By Sopan Joshi
SOON AFTER the Allahabad High Court delivers its verdict on the Ayodhya land title dispute, the Congress will start efforts to bring different parties to the negotiating table. There was no chance of parleys before the verdict. Congress leader Digvijay Singh has been preparing for it, though there is no formula on the table yet.
Previous talks failed because of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s intransigence, and then the withdrawal of the Muslim groups. Since the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, there have been no serious talks.
This time, the effort will be to marginalise the VHP and engage other Hindu groups and sects. On 14 September, Digvijay went to Jabalpur and met Dwarka Shakaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, who was spending his chaturmas (monsoon months) there. Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Suresh Pachauri is understood to have accompanied him. The next day, Digvijay tried to contact Ram Nareshacharya, one of the top mahants of the Ramanandi sect at the Sri Math in Varanasi. He told one of his men that he did not take Digvijay’s calls as he did not wish to discuss non-religious matters during the chaturmas, which he was spending in Surat. The mahant will reach Varanasi after the verdict, and the phone lines will come alive. Digvijay’s family is from the Ramanandi sect, and he will use his old ties to restart dialogue.
Along with efforts to make Uttar Pradesh’s Muslims feel secure so as to not lose the gains Congress made in the last Lok Sabha election, Digvijay has made moves to engage Hindu groups. He opposed home minister P Chidambaram’s “saffron terror” remarks, and played a critical role in getting the Centre to reject the NTPC dam at Loharinag-Pala, stealing the credit from the BJP government in Uttarakhand for “saving the Ganga”.
‘If the matter is left to Hindus and Muslims of Ayodhya, we would resolve it in half an hour,’ says a mahant
The VHP, the primary agent of action in the drama, has seen better days. “They have lost their sheen,” says Acharya Satyendra Das, the government-appointed pujari of the makeshift Ram Lala temple at the disputed site. “They relied on a political party, the BJP. They are a non-political outfit but they campaigned for the BJP. They have lost their credibility.”
Several people hold the example of Vinay Katiyar, who had a small house in Ayodhya before the VHP agitation for the temple started. “He has several palatial houses now, while Ram Lala sits under a tent where Katiyar promised a grand temple,” says a sadhu. (After winning the Faizabad Lok Sabha seat thrice in the 1990s, Katiyar has lost from four constituencies. He is now a Rajya Sabha MP.)
The VHP is holding its cards close to its chest, and will make plans only after the verdict. Insiders say it is ready for negotiations, its pre-verdict postures notwithstanding. Without the BJP by its side, the VHP is due for a course correction. It would have to reconsider two issues.
One, whether it is ready to accept the Nirmohi Akhara’s claim to the birthplace of Ram. All other Hindu groups with an interest in the matter, from the Hindu Mahasabha to Swami Swaroopanand, say the title rightfully belongs to the Nirmohi Akhara. The VHP has criticised the Nirmohis for dividing Hindus on this matter, and for being hand-in-glove with the Congress and the Muslim parties. Theakharas of Ayodhya have cordial relations with Muslim groups such as the Central Sunni Board of Waqfs and the Muslim population of Ayodhya and Faizabad
“If the matter is left to the Hindus and Muslims of Ayodhya and Faizabad, we would resolve it in 30 minutes,” says Bhaskar Das, the Nirmohi mahant in Faizabad. His associate, Ram Das, describes the VHP as an outside aggressor, similar to how the VHP describes Babur. “It is an outfit controlled by vaishyas (rich traders), not saints.” He recalls how the VHP wanted the akhara to sign away its claim to the Ram Janmabhoomi in 1986 in exchange for legal help to the Nirmohis. The akharahas meagre financial resources as it does not get the offerings people leave at the Janmabhoomi.
Sources close to the VHP say it now wants a temple more than the right to build it. If it decides to open channels with the Nirmohis, it will probably lean on Gyan Das, the mahant of the Nirvani Akhara in Ayodhya’s Hanumangarhi. Gyan Das, a sworn enemy of the VHP in the past, has since cosied up to the Parishad and has influence there. As he is staying in Ayodhya, he has direct communication with the Nirmohis. The akharas of the Ramanandi sect have a panchayat system to take decisions.
THE SECOND stance the VHP would have to reconsider is whether or not a mosque should be built in the vicinity of the proposed temple. The Parishad has abhorred the idea in the past, and this will be a tricky issue. The Nirmohis have been agreeable to having a temple and a mosque side-by-side, because the Hindus and Muslims of Ayodhya and Faizabad live side-byside. Gyan Das had, in fact, invited controversy when he called Muslims of Hanumangarhi to his house for Iftar.
Privately, Muslims of Ayodhya, Faizabad and other parts of Uttar Pradesh say they know a mosque will never come up where the Babri Masjid stood. Such a move would revive the VHP like nothing else, and the Muslims are bound to suffer. In fact, the Muslim sentiment for the Babri Masjid was a reaction to the VHP’s mobilisation and aggressive postures.
“Several Muslim leaders were in favour of giving the Ram Janmabhoomi for a temple in 1989,” says Acharya Kunal Kishore, an IPS officer called in by the then minister of state for home Subodh Kant Sahay to mediate. “All they wanted was an assurance that the two other shrines on the VHP list, Mathura and Kashi, be left alone,” says Kishore, who retired from the service in 2001, and is now chairman of the Bihar State Board of Religious Trusts. “Mathura already has a temple built after an agreement, which seems like Lord Krishna’s place of birth. The Kashi jyotirling was not a birthplace, so its site is not that crucial.” However, the VHP didn’t accept this.
Now that Kishore has indirectly entered the case on behalf of Swami Swaroopanand, he has lost access to the Muslim leadership. “We thought he was an impartial negotiator; he deceived us and we won’t trust him again,” says Sunni waqf board counsel Zafaryab Jilani.
It was Kishore’s efforts that brought the Kolkata lawyer PN Mishra into the Ayodhya land title case last year. Mishra and Hari Shanker Jain, the Hindu Mahasabha’s counsel, have held some of the longest arguments in the case in the past year. This is bound to have an influence on the outcome.