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Sigh of relief as Ayodhya drama comes to a close
By Zafarul-Islam Khan

New Delhi, March 15: The whole country sighed relief as extremist Hindus finished their standoff with the authorities by "donating" two carved columns to an official receiver. They now claim that by accepting the columns the State has now accepted the temple case and it is now responsible for building the grand temple the extremists demand at the site of the Babri Mosque they demolished in December 1992. At the end it was a big climb down for the extremists who were adamant to do a "symbolic" puja (worship) at the disputed site itself and to start the building activity on June 2. 

For over two months the extremists, led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council - VHP) have been playing cat and mouse with the authorities. Two months ago they announced that they will start temple construction on March 15 inside the "disputed land" which comprises of over 67 acres of land. It was taken over by the Indian government at the orders of the Supreme Court to safeguard it until a final verdict is issued. But the extremists claim that only the actual plot on which the "disputed structure" (i.e., the mosque in their parlance) stood is disputed and that the adjoining land is not "disputed" and hence it should be handed over to the extremists to start building their temple. 

The small town of Ayodhya has over a thousand temples and there are about five temples which claim that they are built on the very site of the mythical Hindu god Rama's birthplace.

Since there is a clear 1993 Supreme Court verdict in this respect, the government could not hand over the land to the extremists although the current rulers in Delhi are very sympathetic to the extremist cause. In fact the ruling BJP owes its meteoric rise to the crass exploitation of the Temple issue. But within the Indian constitutional setup, the government cannot go against a court verdict until and unless it is reversed by the court itself or by a new law passed by Parliament. 

As a via media the government tried to rope in the Muslim leadership and managed to find some black sheep. The plan was to get Muslim consent and armed with it approach the apex court with a plea that since one of the parties has no objection to the temple construction in the so-called "undisputed" part of the land, permission should be granted for the same. But, thanks to grassroots pressure on the Muslim leadership, the Muslim leadership refused to bite the bait. 

Meanwhile a number of petitions were filed in the Supreme Court to restrain the government which was clearly siding with the extremists and was about to allow the so-called "symbolic" puja armed with the advice of a law minister who belongs to the same school of thought. This became clear on March 13 when Soli Sorabji, the attorney general of India, pleaded in front of the court to allow the "symbolic" puja claiming that it does not defy the earlier court order. This same gentleman had earlier appeared as an advocate for the Muslims and pleaded just the opposite. 

The Supreme Court rejected this logic and refused permission to alter the status quo on the specific plots where the so-called puja was to take place. The extremists were quick to discover a loophole and said that they can now undertake puja elsewhere on the plot! In an unprecedented move the Supreme Court opened the case again next day and clarified that no change to the status quo is allowed anywhere on the disputed land. 

The extremist side still persisted that it will perform puja according to the previous plan. The Temple trust president, Pramhans, even threatened to commit suicide if he was not allowed to do the puja where he wanted. Somehow good sense prevailed. The extremists agreed at the end to do puja outside the disputed land but inserted a new condition: they will "donate" a carved pillar to the government!.. 

In the end the "symbolic" puja was performed a kilometer away from the disputed site. Temple trust head, Pramhans, and VHP president, Ashok Singhal, led about a 1000 persons in the ceremony which barely lasted for an hour instead of over three hours as envisaged earlier. A central government official accepted two carved pillars. He was hurriedly dispatched for the purpose from Delhi since the local government authority was not acceptable to the extremists. The two carved pillars will be kept in official custody and will be returned to the temple builders once the case is finally settled.

All this was possible only as a result of stiff security measures taken by the government. About 40,000 supporters of the Temple movement were arrested all over the county. Prohibitory orders were clamped at some places like Mumbai where alone 10,000 persons were arrested. Temple supporters in Ayodhya were sent back while those coming to the town from various parts of the country were not allowed to proceed. Trains and buses were diverted from Ayodhya. All business was closed and local residents stayed indoors or left the town fearing clashes between the temple extremists and the security forces.

Barring some small incidents the event passed off peacefully. This could happen only because the extremists are cautious not to topple the central government which is led by their own political party, the BJP which is implementing many other long-term extremist plans, especially in the fields of culture and education, and hence they are eager to prolong its life especially now that last month's elections in four states have demonstrated that the days of this party in power are numbered. 

Meanwhile in Delhi, opposition parties objected to the participation of a government official in a religious ceremony. Describing the official participation as "a very important development," they accusing the Vajpayee government of pandering to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's agenda. Opposition parties said that such things should not happen in a secular State. 

While the authorities argued that accepting the shila (pillar) outside the acquired land would not violate the Supreme Court orders of March 13, the Opposition looks at the participation of government officials as capitulation to the VHP's obduracy. Congress President Sonia Gandhi today attacked the government in Parliament and charged it with openly collaborating with VHP in the wake of a threat of "dire consequences" from BJP members of Parliament.

The VHP, on the other hand, claims that a senior government official receiving the shila at Ayodhya meant that the government had in principle accepted the VHP stand for temple construction at the disputed site. 

VHP leader Pravin Togadia said that the movement for the construction of the temple would continue and the current programme would go on till June 2. During this time, Ram sewaks (temple volunteers) would continue to flock Ayodhya. The VHP plans to continue a countrywide campaign in order to press for an act of Parliament to legalise the temple since the extremists are wary that the final court verdict may not favour them.

The temple issue may have died down for the time being but one is sure that it will be bang on the extremist agenda once Parliament or state legislative assembly elections are announced. Bereft of any real issue or plank, the temple issue is the last the extremists have to polarise the voters on communal lines.
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