February 14, 2002


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The Election Interview/Ramchandra Paramhans

'Is Vajpayee threatening me?'
There are two versions of Mahant Ramchandra Paramhans, head of the Ramnandiya Dighamber Akhara and, more importantly, chief of the Ram Janambhoomi Nyas, the organisation that spearheads moves to construct a temple at the site where, prior to December 6, 1992, stood the Babri Mosque.

One version was on view at the Kumbh Mela in Prayag last year -- a fire-breathing, vitriol-spewing orator. The other version is the one you see when you visit him in his akhara.

This is the second time I've met him in the sprawling akhara a few hundred yards away from the disputed site -- and on both occasions, the abiding impression has been of a man who can, with reason and logic and without ever needing to raise his voice, convince you that night is day.

The entrance to the akhara sports an aide memoire of the event that catapulted the mahant into the national spotlight -- a small fenced-in enclosure bearing a memorial to the 'martyrs' of the 1990 kar seva.

Inside, Mahant Paramhans -- who, if he is 90 years old as he says he is, has drunk deep of the fountain of good health -- holds court, seated on a jute mattress as he deals with the nitty-gritty of running his akhara.

As the countdown for his announced deadline for construction of the temple looms, Mahant Paramhans took time off to discuss the controversy in detail with Prem Panicker. Excerpts:

Could you spell out your agitational programme for the coming months?

We have given March 12 as our deadline. On March 13 and 14, lakhs of karsevaks will arrive in Ayodhya. And on the 15th, they will ceremoniously begin work on the temple.

Is that an unalterable deadline? Just yesterday, VHP chief Ashok Singhal in a public meeting announced that if the central government needed more time to resolve the issue, the VHP was prepared to extend the deadline.

Our deadline was not given overnight -- even during the Prayag Kumbh, I had announced March 12 as the deadline for the government to remove all obstacles standing in the way of construction of the temple. They don't have to move mountains. All they have to do is study a piece of paper and pass an order -- for which the time I have given them is sufficient. I don't know why Singhal said that the deadline will be extended -- it is the Ram Janambhoomi Nyas that is constructing the temple and we have already made our intentions clear. In fact, our preliminary preparations have begun.

What do those preparations consist of?

We recently conducted a Chetavani Yatra from Ayodhya to New Delhi, where we met the government and reminded them of the deadline. Meanwhile, behind my akhara and in other places in Ayodhya, preparations are on for a series of yagyas honouring Bhagwan Ram, Shivji, and other deities. These yagyas will begin on February 25, and they are intended as purification rituals before the actual construction begins.

The general feeling, however, is that this talk of temple construction is merely a ploy to consolidate the Hindu vote on behalf of the BJP.

The dates were announced in Prayag last year. At that time, there was no notification of the elections -- so how can they now say that what we are doing is to help the BJP win these elections?

But even during the Prayag Kumbh, it was known that elections to the state assembly would be held early this year, probably in February-March -- therefore, the date could have been fixed keeping the probability in view.

When we met Vajpayee and Advani in Delhi last month at the end of the Chetavani Yatra, they said that they are asking for the opinion of the law ministry. In all their public meetings in Uttar Pradesh, they have been saying that as far as the question of temple construction is concerned, the rule of law and the will of the courts will prevail. So, if we say we will build the temple and the BJP says the will of the courts will dictate, how does our stand help the BJP?

The argument I keep hearing -- even in Ayodhya -- is that the BJP will talk of the courts and the law and you will talk of temple construction, and in the process, the issue will remain in the forefront of the public mind, which is the intention of both the BJP and the VHP.

I haven't heard this argument. Anyone can say anything. I can say that you are a Samajwadi Party agent who has come here to make trouble, will you be able to disprove it? In any case, our deadline is just a month away -- you will see, on March 15, construction will begin. I will even tell you this much -- the first phase of the construction will be the erection of four gopura-dwars on the four sides. Everything has already been built by our artisans in Karsevakpuram, we only need to carry the material to the site and put it up.

In that case, are you saying that the rule of the law and the will of the courts, which the BJP swears by, does not matter to you?

Who is it who does not honour the courts -- us, or them? I have so far attended every single summons that I have received, I have given the courts all the respect they deserve. And yet, people -- mostly the Congressmen -- accuse me of showing contempt for the courts. This is the same Congress that, in the Shah Bano case, set aside a Supreme Court judgment and passed a special law to appease the Muslims. So let me ask this -- if in that case the court's verdict was not important, if the verdict could be set aside, then why can't you do it now?

Maybe because the government fears fresh rioting, bloodshed?

Let me tell you this -- the construction will take place from March 15, but not a single drop of blood, whether Hindu's or Muslim's, will be shed. In 1992, it was different -- there was a structure there, the act of bringing it down created a situation where there was bloodshed. Now, there is no structure. In fact, a temple to Sri Ram already exists on the site, there are pujas being done, hundreds of devotees come there every day. So we are not constructing a temple. The temple exists, we are merely beautifying it, creating around it a structure that can do justice to the glory of Sri Ram.

The disputed land in any case is the small area on which the structure stood, and where Sri Ram's temple now stands. The rest of the land, over 65 acres, had been given to the Ram Janambhoomi Nyas on a 99-year lease, there is no dispute about that, so why has the government taken control of land that is rightfully ours? How can they stop us from putting up whatever we want on our own land? Where is the law that says we can't do that?

In Ayodhya, in Faizabad and Lucknow this time, I have heard people arguing against construction of the temple. They say that if the VHP is all that concerned about the people, they should use the crores that have been collected to build roads, bridges, schools, hospitals.

Where did those crores come from? From people across the land. We asked people to contribute for the Ram temple. And they did. Ordinary people, millions of them, gave five rupees, ten rupees, twenty-one rupees. That is how we collected this money. Tomorrow when they ask me how I collected money to build a temple and then spent it on other things, what should I tell them? Suppose someone goes to court and says we collected money on false pretences, then what will you say?

But does this country really need a temple now, considering all the heartburn it is causing? Do you really need to adopt such an adversarial position?

Let me point out something funny. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was a Congress leader, wasn't he? And yet it was he who, recognising the injustice meted out, removed the masjid at Somnath and got the Shiv temple there restored. For that, he is called 'Lok Nayak', and he is one of the most respected leaders of the Congress. But when I want to do something similar here, when I want to build a temple for Ram on the land of his birth, they call me an aatankvaadi (terrorist) and accuse me of fostering disunity. Arre bhai, where is the justice here? If Patel was right, why am I wrong?

Look at Afghanistan. the Taliban destroyed the Buddha idols and the world condemned it. Now the Taliban is being destroyed, and the new government says it will restore those Buddha statues. It is amazing that a Muslim country can be so sensitive to the feelings of a small minority that it says it will restore those damaged statues, but in a country where the vast majority of people are Hindus, we have so much of argument and reluctance to build a temple for Sri Ram in his own birthplace.

Let me tell you what I told the courts. I asked them, is the Janambhoomi the birthplace of Ram? Then you should permit a temple to come up there. Otherwise, you tell me which is Ram's birthplace, you point out that place, and I will gladly go there and build a temple. What more can I do?

Have you considered the possibility that your going ahead with the temple construction can result in the fall of the BJP government at the Centre?

So what? I made this government, and if necessary, I will not hesitate to bring it down. How did the BJP come to power? It was a small party, it had just two members in Parliament. How did it become so big? Through Lord Sri Ram, through his name, through the movement for building a temple here. Today, if the party is prepared to turn its back on Sri Ram, then it will have to suffer the consequences.

When I met Vajpayee in Delhi last month, he told me that if it came to that, he would resign! Is he threatening me? When Advani took out his rath yatra from Somnath and Laloo Prasad Yadav arrested him, Vajpayee withdrew support and caused the fall of the V P Singh government. And today the same man tells me he will resign?

Actually, I am very fond of Vajpayee. I know that in his heart, he wants this temple as much as I do. His problem is that he heads a coalition government and his partners are against the temple. But that is his problem, he has to solve it himself, I cannot help him there. And neither can I keep delaying indefinitely -- it was after consulting many astrologers that we fixed March 12 as the deadline for the government, so that we could begin construction of the temple on March 15. Now there is no going back.

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