Ayodhya 2019: Building the Ram Temple is tougher than destroying Babri

File photo of bricks collected by kar sevaks for the proposed temple at a workshop in Ayodhya Photo: Sahil Makkar
Near the Hanuman Garhi temple in Ayodhya, which Congress president Rahul Gandhi visited in 2016, is the mansion of Sant Gyan Das, guarded by two elderly policemen with decrepit guns and dysfunctional walkie-talkies. Not long ago, Sant Das, the chief of the Ayodhya-based Nirvani Akhara, was the most powerful figure in the Hindu theological circuit. He was the head of the All-India Akhara Parishad which charts the theological course for Hinduism at events like the Kumbh Mela. In many ways, these akharas are the spiritual fountains that feed the Sangh Parivar, which in turn fuels the politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 2016, facing criminal charges including reportedly those of murder, Sant Das was overthrown. But he remains the only one among the akhara leaders who came close to achieving an out-of-court settlement for the construction of a temple and a mosque at Ram Janmabhoomi after the Allahabad High Court verdict in 2010. However, that doesn’t seem have gone down well with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which struck down Sant Das’s idea of a temple and mosque at the same site separated by a 100-foot wall. The settlement failed amid fierce opposition and the politics of Babri Masjid continued to rage.

“Was the Modi government sleeping all this while? Six months before an election, have they suddenly realised that a Ram temple also needs to be constructed? What is this if not a political stunt? When I was head of the All-India Akhara Parishad and used to hold extensive consultations on the way forward on Ram Mandir with all other saints, we were close to a solution. But the VHP people, including Ashok Singhal and Vinay Katiyar, did not let it happen. Singhal, who is now no more, stopped the compromise. It doesn’t take long to destroy something. It takes a long time to create something” says Gyan Das, still a burly man despite his advancing age.

While Sant Das is not as powerful as he was in the past, there is a growing discontent among various akharas in Ayodhya and Ujjain against the Modi government over the handling of the Ram Janmabhoomi issue. All these akharas will be meeting during the Kumbh Mela in Prayaagraj (formerly Allahabad) and want the government to come out with a plan of action before their brainstorming session begins at the Dharam Sansad (Conclave of Faith) at Kumbh Mela in January 2019.

Sant Gyan Das remains the only one among akhara leaders who came close to achieving an out-of-court settlement for the construction of a temple and a mosque at Ram Janmabhoomi after the Allahabad High Court verdict in 2010. Photo: Sai Manish
Sant Krishnadas of the Ayodhya-based Digambar Akhada is even more vitriolic. “Those in power at the centre want to retain their power for eternity. There is no certainty about when the Supreme Court will decide the issue. The Modi government has come to power by promising a temple for Ram. Now when a situation has arisen for his government’s intervention, there is no plan of action on the construction of a Ram temple. He deserves to lose his power,” he says.

Ramakant Joshi of the Haridwar-based Panchayati Mahanirvani Akhara, which was one of the akharas that participated in the religious conclave at Ujjain Kumbh Mela last year, says, “Four and a half years ago, Modi was appointed prime minister with the full support of the community of saints. Neither have we seen any action nor do we see any intention on behalf of this government to act. What will they do in the remaining six months of their tenure now? They will try to use Ram as a poll plank in 2019. We will decide the next course of action during the Kumbh if the government does not do anything before that. We won’t wait for them anymore.”

Mahant Rajendra Das of the Nirmohi Akhara, which is one of the parties in the case before the Supreme Court, was, however, more optimistic about the role of the government than the judicial process. “We have lost faith in the judiciary. Now, everything has to be done by the government. The Modi government at the Centre and the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh have done more than any other government in the past on building of the Ram temple. We will continue to support the Modi government’s efforts and exert pressure whenever need be.”

In many ways, the discontent among the religious heads was echoed by the Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangh (RSS) at its recently concluded conclave in Mumbai which was attended by BJP president Amit Shah among others. The RSS in its official statement at the culmination of the conclave said, “It is for the government to decide when it wants to enact a law or promulgate an ordinance on the issue of Ram temple. We are not putting any pressure on the government in connection with the Ram temple. The honourable saints should be consulted and a solution should be found. Any government runs on a balance between consensus and law. The government did not construct the temple in spite of having majority – this shows its faith in the court. The court too should understand the sensitivities of the issue and think on it.” 

While the RSS statement looks dovish, its general secretary Bhaiyyaji Joshi was reported to have said that the RSS was open to re-launching an agitation like the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the 1980s and 1990s that led to the demolition of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya. Joshi was replying to specific questions from media persons on whether the RSS would consider launching a mass agitation if no solution seemed to be in sight soon.

So if the option seems to be between legislation or ordinance and reigniting a mass agitation, how would both pan out?

All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) member and a counsel in the Ram Janmabhoomi case Zafaryab Jilani believes there are three major grounds on which the Modi government’s move to bring a law or pass an ordinance would be ultra-vires of the Indian Constitution. Firstly, if the government talks of acquiring the disputed land, it won’t be able to do so because the disputed land remains in temporary ownership of the centre according to the Acquisition of Certain Areas at Ayodhya Act, 1993. During the pendency of the case in the Supreme Court, the central government has to remain the receiver of this property. Secondly, if the government legislates on any religious structure at the site, it would be going against the secular principles of the constitution. This too has legal precedence as seen in the S R Bommai case of 1994. The building of Ram temple, according to Jilani, does not constitute ‘public purpose’. Thirdly, the Supreme Court in its ruling has ordered for status quo to be maintained. While it is unclear if this binds the government, Jilani believes it is not possible for the government to negate a Supreme Court order to maintain status quo through an ordinance. “If the government decides to take the legislation or ordinance route, we will challenge that in court” says Jilani.

Back in Ayodhya at VHP’s base camp at Karsewakpuram, long-time VHP foot soldier Hazaari Lal provides insights into what a mass movement may look like. Hazaari Lal, who now mans the replica of the proposed Ram Mandir at Karsewakpuram, was one of those on top of the Babri mosque’s dome bringing it down on December 6, 1992. He says, “At the Dharam Sansad, when a date is decided by the saints for building the Ram temple, our karseva will start. This will be communicated to all our pracharaks in the Sangh Parivar -– Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini. Karyakartas will then be summoned but the workers will be selectively chosen. When the Ram temple is built, there will be fear of Hindu-Muslim enmity resurfacing. So the administration will do what it has to do to control the situation. Whenever the karyakartas are summoned, it will be in the form of a mass movement. Not everyone will be in the loop about how and when it will be done.”

But why would the Sangh Parivar launch a 1990s-style Ram Janmabhoomi movement just before the national elections, when it could potentially backfire on the BJP? Hazaari Lal continues, “Yes, elections are around the corner. If it is decided to hold back for the moment, karyakartas will have to be re-oriented. They will be told that they have waited so many years. So wait some more time. We will push for Ram temple after the elections. Till then the workers should mobilise politically to help the BJP win. We have seen so many people – the Congress for 70 years, Mulayam and Mayawati for 20 years or so. All we saw was corruption and their bank accounts grow. They gave nothing to society. Now all these thieves are forming a grand alliance. And Modi is doing a good job. So if the priority for the moment is to help Modi win, the energies of the karyakartas will be diverted appropriately.”

When reminded about Gyan Das’ assertion that it was easy to destroy a mosque but difficult to build a temple, Hazaari Lal stands up and reaches for a switch. He turns it on and points this correspondent to the replica of the proposed Ram Mandir. “Look there. You see the blue light?” This correspondent looks and a strip of blue light illuminates the top of the pillars all along the replica. He continues, “Those pillars, they still exist. The mosque’s dome built on top above that strip of blue light is what we brought down in 1992. What we have to do now is build the shikhara on top. Our Ram continues to reside in a tent while we live in secured homes. This won’t continue for long.”

In effect, there seem to be multiple pulls and pressures driven by faith, politics and law dictating the course of Ram Janmabhoomi at the moment. The Hindu saints feel they have waited long enough. Some of these theological chiefs feel the Supreme Court is in no hurry and with the majority it commands in Parliament, the Modi government must take things in its own hands. A certain section of faith heads accuses the Modi government of miserably failing to act on the construction of Ram temple and raking up the issue in pursuit of votes in the 2019 Parliamentary elections. This stream of the spiritual fountain wants Modi and the BJP to be electorally punished. Another section of these akharas believe despite the judicial delays and the government’s inability to commit to a legislation, Modi and the BJP remain the best bet for making them witness the resurrection of a Ram temple at the birthplace of Ram during their remaining lifetimes. This stream, as exemplified by the Nirmohi Akhara which is a party to the case, feels betrayed by the judiciary. 

Then there is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which hopes the highest court would act more expeditiously when it meets in January to decide the next date of hearing. Then there are the vociferous foot soldiers of the Sangh Parivar – VHP, Bajrang Dal and the like – ready to be pressed into action for building the Ram temple in Ayodhya without regard to any repercussions on law and order. Then there is the BJP, which will strategise to maximise gains from the extreme polarisation that could follow the resurgence of Ayodhya centred Hindutva forces. Then there is the Modi government which is being pressured to take the ordinance route like it did with triple talaq. And then the Muslims, who feel that any ordinance or legislation that talks of only a Ram temple will not be allowed to go unchallenged in courts. Any ordinance that talks of constructing both a temple and a mosque at the same site meanwhile would be unthinkable for the Sangh Parivar. And finally, the residents of Ayodhya who have slowly started enjoying the fruits of increased religious tourism that has come their way after the Yogi Adityanath government came to power in the state. Adityanath’s proposed Rs 7.55 billion Ram statue could further boost tourism and give the BJP a chance of portraying to be doing at least something if not nothing for Ram.

So as 2019 approaches, faith and politics seem to be running high in Ayodhya after lying low for two decades. Perhaps, its patience that’s wearing thin.

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