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THE GREAT CATASTROPHE

babri masjid

The overall national situation following the Ayodhya catastrophe has turned disturbingly murky. The aggressive response from the BJP and the allied forces of the politically organised Hindu community on one side and the underlining impotence of the Government at the Centre on the other, basically explains why this is so. The apparent absence of capabilities within the system to produce any immediate viable alternative at the national level is widely recognised. It is akin to a guaranteed failure of alleviation of a malignant disease that is upon us.

This means essentially three things. The communal situation around the country is the worst since the partition riots - with a shocking level of brutality and violence taking over a thousand civilian lives and with a new type of ideological polarisation taking shape on raw communal lines.

Secondly, there is a clear inability in the system to come to a proper moral and political appraisal by sorting out right from wrong with regard to what has happened. The Hindutva forces are unrepentant and vicious in their defence of the indefensible, those like the incumbent Sankaracharya of the Kanchi mutt are advocating a course of action that is closely aligned to the BJP - VHP - RSS posture, and the top leadership of the party of the Central Government is attempting desperately to make a virtue of its criminal dereliction of duty, pretending that it acted correctly and is not at all to be blamed for what happened on December 6, 1992.

Third, and this follows from the second aspect- there is no indication whatever that a correct line of action to get on top of the terrible situation is in the works.

The ideological polarisation, if not civil war, in the country is expressed in the fact that from a secular - democratic standpoint December 6, 1992 will go down in Indian histroy as a day of infamy, a day of national shame and grief whereas from Hindutva's standpoint it will long remain a red-letter day of glory and celebration. What happened on that day was a grievous blow to all principles of secularism, democracy and civilised nationhood that we are supposed to uphold as precious parts of our heritage. That is what the vile and barbaric act of destruction of the Babri Masjid by the organised forces of Hindu communalism - the VHP - BJP - RSS combine plus fringe elements like the Shiv Sena - amounts to.

By this (un)response to this unprecedented crisis, Prime Minister Narsimha Rao has ensured his place as the greatest bungler among independent India's Heads of Government. This ‘devotee of drift’ shamelessly appeased Hindu communalism, misjudged the situation repeatedly and with a vengeance, against better advice from non-BJP national opposition parties and some leaders within his own party, miserably failed to understand what was at stake and where events were leading, and therefore to act, in time, to uphold the principle of secularism, the rule of law and the constitution; and went into a calamitous paralysis of political and moral will as the catastrophe began to happen. It is quite incredible that the country's oldest political party has concluded at least for now, that this bungler non pareil is irreplaceable.

Amidst other things, Narasimha Rao has cited the principles of federalism as an excuse for not acting until after the horses had bolted the stable. It was not as though he, and the party he heads, have any conscientious objection to invoking Article 356 of the Constitution. After all, this knife provided by the Constitution to the Centre against the state has been used well over 90 times since 1950 - overwhelmingly by a Congress Centre.

Principles are not absolutes : this specific case demands that the principles of federalism must be weighed against the higher principles of secularism, democracy and modern civilisation. Even under the highly federal U.S. Constitution, the Federal government is armed with powers (through Article IV, Section 4) to guarantee in each and every State a "republican form of government" in the event of its subversion and overriding "political function" that is beyond the ken of the courts of Law. In India, what was cooking in Uttar Pradesh represented the rarest of rare cases : if Article 356 did not exist, it would have had to be invented to rid the nation of the Kalyan Singh Government because it was this Government which facilitated and saw through in action the whole diabolical conspiracy against secularism, democracy and all values of modern civilisation.

One must also note that the costly failure of other institutions, including the judiciary must not be made a scapegoat for the primary bungling by the Centre and the prime minister, but the honest judgement today must be that the Supreme Court of India did not cover itself with glory in this episode. It opted to play a somewhat activist role in response to the Hindutva challenge to the rule of law, went some way in seeking and receiving assurances from the U.P. Government, even worked out a sort of monitoring arrangement on the ground, and rightly warned the executive branch that it could not run away from its principle responsibility of acting in the crisis.

The supreme court erred seriously in its judgement not of the issues but of the explosive potential in the situation. It would be appropriate for the apex court to undertake some self-introspection amidst the ruins of a chapter in which it played a rather important role. Had it prohibited the kar seva under the murky and suspicious circumstances, a supine Narasimha Rao Government would probably have been forced to act before and not after the horses had bolted the stable.

Similarly, the special bench of the Allahabad High Court has unanimously quashed the BJP State Government's notification for the acquisition of 2.77 acres of land in the disputed circumstances. This has fully exposed the illegitimacy of the key facilitating act, which paved the way for the kar seva and the demolition. But tragically, the illegitimation came five days after the deed had been done. In retrospect (assuming, as we must, with a High Court that the verdict would have been precisely the same had it come in the pre-karseva period), the five days from December 6, 1992 to December 11, 1992 provided an unbelievable window of opportunity for the wreckers of secularism. Timing and tactics exploiting the weakness in the system eventually became the key to the demolition.

The Narasimha Rao dispensation has, in its characteristically half hearted way, moved against the communal forces starting with L.K. Advani and Co. on a relatively minor charge and going on to ban the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the RSS along with two communal Islamic organisations. The Prime Minister has also provided the nation no less than a commission of inquiry, perhaps the prosecution of Kalyan Singh, and even a White Paper on what happened in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. But who is to inquire into the Prime Minister's and the Central Government's share of the responsibility for the developments in Ayodhya and round the nation ?

The Prime Minister has shamelessly decided to ignore the just demands for his resignation and to brazen it out. He presides over a discredited and normally confused government which cannot have much of a political life left under the circumstances.

It is necessary and just that the strongest criminal action must be taken against all those involved in this great outrage and crime, including all the top BJP and VHP and RSS leaders. Effective deterrent steps must also be taken to halt the march of communalism round the nation.

But the imperative need of the crisis is a clear-sighted, principled and firm course of political action that must campaign hard and win broad support among the people. The Government, and all of secular-democratic India, must at least at this stage arrive at the realisation that there is something notably perverse in the system - and the legal-political process - treating as open, triable and negotiable the question of whether a 16th century mosque should be allowed to stand.

For much of the past decade, the Hindutva forces and the violently anti-secular Ram-Janmabhoomi movement have been on the strategic offensive, they have tiressly sought to take the high ground of (manipulated) faith - for cold-blooded political gain.

Faith is not easy to measure or to put your finger on, but we do know what happened soon after Independence to initiate the mischief against the Babri Masjid.

The original sin against secularism (which involves, unquestionably, a fairness principle) and the rule of law occurred on December 22-23, 1949, when the Ram idol "suddenly" and "miraculously" materialised in the heart of the Babri Masjid. The state failed to take a principled stand and undo the practical effect of the communal and criminal mischief. What stood out then, as much as in the latest chapter was the absence of political will at the top to adhere to the basic principles of secularism.

Between 1951 and 1986, since the "disputed" structure was attached and went into receivership, "things remained relatively quiet in Faizabad" (to quote historian Sushil Srivastava in "The Disputed Mosque : A Historical Inquiry"). Then came the second and very costly wrong turn. The doors of the mosque were unlocked on February 1, 1986 and the Hindu communalists were allowed to establish a Ram temple in the central sanctum, whereas the Imam was not allowed to hold prayers in the mosque. This through a court decision in which the Rajiv Gandhi Government, attempting to play the "Hindu Card" for presumed electoral gain (after the 1985 "cave-in to Muslim fundamentalism" on Shah Bano) had a collusive hand. The assurances given to the Hindu communal forces before the court decision and the failure to appeal against it revealed the hand.

The third unprincipled compromise was made by a desperate Rajiv Gandhi regime a few days before the 1989 general elections : the VHP was allowed to perform shilanyas (that is, ceremonially lay a foundation stone for the Ram temple) on November 9, 1989 on disputed land which was fraudulently and temporarily declared to be undisputed. This did not help the Congress (I) to stave off electoral defeat, but by conceding new ground it greatly helped the VHP-BJP-RSS combine to advance its reactionary and disintegrative campaign on "Ram-Janmabhoomi" through change of regime.

Narasimha Rao's aimless dithering on the problem, reflecting moral confusion and political opportunism, has led to the fourth and most calamitous "Blunder" in the series. Failing to take over the disputed site (as demanded repeatedly by the Left) after the saffron brigade virtually announced its demolition plan in late October 1992, failing to indicate a clear line of political and administrative action in the Supreme Court, and failing to act against the Kalyan Singh Government in time - not out of any respect for federal principles, but by way of unprincipled appeasement of the Hindutva forces - have proved very, very costly for the integrity of the national and civil society.

The Central Government continues to dither over the issue. What is called for is firm, decisive and consistent action to put down the communal forces especially the Hindutva organisations. The Centre must acquire the site and take immediate steps to rebuild the Babri Masjid at Government expenses on the very same site where it stood until December 6, 1992 - as part of secular India's unyielding dtermination to respect the faith and rights of minority and to re-commit itself to the achievement of a secular, democratic and civilised society. As a supportive gesture, a Babri Masjid Rebuilding Fund should be launched and enthusiastically supported at the national level, as a good way of promoting public participation in this vital national cause.

No more should there by any talk of building a "Ramjanmabhoomi" temple on the site where the Babri Masjid stood from the 16th Century. In this regard, the Central Government and all secular parties should co-operate in enacting speedily the necessary legislation at the national level - to rule out on a permanent basis any 'dispute' over this issue and also to illegalise any demand or campaign for altering the status quo relating to any place of worship round the nation. Immediately, even before that is done, the idol illegally planted back by the kar sevaks (the first illegal planting, it bears reiteration, was in 1949) after the destruction of the Babri Masjid be removed to a secure place.

Secularism means essentially two things. First, there must be a guarantee that people belonging to various faiths and sections of society are equal before the law, the Constitution and Government policy - in other words, there must be no discrimination against anyone on grounds of religion. It inevitably follows that within such a system there can be no hegemony of majoritarian religious sentiments and aspirations (as demanded repeatedly by Advani in his discourses on 'pseudo-secularism' and implied in Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha's unprincipled and ill-fated intervention in the National Integration Council debate of November 23, 1992). Secondly - and this is equally vital - there must be no mixing up of religion and politics. Contemporary world history is replete with examples of countries and people getting into deep trouble through floating this wise and irreducible principle of secularism.

Proper lessons must be learned from the Ayodhya catastrophe. Political parties, trade unions and mass organisations and people committed to a civilised and sane democratic future for India must undertake a bold and principled campaign in defence of secularism - the oxygen without which India cannot possibly survive as a nation.