There’s something afoot in Ayodhya. A set of political and legal events, unfolding almost in lockstep, are deigning to bring back to life a theme that fundamentally altered India’s polity and inflected community relations at a deep, symbolic level a quarter century ago. This week, India marks the 25th anniversary of December 6, 1992—a whole generation has grown up in the post-Babri Masjid demolition phase. But the social amnesia that usually attends such events is poised to break. The signals are crystal clear. Ayodhya is no longer a frayed slogan from the past, a vague promise from the BJP’s own directive principles. It’s a live issue, and the construction of a Ram mandir will be a concrete thing India’s ruling party will take to the 2019 election—perhaps even as an accomplishment.
The straws in the wind have been there for a while. Witness what happened on May 31, the day after a special CBI court filed charges of conspiracy against veteran BJP leaders L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati in the demolition case. Ayodhya sprang to life as Yogi Adityanath came to pay obeisance to Ram Lalla—the first chief minister of UP to visit the disputed Ramjanmabhoomi site in 15 years. Slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Mandir Yaheen Banaayenge’ mingled with shlokas as Yogi prayed to the deity. The message was unequivocal: the vanvaas is over and Ram, the mobiliser, is coming home.
The chief minister was back in the temple town on Diwali-eve, symbolically welcoming the Prince of Ayodhya back from his exile. The town was resplendent as 1.71 lakh diyas—equal to the population of Ayodhya—lined the banks of Sarayu with the temples as the backdrop. The symbolism couldn’t have been more compelling as the saffron-clad Yogi, an unapologetically Hindutva figure now in power, performed the aarati on the river bank.
So the flag-bearers may have changed. Senior leaders Advani and Joshi, for long the face of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, have receded from centrestage. But the BJP is showing a new keenness to resuscitate ‘Mandir’—which rivalled ‘Mandal’ in the 1990s as India’s predominant political theme—so as to present it as a pledge redeemed in the run-up to the 2019 elections. If things go according to script, temple construction may start by October next year and be substantially done—much of the architectural elements are ready and it’s only a matter of assembling—before the crucial summer after that.
The attention being bestowed on Ayodhya by the Yogi regime at present is aimed at “transforming a hitherto neglected city”. There’s a plan to build a Rs 225 crore Ram museum—with the outward appearance of a temple—and a Ram statue on the banks of Sarayu. The idea is to keep alive the hopes of people who wish to see a Ram mandir as reality, while the legally enabling factors are worked out. As also to rebuild the old narrative to bring the issue back centrestage in the political landscape of the country.
“Certain events are happening in different parts of the country. Apparently unrelated, they are actually converging to make Ram mandir a rallying point,” says a senior BJP leader. Last week, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat imparted a fresh impetus to the theme by reiterating at a dharam sansad—a congregation of 2,000 Hindu saints, math chiefs and VHP leaders in Udupi—that only a Ram mandir will be built at the disputed site and no other structure can come up there. At the first dharam sansad in 1984, the demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya was raised. After which, as things heated up, then PM Rajiv Gandhi had fatefully played his own little Hindu card by getting the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi site unlocked in 1986. This was after having first erred grievously on the other side with his Shah Bano move a year before that—a set of two blunderous chess gambits that form the crucial double helix around which Indian politics evolved.
Bhagwat, speaking in the tones of a final arbiter, was responding to various recent moves towards mediation and an out-of-court settlement, the latest being from Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The RSS supremo was critical of Sri Sri’s efforts, saying it was unwarranted and there’s no locus standi for a mediator when the matter is in the Supreme Court.
Sri Sri had tried a round of mediations back in 2005 too. That ended abruptly when he suggested that Muslims hand over the site to the Hindus and withdraw all cases. Earlier this year, then chief justice J.S. Khehar had suggested that an out-of-court settlement would be a desirable option. The godman’s renewed attempt comes in that context, but besides the RSS, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board too has been skeptical of it due to his earlier stand.
The legal theatre is where it will play out as of now. The Supreme Court is to pick up the case on December 5 and take it up for day-to-day hearing. The political clouds are gathering around this legal theatre. Sources in the BJP say Sri Sri got into the imbroglio on the party leadership’s request. “The BJP wanted to test the waters and also gauge the minority mood. It’s obvious the RSS did not approve of the effort,” a party leader says.
RSS publicity chief Manmohan Vaidya endorses what Bhagwat said. “The court is going to have daily hearings and the verdict is likely to come soon. It is better to wait for the Supreme Court verdict than go in for mediations at this juncture,” he tells Outlook. He refuses to comment on whether it will be an election issue for the BJP.
Everyone in the Sangh parivaar is optimistic that the temple will soon be a reality. VHP leader Surendra Kumar Jain, in fact, asserts that construction will begin on October 18, 2018—exactly a year after Yogi’s Ayodhya Diwali. “The Supreme Court decision will come within three to four months. We have kept everything in mind before declaring the date,” Jain says.
But how is he certain the Supreme Court decision will go in their favour? “The writing is on the wall,” he says. “There are no ifs and buts. We are not prejudging the judiciary. It’s just that the court will have to take cognisance of all the evidence…and we are confident about the evidence put on record. There are radar surveys and Archaeological Survey of India reports. Digging was done in front of a panel that had a Muslim judge. Now even Muslims are agreeing to building a mandir at the site.”
Jain denies the issue has come into the limelight due to the 2019 polls. “We are not doing it for the polls. It has always been our stand. But one thing is certain—jo Ram mandir ka saath dega, samaaj usi ka saath dega (people will support whoever supports the temple),” he says. The BJP never forgot to pay lip service to Ram even when it fought elections on the development plank. The Modi campaign in 2014 refrained from making the temple—the buzzword instead was development. However, the party manifesto did have the mandatory line tucked away towards the end of the document—“the BJP reiterates its stand to explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.”
A senior party leader, who was part of the manifesto committee, says there was a long debate whether to include the line or not. “One view was to ignore the issue altogether. However, we finally decided to reiterate the party’s commitment to building the temple. Either way we would have been criticised. If we had not included it, people would have said we have given up on the Ram temple. At least we could keep our core constituency happy,” the leader explains.
The resolution depends on whether the court decides to hear the case as a property dispute or as a matter of constitutional secularism with implications of a social nature. In the latter case, it will open up a discussion with wide ramifications. If the judges decide to amicably settle the issue, they will look upon it as a civil appeal, which is what it is technically. That is where the case lies today, by strict interpretation a property dispute, but otherwise a constitutional matter.
By ramping up the issue now, the BJP is trying to expand its saffron constituency. It always saw Hindutva as a magic mantra to agglomerate all voting segments—Dalits, backwards, adivasis or elite castes—under one ‘Hindu’ umbrella and what was only implied in 2014 will be overt in 2019. “It worked like a charm in the UP assembly elections. When the SP-Congress combine and the BSP were all talking about minorities, there was a reaction from the Hindus. The polarisation happened more from their side than from the BJP,” says a party general secretary.
The BJP leadership is aware that the party has already reached its zenith in states like UP, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat in terms of the number of Lok Sabha seats. And while trying to break new ground in the south and east, it cannot afford to lose too many seats in its old strongholds.
“Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah are shrewd enough to realise that some amount of disillusionment is setting in on account of economic measures like demonetisation and GST as also unemployment. That’s why the renewed reliance on Ram. The choice of Yogi as UP chief minister was part of the same plan,” the general secretary adds.
Yogi is being tried as a Hindutva mascot outside UP too—recently he had an outing in Kerala amid an Islamist Popular Front of India induced conversion controversy, and is also a star campaigner in Gujarat. Historian Gyanesh Kudaisya of the National University of Singapore reads a significant pattern in the way Yogi is centrestage. He believes it’s Gorakhpur rather than Nagpur that calls the shots on Ayodhya. He notes, “In December 1949, Mahant Digvijay Nath of Gorakhpur performed a 9-day ritual before the idols were placed at Ayodhya. Now the Mahant’s successor in the Gorakhnath sect, Yogi Adityanath, occupies the CM’s gaddi at Lucknow.” Yogi’s immediate guru, Mahant Avaidyanath, who had succeeded Digvijay Nath, was a key early figure in the temple movement, founding the Sri Ramjanmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti in 1984 that launched a procession from Sitamarhi in Bihar to Ayodhya, with the mission of “liberating” the Ram temple.
Evidence at hand, textual or architectural, doesn’t prove Ayodhya was Ramjanmabhoomi. Babri Masjid is disputed at two levels: history and popular tradition. So, where do you go from here? The basic theme of Indian culture is acceptance of difference. Monotheism, invested in ‘Lord Ram’, and turning difference into adversity poses a grave challenge to India’s character. Every ‘non-believer’ is painted as following a falsehood and the belief that ultimately my truth shall prevail is propagated. What is happening over Babri is destroying Hindu culture.
BJP leaders, in fact, say political equations—Modi at the Centre and Yogi in UP—leave Muslims with no choice but to give up their claim on the disputed land. They say the September 2010 order of the Allahabad High Court is not feasible to implement on ground. The court had ordered that the land where the demolished structure stood be divided into three parts—two in favour of Hindu groups Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas and the third for the Sunni Muslim Waqf Board.
VHP leader Jain chimes in, saying, “The Muslims can’t build the Babri structure again. They know it, and yet they are delaying the mandir’s construction. They can delay, but not deny. And now, they can’t even delay anymore,” he says. That the law has moved at a glacial pace till now—neither the nearly 200-year-old land dispute nor the criminal cases relating to the demolition have seen resolution—has almost come in handy now.
The legal history is a bit of a maze. Journalist Manjula Lal , author of In Search of Ram Rajya (2017), scanned colonial-era records and found the first reference to Babri Masjid standing on the site of ‘Ramjanmabhoomi’ in court records of 1822. What made a Faizabad court official make this statement is not known, but it became part of the narrative that continues till date. In the 1850s, the Nirmohi Akhara made its first claim on the land. In the 1870s, a Wakf trustee, Sayyed Mohammad Asghar, petitioned the courts on several points, such as claims on the land around the mosque, seeking the removal of an idol placed in the courtyard and rent from a priest who was using a platform around the mosque for rituals and offering prayers on religious occasions.
These disputes seem to have been decided by the colonial courts, which always had an imperial agenda to divide and rule. In the present disputes, there are two separate cases. One is the overarching title suit where the Supreme Court has to decide the true ownership of the land—which kicked off in 1950, after the “sudden materiliasation” of idols inside the mosque in 1949. (The Allahabad High Court had decided on the three-way partition that the VHP says is infeasible, and all three parties had appealed to the apex court). The other is the criminal case relating to the masjid’s demolition—one on hate speeches by Hindutva leaders, and another on the conspiracy.
Attempts to mediate too have a bit of a history. In 1990, then prime minister Chandrashekhar had tried it—it fell flat after the VHP withdrew from it. In October 1992, the new PM P.V. Narasimha Rao too initiated talks but the extra-judicial demolition came just two months later, and that was that. The Rao government later set up the one-man Liberhan Commission in 1992 to probe the conspiracy behind the demolition within three months. The exercise took 17 years and ended up exonerating many of the BJP leaders. Long, meandering years adding up to nothing—that history of stasis seems to be ending.
By Bhavna Vij-Aurora and Ushinor Majumdar