Rising from the Rubble?

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The stinging indictment of Hardline Hindutva over the Babri Masjid demolition may give moderates in the party a respite from the RSS juggernaut. A veteran BJP watcher analyses the Liberhan fallout

Demolition men A file photo of the razing of the Babri masjid
Demolition men A file photo of the razing of the Babri masjid
Photo: AFP
SWAPAN DASGUPTA
SWAPAN DASGUPTA
Senior Journalist

AFTER DECEMBER 6, 1992, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP overnight became the Indian media’s Enemy Number One. This was not on account of the Fourth Estate arrogating to itself the role of a custodian of India’s multicultural inheritance but because frenzied kar sevaks, irked by what they perceived was the media’s onesided coverage of the dispute in Ayodhya, chose to beat up photographers (remember this took place before the invasion of the TV crews) carrying out their professional duties. The relationship between the media and saffron outfits turned so sour that when the police unleashed water cannons on BJP demonstrators who tried to violate a ban on a scheduled rally on Delhi’s Boat Club Lawns in February 1993, a gaggle of journalists actually cheered and muttered ‘serves you right’.

The wheel, it would seem, has turned full circle some 17 years later. In hindsight, the Sangh Parivar, particularly the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has reason to be extremely grateful to the media for getting it out of a pickle over the long-delayed Liberhan Commission report on the demolition of the Babri structure.

The government had planned to table the Liberhan report in Parliament around December 22, the penultimate day of the winter session. It rightly calculated that the ensuing fuss would make it impossible for Parliament to function and, therefore, it would be more prudent to minimise the time lost in disruption. The plan to defer the tabling of the report till the very end of the session was also premised on the belief that it would make it possible to announce some tough measures in the Action Taken Report.

These calculations went awry on the morning of November 23 when the Indian Express “leaked” the broad findings of the Liberhan report. This disclosure, quite predictably, created a storm in the House over the ethics of bypassing Parliament. But even before the disruption was complete, NDTV announced that it now possessed a copy of the report. To prove its authenticity, the channel even broadcast actual passages from the report.

For any government, keeping a high-profile report of a commission of inquiry is an occupational hazard. The Thakkar Commission report on the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the Jain Commission report on Rajiv Gandhi’s murder had witnessed media leaks which had derailed government calculations and led to unintended consequences. The media “leak” of what Home Minister P Chidambaram described as the “purported” Liberhan report had a similar effect. First, it focussed parliamentary discussion on the apparent breach of privilege, a procedural issue that diverted attention from the report itself. Secondly, it gave the BJP and the RSS sufficient time to prepare a response to what they always knew would be a strong indictment of their conduct in Ayodhya 17 years ago. The “leak” took away the surprise element from a report that had been too long in the making.

Finally, and this was probably the biggest jolt to the government, the “leak” enabled the media to paint the report in a way it wanted rather than how the government hoped for. In the normal course, a 1,000-page report would have been accompanied by an executive summary that would package the report in a way the government thought was politically prudent. What happened instead was that the surprise inclusion of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the list of 68 people “culpable” of spreading communal disharmony and the not-so-surprising exoneration of the PV Narasimha Rao-led government at the Centre became the talking points of the debate. In determining the political packaging of Liberhan’s reflections, the government had no hand.

The extent to which the enterprise of the media came to the rescue of the RSS is incalculable. The Liberhan report was a devastating indictment of the entire Sangh Parivar. It claimed the demolition was a meticulously planned criminal conspiracy involving the entire saffron family, including “pseudo-moderates” such as Vajpayee. It suggested that the BJP was merely a front organisation for the RSS — shades of KN Govindacharya’s infamous description of Vajpayee as a mukhauta (mask). Worse, it maintained that the civil administration of the states where the BJP was in power was suborned by the RSS.

The government’s hand was forced. With the PM in the US, it could not afford a political explosion that exposed sectarian fissures

It is immaterial that many of Liberhan’s conclusions were in the nature of assertions, not backed by empirical evidence. At times the report read like a pamphlet rather than the pronouncements of a judicial officer. What matters is that Liberhan had prepared the ground for any government to go beyond criminal action against those of the 68 still living. After 17 years of deliberation, Liberhan offered the government the ammunition for an outright ban on the RSS, if not the BJP.

At this point it is unlikely that the government would have exercised this draconian option. A commission of inquiry isn’t a judicial body and its pronouncements have no statutory significance. Any legal action against the RSS would have had to be a considered political decision and based on today’s ground realities. Any ban based on the perceived criminality of the organisation 17 years ago wouldn’t have been sufficiently persuasive, particularly as it was bound to be perceived as an attempt to cripple the BJP.

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