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The grand conspiracy

How Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee Presumes It Is Possible To Fool All The People All The Time, says John Dayal, recently on the road to Ayodhya

Only a mother can love a man such as Dr Pravin Togadia, even though he is trained to be a heart surgeon. There is nothing of the finesse, much less of the compassion, that one would expect in a man who rejuvenates hearts, or at least gives a new lease of life to those close to death. Quite the reverse. As a trained member of the Rashtriya swayamsewak Sangh, and in fact as the secretary of its militant and even more aggressive religious wing, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Togadia is more used to giving orders and preaching hatred which eventually leads to human beings being killed, perhaps somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 as this month in Gujarat in anti Muslim violence.

But Togadia is quite right when he says "Accepting a shila - one of the carved pillars at Ayodhya -- implies the central government's approval to its activities. As the Times of India network reported succinctly on 15th march, 2002, from New Delhi, according to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad the fact of a senior government official receiving the shila daan at Ayodhya means that the government has accepted that a mandir will have to be constructed at the Ramjanamboomi site. "A government representative accepting the shila daan is a huge achievement," Togadia told reporters who by now have learnt not to pose him too many counter questions, certainly not ones which may trap him and embarrass the Sangh Parivar.

Togadia went on to add that the movement for the construction of the temple will continue and the programme of `purna ahuti' will go on till June 2. Purna ahuti is a term not easily translatable into English, but which means something between saying that the prayerful process, or the full sacrifice will continue. For the VHP, the meaning of the religious phrase and its temporal implementation in a violent action programme are indistinguishable from each other.

Togadia spells out the details -- with the media obliging as ever so he does not even have to spend any money on printing pamphlets of the agenda for his minions -- "Next Ram Navami, every Hindu will wave a flag symbolising the mandir. Till the temple is constructed, every Hindu will perform a Ramkirtan every week and the VHP is going to initiate a movement to involve more Hindus in Ram Jap Mala." To do all of these, he naturally calls for the complete removal of restrictions imposed by the government on kar sevaks travelling to Ayodhya. And as naturally, we can expect the Central government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee , after some obfuscation, to accept all these demands as reasonable expressions of a natural national sentiment.

Togadia's words, we have learnt to understand, are law, as are those of his boss Ashok Singhal, the man with the perpetual scowl, Sant Paramhans, the saintly man with the matted hair and the direct speech-to-camera, who is the notional head of the trust that lays claim to own the disputed land where the Babri Mosque stood for 400 years till the fateful 6th of December 1992, when it was demolished under the gaze of Lal Krishna Advani, the man now Union minister for Home affairs, and charged with overseeing the state of law and order in the country.

But possibly one blames Advani too much because of his so obvious hostility to the minorities and his so powerfully obnoxious championing of the cause of Hindutva. What about the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, himself. The latest evidence of the 14th and 15th March would tend to suggest that Vajpayee is not just an accessory after the fact, but quite a part of the grand conspiracy to create the controversy of the Shilapujan (worshipping the pillars of the future temple), scuttle the judicial process, and expedite the construction of the controversial temple with its main altar and holy of holies quite on the disputed site of the Babri Mosque. He may go blue in the face trying to deny his hand, but Vajpayee, as head of his government he rules personally, is culpable on three counts. The first is directing his chief legal officer Soli Sorabjee (ironically a member of a United Nations commission on Human rights and once a champion of the rights of religious minorities) to take up a position in the Supreme Court that was identical to that of the Hindutva Parivar and defied the common minimum agenda of governance of the National Democratic Alliance coalition that notionally is in power in New Delhi). The second is in directing an officer of his own office to fly down to Ayodhya to receive the flower bedecked slab of carved Rajasthan sand-stone which will be a pillar of the eventual temple, severely affecting the morale of some honest police and administrative officers in the state of Uttar Pradesh who had declared, under the shelter of President's rule, that they would not succumb to the pressure of the motley group of people who have, on their own, taken on the responsibility of representing every Hindu in the world in their actions in Ayodhya. And finally, the Prime Minister has to take the blame for converting what is essentially a legal issue between the courts and Government of India, which is sworn to enforce the rule of law, and the Hindutva Parivar which demolished the Babri Mosque in its frenzy, into a direct Hindu versus Muslim situation.


The last first
The issue of the demolition of then Mosque is a matter of legal dispute as well as subject of judicial enquiries which are still under way. The very title of the land on which the temple is supposed to be constructed is pending in the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, the highest echelon of the judicial structure in the state of Uttar Pradesh and subject to eventual review in the Supreme Court. India's convoluted legal process, and the long time it takes even high courts to adjudicate on these issues, may have sometimes aggravated tension between Muslims and Hindu fundamentalists, but on the whole, the slow simmer of the court case in many ways kept the issue on the public back burner, so to speak, and did not allow it to come centre stage of strategic public policy till Vajpayee, possibly egged on and abetted by his home minister, Advani, chose to up the ante and speed up the process.

It was he who introduced alien elements into the controversy. Chief among these was to bring in the head of the Hindu theological seat of Kanchipuram, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, into the picture for the first time. Kanchipuram is not one of the four theological centres and religious abbeys established by Adi Sankara, the 11th century powerful figure who rejuvenated contemporary Hinduism and helped it supplant the Buddhism which till then had overtaken the old Brahmanical faith. But the Shankaracharya, who counts amongst his devotees and acolytes such luminaries of the governance structures as former President R Venkataraman and former chief election commissioner T N Sheshan, a one time presidential aspirant, has tremendous influence on the faithful, and is otherwise a respected figure in the nation.

The sheer power of his office and his own reputation made his intervention precipitate big pressure on the Muslim community to be seen as accommodating, or at least not to seem to be unreasonable. This meant that the Muslim Personal Law Board, presently the only structure which has representation of the many institutions of the Muslims in India and their many theological strands ranging from sufism to the several Shia sects to hard line Wahabi Sunni thesis, was forced to come to the table for talks. 

Nothing ever was to be expected from the talks, which essentially wanted to get the Muslims to gracefully accept the Hindutva agenda. Eventually the Muslim board had to get out of the talks, but not before they accused the Shankaracharya of announcing an agreement that never was, and not before the learned sage's name was dragged into the unseemly controversy that followed. The Shankaracharya will be quite within his right to hold the Prime Minister to be responsible for tarnishing slightly and for a short while the lustre of the high office of Kanchipuram.

With the ball right back in the court, where it rightfully belonged in the first place, Vajpayee played his second ace. The Supreme Court's three member bench, which included a man who will be Chief Justice of India in a few months, was sought to be put under popular pressure by senior members of the government and the party making it clear what they waned the judgement to be.

"Can the Supreme Court rule against the religious wishes of the Hindus?" was the constant refrain. The unending anti Muslim violence in Gujarat was also a constant reminder to the court of the eventual impact its judgement would have on the ground. And just to add to the confusion, the attorney general, Soli Sorabjee, in all gravity told the court to allow the Hindutva demand to hold prayers over the construction material and thereby permit launch of the construction programme.

Sorabjee has since denied that Vajpayee or the government had any thing to do with his application before the court, manfully taking the full blame on himself and his interpretation of a 1994 judgement of the Supreme Court. "On my reading of the 1994 Supreme Court judgement, the status quo did not apply to the undisputed land and holding of puja will not be hit by the status quo order." He submitted that the Centre's stand was the correct interpretation of the 1994 judgement of the Supreme Court. The status quo direction was only regarding the disputed structure and hence a symbolic puja with adequate conditions and restrictions could be allowed at the undisputed site. Sorabjee has not yet disclosed how, if he took the stand in the court of his own volition, did he come up with an exact plan of action for the puja 300 meters away from the ruins of the mosque, right down to the number of sadhus who would be involved, and the 1,000 kar sevaks, the destroyers of the mosque, who would be allowed to witness the new puja in batches of 20 each.

The Supreme Court was not impressed by Sorabji. Nor did they believe the government's promises of keeping the peace. Such guarantees had been given in 1992 by the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh and yet the mosque was demolished. "We must learn from the Past," a judge said. The court Bench comprising B N Kirpal, G B Pattanayak and V N Khare proceeded to reject plans for a bhoomi pujan near the disputed site at Ayodhya on March 15 and ordered that no puja or religious activity will be allowed in the acquired land. "No part of the acquired land shall be handed over to anyone by the Central Government. The same shall be retained and no part will be allowed to be used for any other purpose till further orders," said the three-judge bench of the court after a submission by Attorney General Soli Sorabjee lasting for nearly 90 minutes.

Expectedly, Parliament was not amused, and neither was civil society. As public protests were staged across the nation by Human rights and public groups, including one in which Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress, shared for the first time agitational space with the Samajwadi party, the left parties and with prominent activists, the Lok Sabha saw angry adjournments with enraged Opposition members storming the well of the House shouting anti-Government slogans. Similar scenes were witnessed in the Rajya Sabha, which was also adjourned.

The Centre has submitted to VHP blackmail, a now articulate Sonia Gandhi roared in a blistering attack on the Government on the Ayodhya issue, charging it with openly collaborating with the VHP. She said there was no substitute for firm and resolute action on the issue, the Prime Minister and his colleagues have "neither the will nor the capacity to deal with the VHP blackmail". The BJP-led coalition took a "U-turn" in the matter, she said the explanation for such a somersault lay in the fact that several BJP MPs threatened the Government with "dire consequences" in a letter to the Prime Minister on March 7. This, Sonia Gandhi said, resulted in the Attorney General being asked to intervene in the matter in the Supreme Court.

Th "U-turn" was also reflected in the Government earlier asking state governments to prevent all volunteers from proceeding to Ayodhya but later telling them to provide police protection to those going towards the pilgrim centre. Sonia Gandhi said she has documents with her regarding the sudden shift in the Government policy, including the letter of BJP MPs. "The Central Government's acts of omission and commission on Ayodhya are shameful to say the least," Sonia Gandhi said maintaining that the people of the country felt that the Prime Minister and his Government were "neutral" to VHP's plan till the Attorney General pleaded the government plan in court, exposing the "duplicity of the Government agenda".

Vajpayee's allies were no less sarcastic. Terming Ayodhya as an "irrelevant issue", key ally Telugu Desam supremo and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, said warned Government that it would face drastic consequences if it chose "wrong priorities". "Is it not the duty of Government to arrive at a consensus? Why is there a lack of communication? Why don't you take the allies into confidence?" TDP leader Ramachandraiah asked in Parliament, warning "A government which chooses wrong priorities will face drastic consequences." Mamta Bannerjee of the Trinamool Congress, was even shriller. "We have been sidelined," she said using terminology that befitted a former railway minister.

The Supreme Court order was unambiguous, and even if the BJP and its allies sought to take some technical mileage out of it, the judges issued another order making it clear that they would not allow worship on any bit of land associated with the controversial site.

This left the UP government with no choice but to be seen as obeying the order. Uttar Pradesh Governor Vishnu Kant Shastri said the administration will abide by the Supreme Court order to maintain status quo in Ayodhya. The administration virtually sealed Karsevak Puram and Ramsevak Puram, the places where clandestine activity was going on. The Army was out on alert, and curfew imposed in the Faizabad district, the local administrative zone.

Accepting the possibility of kar sevaks entering Ayodhya through the villages, the administration also deployed security forces in villages and railway tracks close to the adjoining districts. Patrolling by river police was intensified in the Saryu River, which is believed to be used by kar sevaks to infiltrate.


But mischief was still afoot
Faizabad commissioner A K Gupta had for days maintained that he would obey the Court and do what the Union government ordered. As the D Day neared, he said if asked, he would accept as a token one of the stone slabs after the worship, as the designated official receiver of the property acquired by the government. But though he was not clear if his acceptance of a foundation stone implied government acceptance of the fait accompli of the temple at the disputed site, Gupta was clear he would allow no trouble.

It was time for the Vajpayee government to intervene decisively once again in favour of the lawbreakers. Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas President Paramhans Ramchandra Das said he had no faith in Gupta as the receiver. Vajpayee bowed under once again, and the Centre flew in Shatrughan Singh, former divisional commissioner of Faizabad, and now in the Prime minister's office's Ayodhya cell, to Ayodhya as its official representative for the shila daan, or `donation of the stone slab or pillar." The `shila daan' was done at Digambar Akhara, a little away from the Babri mosque site amid chanting of Vedic hymns. Two carved stone pillars were handed over by Paramhans Ramchandra Das to Shatrughan Singh. Does it mean that the Vajpayee government endorses the master plan of the Temple? The plan which firmly places its pivotal holy spot on the Mosque's ruins?

As Star TV reported, the Shila Daan, marking a symbolic beginning of the construction of a Ram Temple at Ayodhya, was conducted amidst rising temper among the 'Ram Sevaks' against the VHP, which they blamed for keeping them in the dark about the programme. The Additional Director General of Police said the administration had given the permission to only 16 people for the Shila Daan at Ramkot but since all the 'Ram Sevaks' participating in the procession insisted on going to the Shila Daan site, the scheduled plan was changed. VHP Working President Ashok Singhal and BJP MP Vinay Katiyar were also present at Digambar Akhara when the 'Shila' was presented. Though the administration had warned against any slogan shouting, the few hundred 'Ram Sevaks' appeared prepared to defy the diktat as they moved ahead raising pro-temple construction slogans. Finally, there were as many as 800 activists at the site. In the gloom of the conspiracy, there were bright rays of hope in the spontaneous protests of civil society - most of them members coming from the majority Hindu community. As the dubious developments took place in Ayodhya, at a police barrier outside Barabanki on the highway linking Ayodhya with the state capital of Lucknow, Nirmala Deshpande, a very short, but lionhearted woman who had worked fifty years ago in the same area with the land donation programme of Gandhi disciple Sant Vinoba Bhawe, staged a symbolic protest on behalf of all secular people. Women in their hundreds from nearby villages anti-nuclear weapons and Kashmir peace activist Sonia Jabbar, Farah Naqvi, Chitrakoot's Madhvi Kukreja, Lucknow activist Arundhati, All India Christian Council members John Dayal, Jose and Sam Paul, and scores of teachers and students joined Nirmala on the road to Ayodhya, in a day of singing peace songs and speeches against communalism. The peace protest at the police barrier was preceded by a peace march through the town of Barabanki, which has a large Muslim population. One of the most heartening sights was the response of the people of the small town, otherwise a dot in the map of one of India's largest states.

To all of us who took part in the walk through three kilometers of the town's winding lanes to the police barricade, there were signs of hope that in the hinterland of India which many of us had given up as lost to Hindutva, there was a raging urge for peace, and harmony. This was the reason why the Bharatiya Janata party of prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had, in the fist place, lost the battle to retain power in the State assembly.

This holds out a caution to the government of Vajpayee, too.
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