankaracharyas is perhaps foretold by the forthright response of the head of the Govardhan Puri order, Swami Adhokshajananda Devtirth, to the VHP campaign and the violence in Gujarat. Denouncing the communal riots in Gujarat as “state terrorism”, the Puri Sankaracharya alleged that it was being perpetrated with the “direct assistance of VHP office-bearers and the police”. “For the sake of unity and communal harmony and to save the Hindu religion from further degeneration, the VHP should be banned, like the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), and their so-called leaders and activists should be arrested forthwith under the National Security Act,” he demanded. The Puri Sankaracharya’s assertion that the VHP, with all its self-constructed halo of majoritarian virtue, is the moral equivalent of the recently proscribed SIMI may reflect just the kind of conceptual clarity that is required for the government today, if it is serious about tackling the renewed threat of communal mayhem in the country.
If for the BJP and its partners, the Ayodhya crisis can be reduced to the rather crass question of survival as a Ministry, those with greater political scruples have few doubts about the stakes involved. The majoritarian hysteria whipped up over the Ram Janmabhoomi temple enabled the Hindutva fraternity to take a partial, if tenuous, hold of electoral politics. But those gains are now being reversed and a mobilisation to undo some of the damage to the body politic is underway. The revival of the Ayodhya campaign now brings the other institutions of democratic governance, principally the judiciary, within the sights of Hindutva fascism. If on December 6, 1992, the VHP succeeded in authoring the single most destructive act in the troubled history of India’s adventures in political democracy, March 2002 could well be setting the stage for an encore. It may not be hyperbole to say today that democracy in India now faces its stiffest challenge ever. And those in uneasy occupation today of the Governmental space are clearly unequal to the challenge.
This story was first appeared on thehindu.com