Sixty-six years after the country witnessed a bloody partition on religious lines and freedom from foreign rule, religion continues to play a dominant role in shaping its political destiny.
At a time when the nation is on the threshold of the next general election, leaders of different political parties seek to artificially raise heat and dust over a religious issue that has in the past provoked terrible communal discord across the length and breadth of the country.
However, unlike the past, when the Ayodhya issue was used solely by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to enhance its electoral prospects, it is now being brought to the centrestage in the hope of bringing poll dividends to BJP’s arch rival Samajwadi Party.
And interestingly, the script has now been written jointly by VHP supremo Ashok Singhal and SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, widely known to be doing the back-seat driving for his 39- year old son Akhilesh Yadav, whom he installed as chief minister on the throne of Uttar Pradesh 17 months ago.
It was therefore no surprise when Ashok Singhal, the self-styled representative of a billion Hindus raised the demand for an 84 Kosi Parikrama (approximately 300-km circular march) around Ayodhya that it had neither the intention nor the capability to undertake from 25 August.
The stage was set when Singhal raised this demand at a two-hour-long closed door meeting with Mulayam and Akhilesh in Lucknow on 17 August. Short of repeating Mulayam’s much echoed 1990 proclamation about Ayodhya – “yahan parinda bhi par nahin maar sakta” (even a bird cannot flutter its wings here) – the official assertions of the SP leadership and top officials were no less loud or aggressive. The VHP too left no stone unturned to show its teeth and make its menacing growl heard far and wide. But sure enough that was meant only for the consumption of the government which was looking for reason to justify its massive police deployment .
Singhal, who had left for Delhi, flew back to Lucknow airport on the morning of 25 August, where he conveniently allowed himself to be detained the whole day before he was taken to the Nawabganj bird sanctuary guest house about 45 km away to be accorded the comforts of a state guest. “We did our best to persuade him to go back to Delhi, but he refused to do so. Hence we had no choice but to send him away to a safe place”, said a top cop . However, no effort was made to deport the VHP leader to Delhi by the same flight that brought him to Lucknow. He was also allowed to hold a press conference at the airport VIP lounge even though he was supposedly under ‘arrest’.
Singhal’s second-in-command Praveen Togadia, who sneaked into Ayodhya , was arrested on the banks of the Saryu river after another high drama on the morning of 25 August. As many as 250 – 300 policemen led by the Divisional Commissioner, DIG Police, District Magistrate and the Senior Superintendent of Police kept chasing him as he moved in and out of his ‘hideouts’ to finally reach the Saryu banks with less than a dozen supporters raising their all-time favourite slogan of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ and ‘Ram Lalla hum aayenge. Mandir yahin banayenge‘. Other than former BJP MP Ram Vilas Vedanti, the saffron clad sadhu from the temple town and former BJP MLA Laloo Singh, there was nobody worth the name to be picked up among the 653 arrested persons. The total number of arrests from across Uttar Pradesh on the day did not cross 2900 – in sharp contrast to Singhal’s oft-repeated proclamation that the event would draw 40000- 50000 people .
What was worse that all of them were let off by a court order on the following day as two state counsels (both Yadavs) meant to oppose their release failed to put up a strong case against them. The only law invoked against them by the administration was section 151 of CrPC (apprehension of breach of peace) which does not allow detention for more than 24 hours.
Around the same time , Akhilesh Yadav came out with another announcement blatantly aimed at Muslim wooing – 20 percent of funds for the minorities in all development and welfare schemes run by the government. Under yet another scheme, Muslims were given priority in allotment of homes under the urban housing scheme for the poor.
Even earlier, soon after Akhilesh assumed the chief minister’s office in March 2012, he brought in a scheme for disbursement of Rs. 30,000 to all Muslim girls clearing Class X and seeking further studies . It was much later in the day that realization dawned on the ruling party bigwigs that the move could prove to be counter-productive and they hastily extended the same to girls of all communities under a separate head.
He also mandated a budgetary provision for the construction of walls around all Muslim graveyards across the state. And such large number of Muslims were showered with positions carrying perks and privileges of a minister that well-known Muslim minister Shahid Manzoor once remarked before this scribe, “I told Netaji (Mulayam) , why do you get impressed by every Mulla on the street; you should realise that for Muslims of UP, Mulla Mulayam Singh remains the biggest Mulla.”
More recently, when the state government ordered punitive action against Greater Noida SDM Durga Shakti Nagpal, it was not done solely under pressure of the illegal sand mining mafia against whom she had taken a gutsy stand. It was also intended to send a message to Muslims that the young IAS officer was punished because she had ordered the demolition of a mosque wall. The cat was out of the bag when UP’s health minister Ahmad Hasan told a gathering of Muslims at the chief minister’s ‘roza iftar’ party, “You may recall how Mulayam Singh Yadav went to the extent of ordering fire on karsewaks when they stormed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya for the first time in 1990; now it is his son Akhilesh who has saved this mosque in Greater Noida by taking stern action against the SDM who got the wall of the mosque demolished; Muslims ought to pay their gratitude to this Yadav family.”
Since Muslims were likely to get divided largely between SP and Congress, it was extremely crucial for Mulayam to impress upon Muslims that SP alone was the only potent political force to keep saffron forces at bay. Both SP and the Congress were depending heavily on the Muslim vote for the revival of their political fortunes in the country’s most populous state. SP chief Mulayam sees the 2014 election as his last chance to fulfill his long cherished dream of riding on to the Prime Minister’s chair. Sure enough, he was also fully aware that this would not happen without SP weaning away the entire 20 percent Muslim vote. Sharing of the Muslim vote with Congress was bound to shatter Mulayam’s dream.
The scheme also suited the BJP as a weak Congress could enhance their chances at the centre. As such, the move was aimed at providing political mileage to both BJP and SP, while isolating the two other key political players – Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in a state that sends as many as 80 members to the national parliament.