By Sharat Pradhan

Lucknow: Till the time the Babri Masjid issue remained politically alive, Kalyan Singh’s precise role in the December 1992 demolition of the 16th century Ayodhya mosque was always a matter of speculation and controversy. By the time he breathed his last on Saturday, everyone accused of conspiring to destroy the masjid had been acquitted and the Supreme Court had already allowed the conspirators to take possession of the crime scene. The crime having thus been ‘erased’, interest in the role of its key dramatis personae understandably abated. The media faithfully reported the eulogies which poured in. Prime Minister Narendra Modi simply noted that “Kalyan Singh was a great man”.

The reasons for Singh’s “greatness” were obvious, even if they cannot openly be recounted by anyone who has taken an oath to uphold the constitution. Three decades back, Kalyan Singh emerged as the most prominent of all Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders  precisely because he was seen as the man who had enabled the demolition of a Muslim place of worship in Ayodhya that the BJP had been targeting for nearly a decade as part of its attempts to sharply polarise the country’s politics on religious lines.

If the mosque had not been illegally destroyed in 1992, the Supreme Court would have found it difficult to allow the Ram temple protagonists to legally demolish it. And Modi would not have been able to officiate at a foundation-laying ceremony at the spot, or use the ‘temple’ to garner support for the BJP in the upcoming assembly elections.

In essence, Kalyan Singh’s “greatness” lay in the fact that he was chief minister of Uttar Pradesh at the time the Babri mosque was brought down. As chief minister, the police and security forces deployed around the masjid – ostensibly for its protection – answered to him. But when the frenzied mob which had assembled there on December 6, 1992, on the call of senior BJP leaders charged the mosque and began destroying it in broad daylight, the police did nothing to stop them. For they had been instructed to stand down.

Kalyan Singh’s government was dismissed the same evening and he was himself charged with being part of the conspiracy to demolish the mosque. Contempt proceedings were also filed against him for misleading the Supreme Court on two counts. Though the apex court never called him to account for violating an assurance that his party cadre would not be allowed to harm the mosque in any way, Singh was jailed for a day and fined Rs 20,000 for a relatively minor matter that had occurred some months prior to the demolition.

He is thus the only BJP leader to have been ‘convicted’ of a crime related to the eventual fate of the mosque.

While L.K. Advani and other BJP leaders who had played a key role in the run up to the demolition chose not to own up to their part – Advani called December 6 “the saddest day” of his life – Kalyan Singh went on to take responsibility for the mosque’s destruction. He admitted on the record, “As chief minister of UP, I had ordered the police not to fire at Ram bhakts who had assembled at Ayodhya in 1992, during the Ram temple movement, which led to demolition of the Babri masjid. I take full responsibility.”

However, whether he was actually one of the key conspirators in a crime that changed the entire course of India’s political history still remains an unanswered question.

As the picture began to unfold that winter day, it became increasingly evident that despite being chief minister, Kalyan Singh did not seem to be fully aware of the demolition plans. There was undoubtedly a conspiracy to bring down the 16th-century Mughal mosque, but it is not clear if the key conspirators chose to fully take Kalyan Singh into confidence before executing their well-orchestrated plan.

I say this because of the shock and dismay that were visible on his crestfallen face that fateful evening when many journalists who had witnessed the events at Ayodhya headed straight for the chief minister’s residence to get his reaction to an act that had literally shaken the entire nation.

Unlike the excitement on display in Ayodhya where senior BJP leaders like Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati made no attempt to hide their glee, the expression on Kalyan Singh’s face was not that of a victorious man. Far from exulting over the accomplishment of a pre-meditated mission, he looked perturbed. Even if the fate of the mosque was not his primary concern, he was certainly bothered by the fact that he would have to give up the coveted position of chief minister – something he had acquired as a ‘backward class’ leader in a party heavily dominated by the upper castes. Never before had the BJP elevated anyone with an OBC lineage to a position of such eminence. And it was he who successfully brought the non-Yadav and non-Kurmi OBCs into not just the party’s fold but Uttar Pradesh’s political mainstream as well. Earlier, the lower castes among the OBCs had not been able to get their due in the social hierarchy of a caste-polarised society .

Kalyan Singh had climbed his ladder the hard way – without a political godfather or any strong caste-based support. It was by sheer dint of merit that he made his way up, overcoming obstacles at every step. Sure enough, he was in no mood to give up that prized position barely 18 months after leading the BJP to an unprecedented win of 221 seats in the 425-member state assembly in 1991. Also, he had earned the reputation of an efficient chief minister, which he was clearly keen to consolidate.

But the inevitable happened and he was left with no choice but to step down. What followed was a long struggle that eventually gave him yet another two-year stint between 1997 and 1999 as UP chief minister. But that was a tenure full of controversies. He was in for a roller-coaster ride that propelled him on to a path of revolt against his own mentor, BJP stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Eventually, he was compelled to leave the party in December 1999.

Kalyan Singh did not give up and chose to set up his own political outfit, the Jan Kranti Party. He did not even hesitate to align with his one-time arch political foe Mulayam Singh Yadav, the chief of Samajwadi Party. But realising the futility of the move he had made in utter desperation, he sought and managed his return to the BJP fold in 2004. However, by then he had lost his one-time clout and also undermined the stature he once enjoyed.

A decade later, he found himself rehabilitated by Modi, who made him governor of Rajasthan in August 2014. By the time he returned to Uttar Pradesh in 2019, he was already 87. However, he did succeed in bargaining for an MP’s position for his son Rajveer Singh (elected from Etah in 2014 and 2019) and a ministerial berth for his grandson Sandeep Singh in the Yogi Adityanath government.

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