Recent mediation attempts by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of Art of Living, to work out a negotiated settlement to the vexed Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid issue have drawn a string of reactions with some hailing his initiative and others expressing scepticism. While pointing out that the spiritual leader is not the first public figure to assume the mantle of mediating the vexed issue, some critics assert that two past prime ministers – Chandrashekhar and P.V. Narasimha Rao — and two Shankaracharyas made similar attempts but failed
Some doubt the credentials of the founder of Art of Living Art as being a neutral and non-partisan mediator in view of his reported close proximity to the present dispensation at the helm, his participation in the 2011 <Dharma Sansad> convened by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and his campaigning for the BJP in the 2014 general election.
The BJP reaped rich dividends politically in the 1989 general election by launching a nation-wide movement for the construction of a Ram Mandir at the disputed site of the Babri Mosque. Subsequent demolition of Babri Mosque by Hindu <karsevaks> on December 6, 1992 complicated the issue. It is in this backdrop that some political observers raise doubts about the timing of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s mediatory efforts.
Contending that the issue of Ram Mandir is raised every time the elections are around the corner, some analysts draw attention to media reports of several BJP leaders who have openly been talking of construction work commencing in Ayodhya in 2018, ahead of the 2019 general elections. Other critics opine that in the wake of enfeebling of the BJP’s ‘development’ plank, the party leadership is revving the Hindutva issue.
Hindu Organizations’ Stance
Sri Sri Ravishankar’s mediatory efforts in the Ayodhya dispute have almost been given a cold shoulder by the BJP, VHP and other Hindu organisations directly or indirectly concerned with the issue. BJP leader and UP chief minister Yogi Aditya Nath recently told media parsons: “Talks have been initiated earlier as well but without any solution, but still I welcome anyone who makes efforts again. The Supreme Court is hearing the case, we should wait for it (the verdict).”
BJP’s national general secretary Ram Madhav has also downplayed Sri Sri’s attempts and said first let the legal process be completed in the Supreme Court after which other options should be explored. Senior BJP leader and currently Governor of UP, Ram Naik, has said that Supreme Court’s word in the Ayodhya dispute would be final. Apart from disapproving the spiritual guru’s mediatory efforts, one BJP leader has alleged that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar had “jumped into the Ayodhya dispute to avoid probe into his ‘illegal’ wealth”.
Disinterestedness in the spiritual guru’s mediatory role is also articulated by the VHP, a saffron outfit. While talking to media persons recently, a spokesperson of the VHP said: “The VHP respects Sri Sri Ravi Shankar but he should know that efforts in this regard in the past, in which prime ministers, governments and Shankaracharya were also involved, failed to give any result. There is no relevance of the (recent) clamour for agreement over the Ram Janmabhoomi after the archaeological evidences in this regard have been found to be in favour of the Hindus… the courts also go by evidence.”
Similar reaction to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s attempts at mediating a solution for the Ayodhya dispute has come from the Akhil Bhartiya Akhara Parishad recently: “Ravi Shankar should first tell us which <akhara> or sect he belongs to. We don’t recognise him as a seer. He has no right to interfere in the Ram temple issue. Where was he when the Ram temple movement was going on and members of the saint community were making sacrifices?” Even the Bharat Sadhu Samaj has expressed its reservations about Sri Sri’s mediatory attempts.
Muslim Groups’ Perspective
Undoubtedly, the Art of Living founder in some of his recent press statements has said that most Muslims are not opposing the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya; nevertheless, Muslim organisations have expressed reservations overSri Sri Ravishankar’s initiative to resolve the long pending Ayodhya dispute, saying he should first disclose his plan.
While rebuffing the mediatory efforts of the spiritual guru, the Sunni Board and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) have stated that Sri Sri has no legal standing on the Ayodhya matter and hence they had decided to reject his offer of a dialogue on the issue. Media reports indicate that in October this year the Art of Living founder had met Uttar Pradesh Shia Waqf Board Chief Wasim Rizvi in Bengaluru regarding the issue, with Rizvi informing the media that his meeting with the spiritual leader was “very positive”. Rizvi had said, “We are the real stakeholders here,” adding that the board welcomes Sri Sri’s initiative. He went on to say that the construction of the Ram Temple could begin as early as 2018.
However, some critics view emergence of Shia Waqf Board as a new claimant to the 16th century Babri Masjid as a ‘strange development’. Media reports indicate that Shia Waqf Board is getting support from BJP quarters and this is also discernible from the statements of BJP spokespersons participating in debates on various TV channels. However, some critics opine that the Shia Waqf Board has no locus standi in the case today.
In the absence of concrete facts it is difficult to surmise as to why and how Sri Sri Ravi Shankar assumed unto himself the mantle of mediating in a complex and vexing issue like Ayodhya dispute, especially when his self-proclaimed representation of the Hindu side remains equally fragile and frivolous in the wake of the fact that neither the Nirmohi Akhara, which is a key party to the dispute, nor the VHP are impressed with his move.
Some critics point out that in the wake of the apex court’ssuggestion in March this year that it would be best if the contentious issue is settled amicably out of court between concerned parties, the spiritual guru could have jumped into the mediatory role to hog media limelight or he might have got some political backing to help reach out of court settlement to gain political mileage.
It is unlikely that the proximity between the Art of Living founder and the BJP and the visible affinity between BJP and the Shia Waqf Board are just coincidences. There is reason to suspect that there is something much more than what meets the eye in this proximity.
Some political analysts harbour the suspicion that bringing Ayodhya back on the centre stage could help BJP make some gains in poll-bound states, including Gujarat, where the party’s desperation is becoming increasingly visible. It could also be with an eye on the vote for the local body elections in Uttar Pradesh later in November.
In view of the fact that the Supreme Court will hear the 13 appeals in the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute on December 5, 2017, the self-proclaimed mediatory role of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar seems puzzling, especially when it has failed to elicit corresponding response from the major contending parties to the dispute.