‘Whatever the verdict, Muslims should keep restraint’

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AIMPLB working committee member Syed Shahabuddin tells Sopan Joshi that the government should learn some lessons from 1992 to prevent another violent backlash

Syed ShahabuddinIs there any effort to negotiate an agreement on the Ayodhya land title case?
We have no contact with any party to this matter. After the hearings were completed, the judge asked our lawyer, as per procedure, if we want to settle by negotiation. Our lawyer said there is no scope for negotiations. On 17 September, our lawyer iterated the stand.

How does the Muslim leadership view the case?
There is no such thing as a Muslim leadership. There are a number of eminent organisations of national importance. The All India Majlis-e-Mushawarat was formed in 1965 to bring all of them together. When the Babri Masjid issue made headlines in 1986 after the sudden opening of the gate – I’ve never seen the government move so efficiently – we organised a meeting and formed the Babri Masjid Movement Coordination Committee. Two years later, we broke up, but continued to work together. Initially, there was some rancour and talk of break-ups, but we decided to stick together. Then, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board formed a committee with members of all these groups.

Is there any unanimity on the course of action?
Many organisations have said this, and so have I, that we shall accept whatever be the final judicial verdict. If you ask me whether I have taken a referendum of all the Muslims, then I have not. But this has broad acceptance. If you have taken an issue, you try to defend your interests under the rule of law. If necessary, we will go to the Supreme Court. But how long shall we go on pursuing the case? After all, in Punjab there are 10,000 masjids that are under occupation. In Delhi itself there must be 50 such masjids. Every day I read stories about restraint on azaan, on prayer or on construction of masjids. We follow these cases as they come.

Did you ever consider giving the land on your own accord for the temple?
This came up many times between 1986 and 2000. The Shankaracharya, among others, said several times that this is a matter of our faith and give us the land. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee asked me to give the land. I said what’s there to give now that you have already taken the land and broken the structure. One of our people said you can take my house, but a mosque is not my property so I can’t give it up. We said the matter is in court. Let the court decide if it is a political game or really an ancient tradition. Courts have interpreted Hindu religious matters in the past, like the orientation of the moon drawn on ceremonial elephants’ foreheads.

Why wasn’t the court decision acceptable to Muslims in the Shah Bano case?
These are two different things altogether. In the Shah Bano case, the judge had interpreted the Quran. We don’t think any judge can interpret the Quran and tell us what it means. It was an effort to make it a legal matter when it is not. That is not the issue in Ayodhya, it is a pure and simple criminal and civil case. Somebody comes into my room and plants a suitcase, comes back after two hours and says my suitcase is here so the house is mine. We know for sure that there was no worship of Ram before the 16th century. The oldest temple of Ram is near Allahabad, pertains to about the 16th century. This is an invented faith that has been made into a political issue recently.

What is your feedback on the situation in Uttar Pradesh? 
The government is doing what it ought to do. There is no possibility of any law and order situation being created by the Muslims. But it can come as a rebound. For example, if there is a group of VHP or Bajrang Dal characters attacking Muslim areas, there might be a reaction, I don’t know. The government has to take precautions. They are the best judges of the situation. Our complaint against PV Narasimha Rao (in 1992) was that he knew what was coming and he allowed it. In fact, he had planned it to happen, he was in collusion with the RSS people.

How do you see the various claimants to the land on the Hindu side?
Some Hindu organizations have been mobilizing people and making plans for the past six months. They have held meetings of the so-called Dharma Sansad, which has said they shall accept nothing less than a positive decision. Then it has to be seen to whom does the court give the land. Does it only rule for the Hindu or Muslim side and leave it to the government to give it to whichever party among the claimants? On our side, there is no dispute: the UP Sunni Waqf Board should be given the land.

How do you react to recent statements from the Sangh Parivar?
The VHP is accusing the BJP. The BJP is lying low and taking all the blame. In fact, VHP leader Ashok Singhal has praised Narasimha Rao, which only confirms my theory that he was the real villain of the piece.

How do you see the VHP’s mobilisation?
For the past two years, whenever they held meetings in Ayodhya, they failed to draw big crowds. But every event creates its own impetus. If the verdict goes in favour of Muslims, there may be attacks on the community. Otherwise, I’m not getting any news that Muslims are running scared, even from Ayodhya or Faizabad. They also hear that the new ‘maharani’ of Uttar Pradesh is taking all steps to prevent trouble.

Why is the VHP failing to draw big crowds?
There were lots of participants in 1990 who thought something would come out of it. But nothing came out it, not even when the BJP was in power. The NDA government couldn’t do anything. Now they are talking about passing a law. If the NDA couldn’t initiate a law, how can they do it now? People have this much understanding: you don’t play the card twice. The VHP doesn’t have much credibility left. The BJP is silent. After LK Advani’s statement on showing restraint, I asked a BJP leader, why didn’t Advani show restraint in 1992?

How do you see the Congress now? 
I don’t think the Congress sees the BJP as an enemy since the communists have backed off. Where they want to keep Hindus happy, they go with the BJP. The Congress has two sections. The party always had communal elements, from the times of Mahatma Gandhi. No tragedy is bigger in this subcontinent than the Partition. I hold it as a collective failure of the Indian freedom movement. On a basic question – what should be the rights of minorities – we could not reach an agreement.

What do you expect from the Prime Minister?
I think he should appeal to all the people to accept whatever the court decides. That this is the only way to resolve the matter.

What would you like to tell the RSS? 
We need to see how the RSS handles the VHP and whether the BJP respects its constitutional dignity. Everybody knows that the VHP doesn’t work on its own. If things go wrong, the blame will fall on the RSS.

What do you say to the Muslims?
There must be no demonstration of happiness if the verdict is in our favour. If it goes against us, there should be no expression of sorrow. We’ve taken the thing as far as we could. We want peace in India because if anything untoward happens, it will be bad for the minority community. They should take the order in their stride.

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