January 16, 2016

India - 23 years after the demolition Babri Mosque in Ayodhya: There is a rumble in the rubble (Vikas Pathak)

The Hindu
January 14, 2016

There is a rumble in the rubble

Vikas Pathak

The Hindu
"Discussions on the Ram temple help fringe organisations retain the spotlight on themselves.” Picture shows the scene at Shri Ram Janam Bhumi Trust workshop in Ayodhya. Stone carving on pillars, slabs and bricks have been done at this workshop for possible temple at Babri Masjid-Ram Janam Bhumi site. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt
— Photo: PTI

The VHP’s heightened pitch for a Ram temple in Ayodhya might be a bid on its part to retain relevance, but it will also give the organisationally weak BJP communal traction in U.P.

Twenty-three years after the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished, and 19 months after the Narendra Modi government swept to power on a promise of good governance, the Ram temple campaign seems to be picking up again, even if lazily.

Many see in this an attempt on the part of Sangh Parivar groups to polarise Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) and create some buzz around the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after its dismal loss in the Assembly elections in neighbouring Bihar; the State goes to polls early in 2017. Others say this is more a bid on the part of organisations such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) to stay relevant.

Many in the BJP, however, warn that the Ram temple as an electoral issue may have lost relevance in U.P., unless a temple indeed comes up. This, however, is beyond the party’s capacity to deliver in the near future. The Ayodhya title suit is pending in the Supreme Court after the Allahabad High Court in 2010 divided the land between the Hindu and Muslim litigants, a verdict both sides appealed against.

VHP’s fight for relevance

On December 6, the VHP’s youth wing, Bajrang Dal, observed Shaurya Diwas (Valour Day) to mark the 23rd anniversary of the demolition of the Babri mosque. Two weeks later, truckloads of engraved stones began to arrive in the temple town, generating political heat. “We require more stones for a grand temple to be built in Ayodhya. We have waited for long and the government should now get a law passed in Parliament to facilitate the construction of the temple,” was how VHP joint general secretary Surendra Jain defended the development.

Many BJP leaders say the VHP — a fellow constituent of the Sangh Parivar — fears a complete loss of clout and wants to stay relevant by raising core Hindutva issues, something the ruling party at the Centre may be in no position to control or calibrate. The VHP has lost stature in recent years as the Ram temple movement lost its appeal. Its clout among Hindus apart, the death of its stalwart, Ashok Singhal, in November 2015 seems to have brought down the VHP’s standing even in BJP circles. Mr. Singhal was seen to be the only VHP leader with deep access at top levels of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and BJP. It is reported that Mr. Modi does not get along well with VHP international working president Pravin Togadia. It is also felt that the VHP post-Singhal may be less concerned about whether a renewed temple pitch may cause embarrassment to the Modi government.

The RSS, which has much greater clout as the fountainhead of the Sangh Parivar, is much more reticent in speaking on core issues. Rare statements apart, it avoids being seen as leading the pack on any Hindutva issue. It has in recent times backed the Modi government on a number of difficult decisions, including its bid to engage Pakistan — which is unlikely to find favour with hard-line followers of Hindutva who want a belligerent line on Pakistan — despite the Pathankot attack.

However, the RSS often has to display in-principle support for Hindutva issues so as to not lose its core hard-line constituency. This makes the Sangh issue statements in favour of the Ram temple every now and then.

In December, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had said in Kolkata, “The temple will be built within my lifetime… Maybe we will see it with our own eyes. None can say when and how the temple will be constructed, but we need to be prepared and ready.”

On January 4, RSS leader Indresh Kumar said that Muslims of India should choose to be seen as descendants of Hasan Khan Mewati, who fought Mughal ‘invader’ Babur in alliance with the Rajput warrior Rana Sanga “to defend the country” and died a martyr’s death. Speaking in the capital at the release of a book titled ShriRam Mandir, Mr. Kumar, who is also patron of the Sangh’s Muslim outreach wing Muslim Rashtriya Manch, thus sought to present opposition to Babur as the cornerstone of Indian nationalism, a view endorsed by Hindutva forces that talk of “1,000 years of slavery” that Hindus purportedly suffered. A Ram temple in Ayodhya, in such a schema, becomes a symbol of “national reawakening”.

The Sangh is likely to offer intermittent support to the Ram temple rhetoric in times to come.

Electoral compulsions in U.P.

The BJP wants to talk a language of governance rather than Hindutva at the national level, and particularly at the global level. It is aware that while Hindutva gives it a distinctive identity, it must be underplayed to shield the ruling party and the Modi government from criticism.

But it does become a default option where the BJP is organisationally weak, indicating that the party may have to use it in a calibrated manner in the run-up to the polls in U.P. in 2017. Two things dictate such an approach: the BJP’s outstanding electoral success in 2014 was built on the edifice of rich pickings from the large northern states of U.P. and Bihar, with U.P. alone giving the party and its allies 73 seats out of the State’s 80; and the difficulty of emulating its performance in the general election in the State given the fact that the party’s State-level machinery isn’t a patch on that of the two main claimants to power there, the ruling Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

While the “Modi wave” of 2014 enabled the BJP to sweep the State, party leaders say the U.P. Assembly polls would be very different. The issues would be more regional, to begin with. The party is unlikely to pit the Prime Minister against the BSP’s Mayawati or incumbent Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav to avoid a repeat of the Bihar debacle. And even if it does showcase the Prime Minister, the party organisation may be lacking the firepower to convert Mr. Modi’s high-profile rallies into votes. In such a scenario, Hindutva is likely to be on the agenda, as the party has few options otherwise. This would become all the more pronounced in the State as the SP too may adopt the politics of polarisation to retain Muslim support; SP leader Azam Khan has been accused of making polarising statements off and on anyway.

Times when the BJP is in power end up also becoming times when Hindutva and Sangh Parivar outfits are discussed more often. Even if much of this discussion is negative, it helps fringe organisations retain the spotlight on themselves, giving their communal ideas a certain currency in political discourse.