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BJP retreat from Ayodhya - The Observer

Koenraad Elst ()
6 December &

Title : BJP retreat from Ayodhya
Author : Koenraad Elst
Publication : The Observer
Date : December 6 & 7, 1996

Four years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the
Bharatiya Janata Party hardly dares to mention Ayodhya
anymore. "You cannot cash on a cheque twice," explains
the party's spokesperson.

At the outset, the BJP never had its heart in the Ayodhya
question. When circumstances and the VHP brought the
issue to the fore in the 1980s, BJP leaders overcame
their reluctance only with the roaring success of the
VHP's Ram shila pujas. Even then, BJP leader L K Adva-
ni's fabled 'Rath Yatra' would not have been taken out
but for some prodding from former Prime Minister V P
Singh, who needed Hindu pressure as an excuse to renege
on his foolhardy promise to Imam Bukhari of awarding the
disputed site to the Muslims.

Contrary to claims made by self-described secularists,
the BJP was not at all keen on a confrontation between
Hinduism and Islam. Thus, its statements kept a studied
distance from the fundamental critique of Islamic icono-
clasm, which was developed by historians like late Harsh
Narain and Sita Ram Goel.

Far from criticising Islam for having exhorted Babar and
others to destroy Hindu temples, the BJP tried to rede-
fine the terms of the Ayodhya debate away from a Hindu-
Muslim polarity - Ram was called a 'national' hero, Babar
a 'foreign' invader. In reality, the question of for-
eign vs national had nothing to do with it - a native
convert Malik Kafur had destroyed numerous temples, while
the British took up the conservation of temples. Yet,
BJP spokesmen pleaded that "a mosque built on a destroyed
temple is not a valid mosque. "

That was the BJP's typical shopkeeper approach - rather
than facing the ideological conflict inherent in the
Ayodhya demands of both parties, it tried to trick the
other party into an unequal deal by presenting it as
equal. ("Islam condemns the imposition of a mosque on a
temple site as much as Hinduism does.") But no one was
fooled.

The BJP disliked the Ayodhya controversy because it
competed with the other parties in wooing the Muslims and
flattering Islam. Thus, it will never talk of Islam's
responsibility in India's communal conflict, but rather
blame the British and the vote-bank politics of the other
parties. It criticised V P Singh's gift of Rs 50 lakh to
the Jama Masjid as 'appeasement', but its own Rajasthan
government gave a far larger sum to the Ajmer Dargah,
which was built with debris of Hindu temples.

After the electoral victories in Gujarat and Maharashtra,
Mr Advani thanked his Muslim voters and promised to look
after their interests, but his own cadres asked: "Has he
ever thanked the Hindu voters? Why should the party have
a 'minority cell', and why should its flag be one-third
green?"

As disappointed BJP workers tell me, the party leadership
had no higher aspiration than to be the Congress B-team.

With the recent defection and corruption scandals, it
seems close to realising this ambition. But there re-
mains one difference - while the Congress has a long
history of quid pro quo compromises, the BJP's conces-
sions to the Muslims and secularist opinion are entirely
unilateral.

When the 12-day BJP government pledged not to touch
Article 370 (a kick in the groin to its Kashmiri refugee
constituents), it did not get the promise of support from
even a single MP in return. No matter how sincerely Atal
Behari Vajpayee and Mr Advani disown the Ayodhya demoli-
tion, no matter how deep they crawl in the dust begging
for certificates of good secular conduct from their
enemies, they are treated with contempt all the same.

At any rate, such attitudes made it impossible for the
BJP to take a consistent stand on the Ayodhya question,
which inherently implied criticism of the Islamic doc-
trine and of Prophet Mohammed himself (who set the stan-
dard of Islamic iconoclasm by breaking the idols in the
Kaaba).

A consistent Hindu position would have presented the
Ayodhya controversy as an occasion for the Indian Muslims
to reconsider Islam. Rather than liberating sacred sites
from mosques wrongfully imposed on them, it would work
for the liberation of fellow Indians from their Islamic
indoctrination.

As Muslim-born secular humanist Ibn Warraq says in his
brilliant book Why I am not a Muslim (Prometheus, New
York, 1995) - "The best thing we can do for Muslims is to
free them from Islam." Sounds radical? But that was, for
example, the stand taken by the Arya Samaj, a progressive
movement which had its martyrs but never indulged in
rioting.

Frank debate is inversely proportional with street
violence, and those secularists who suppress such debate
are among the culprits of India's communal problem.
Unfortunately, the BJP chose to join in this 'secular'
(in Europe we would call it anti-secular) shielding of
medieval belief systems from rational investigation and
informed debate.

This half-heartedness made it impossible for the party to
argue its case on Ayodhya convincingly. Next to the well-
known media bias, this was the main reason why world
opinion turned massively against the Hindus. It is
entirely obvious that a Hindu sacred site belongs to the
Hindus, and no Westerner would want his own sacred sites
to be desecrated: yet every single commentator in the in
the West has strongly condemned the Hindu attempt to end
the Islamic occupation of a Hindu sacred site.

While in most controversies, there will be some support
somewhere for both the sides, in this case, there was no
voice of support or even of understanding for the Hindu
position. Without exaggeration, the BJP's Ayodhya cam-
paign was the single biggest public relations disaster in
world history.

The BJP never did any introspection about this harvest of
hostility, but it certainly disliked the experience.
After riding the 'Ram wave' to an electoral breakthrough

in 1991, the BJP immediately started distancing itself
from the issue. By December 6, 1992, Hindutva activists
had lost patience with Mr Advani. When they stormed the
structure, he shed tears over the damage done to the
BJP's self-image, as did many BJP men in the party office
when they heard the news.

Even VHP leader Ashok Singhal tried to stop the activ-
ists, until they threatened to pull off his dhoti. Anti-
Hindutva spokesmen want us to believe that this was all
theatre, but it was genuine (as was Murli Manohar Joshi's
jubilation). A small Hindutva faction had prepared the
demolition, deliberately keeping the leadership in the
dark about it.

If the Indian media had meant business, they would have
found out and told you within a few days just who engi-
neered the 'Kar Seva'. Instead, they chase to spurn the
scoop of the year and stuck to the politically more
useful version that the BJP did it, somewhat like late
Jawaharlal Nehru's attempt to implicate Veer Savarkar in
Nathuram Godse's murder of the Mahatma.

Most BJP leaders (Kalyan Singh being the chief exception)
dealt with the event in a confused and insincere manner.
The gradual BJP retreat from Ayodhya was completed over-
night, and the party was reduced to waging its subsequent
election campaign with colourless slogans like 'good
government'.

This purely secular posturing worked well in the 1996 Lok
Sabha elections, but it may prove to be yet another
"cheque which can be cashed only once," especially con-
sidering the BJP's recent lost of credibility regarding
governance.

The party's best chance of a meaningful survival now lies
in the adoption of a better-considered Hindu agenda, not
focused on dead buildings but on consequential political
reforms.

The BJP is denounced as a Hindu party by its enemies and
is assumed to be a Hindu party by its voters though it
never calls itself a Hindu party. When at all caught in
the act of using the term 'Hindutva', the BJP hastens to
explain that this term did not mean 'Hindu religion,' but
"secular Indian nationalism" (proof in Arabia, even Imam
Bukhari is called a 'Hindu'!). These cheap semantic
manipulations are too transparent to trick any opponent
into accepting the BJP's claim of being secular, but they
do succeed in spreading either confusion or anger among
the party cadres.

In Europe, in spite of our long struggle against Church
hegemony, nobody minds that Germany is ruled by a "Chris-
tian-Democratic Union". Democracy leaves it to the citi-
zens to choose on what basis they form political opinion
and parties, so they are free to vote an avowedly Chris-
tian party into power. And of course, the CDU is quick
to point out that its christian-Democratic values are no
longer a matter of Church dogma, but a common european
heritage.

Likewise, India could live with a ruling party committed
to Hindu values, all the more so when 'Hindu' is defined
in a very broad sense, as is common in Hindu revivalist

literature from Swami Vivekananda to Ram Swarup.

In the immediate future, the BJP could serve Hindu socie-
ty by taking up a few specifically Hindu concerns (with-
out neglecting issues like "good government"). In the
BJP statements of the last few years, the most prominent
'communal' item is the Common Civil Code demand: but
pushing that one would he a grave mistake. True, this is
an impeccably secular concern, amounting to no more than
the implementation of the existing Article 44 of the
Constitution.

But precisely for these reasons, this initiative should
be left to the secularists, whose inaction on this point
is a permanent measure of their dishonesty. There are
excellent arguments against polygamy and unilateral
talaq, but nobody will believe the BJP if it says that it
was concerned about the plight of Muslim women.

On the contrary, a move towards the Common Civil Code
will cause an anti-BJP uproar, which the party cannot
handle. When the purely artificial Ayodhya controversy
could cause so much violence, imagine the effect of a
reform which affects every single Muslim in his private
life, and which cuts deep into the power position of the
Mullah class. Remember that the Shah of Iran turned
simmering discontent into a full-scale revolution when he
cut into the privileges of the Mullahs.

The experience of December 6 and 7, 1992, suggests that
the secularist media will counter the BJP initiative with
hysterical shrieks, whipping up communal passions and tie
facto inciting riots. Back then, commentators trumpeted
that along with the Masjid, the secular state itself had
been demolished, so was democracy and even the Indian
'Muslims' very right to live. Who would not have taken
to the streets if it was made so clear that the heavens
themselves had fallen?

Next time, they will call the implementation of Article
44 similar names - say, "a perversion of our secular
Constitution," or "a rabid attack on the most intimate
dimensions of the Islamic component of our composite
culture." Hindus will again be blackened worldwide as
intolerant, there will be murder and destruction, the BJP
will burn its fingers again, and I just don't think that
a Common Civil Code is worth all that misery.

Instead, the BJP ought first of all to take up an issue
which really matters for Hindu communal life-abolishing
the legal and constitutional discriminations against the
Hindu majority, most urgently those in education and
temple management. The constitutional bedrock of these
discriminations is Article 30, which accords to the
minorities the right to set up and administer their own
schools and colleges, preserving their communal identity
(through the course contents and by selectively recruit-
ing teachers and students), all while receiving state
subsidies. That right is not guaranteed to the majority,
but should be.

The problem was highlighted when the Ramakrishna Mission
went to court to seek recognition as a non-Hindu minority
in order to protect its schools from a take-over by the
West Bengal government. It says a lot about the sorry
state of the Hindu intellect that the debate focused

entirely on the RKM's ridiculous claim, and not on the
constitutional injustice underlying this tragi-comedy.

The BJP, too, failed to rise to the occasion. In fact,
the longest-sitting parliamentarian in India, Atal Behari
Vajpayee, never moved a finger to remove this thorn from
the side of the Hindu society. When foreign newsmen ask
BJP leaders about the nation of "pseudo-secularism," the
answer usually mentions Article 30, but the record shows
that the BJP does not mean business.

An analogous problem exists for the Hindu temples. Mos-
ques and churches are exclusively managed by the respec-
tive communities, but Hindu temples are routinely taken
over by the secular authorities. This results in misap-
propriation of the temple's income and its redirection to
non-Hindu purposes. It is also a major factor in the
grinding poverty afflicting most Hindu temple priests and
their families.

Recently, the authorities moved court (unsuccessfully) to
get the Shirdi Sai Baba temple in Hyderabad registered as
a Hindu temple, all for wresting control of the institu-
tion and its funds. The BJP does not deserve to get a
single Hindu vote if it doesn't address to this injus-
tice.

The BJP can at once take an initiative in Parliament to
remove these discriminations. This will force the other
parties to take a stand. Either they support secular
equality, ensuring a majority for the BJP's proposed
amendment. The party can then claim that at long last,
it had really achieved something for the Hindus. Alter-
nately, the other parties may defend discrimination and
religious the BJP's amendment comes centrestage in the
next election campaign in the next election campaign, not
as a marginal item on page 64 of the BJP election mani-
festo (as in 1996), but as the central them.

Such a campaign will be better for the BJP and for India
than a controversy over temple sites or the Common Civil
Code. Abolition of the said discriminations is far more
consequential for Hindu culture. It is impeccably secu-
lar, even to the extent that it will be difficult to food
world opinion into believing that this is "Hindu funda-
mentalism" again. It does not directly affect the minori-
ties and is far less likely to antagonise them. So, it is
far easier to handle. Even the BJP could do it.



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