January 18, 2001


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Kumbh Nagari become focus
of intense politicking

Prem Panicker in Kumbh Nagari, Allahabad

With less than 24 hours to go for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-sponsored Dharam Sansad (January 19-21), Kumbh Nagari has become the focus of intense politicking.

The VHP, true to style, has been making a flat-out attempt to appropriate the Maha Kumbh Mela to push its Ram Temple agenda. The thinking is simple, logical, direct -- the Kumbh attracts a few crore visitors. By setting up a VHP camp that, in size and style, towers over the camps set up by the various akharas, Shankaracharyas and assorted savants, the VHP has effectively ensured that the curious pilgrim, with time on his hands once the ritual of bathing at the Sangam is completed, will stroll in.

Once inside, he is greeted by a raised dais, dominated by a 21 foot long, 11 foot broad mockup of the proposed Ram temple. Never mind that the original plan was to create the replica in marble and sandstone; never mind that this proposal has since been scaled down, with the model on view being constructed of thermocol dusted lightly with marble to give it a sheen -- the attempt here is to confer on the model a certain sanctity by association.

Thus, the VHP has organised 24-hour pujas and non-stop bhajans, orchestrated by a succession of 'sants' owing allegiance to the VHP. What greets you, thus, is a strange spectacle -- of a thermocol model of a temple becoming the focus of religious rituals and pujas that would be more appropriate for the deity himself.

And it is working -- lines of pilgrims duly circumambulate the mockup, hands folded in reverence, coins and notes duly bestowed in the collection boxes, before getting tilak applied by the priest on duty.

But for the 'sanctity by association with the Kumbh' trick to work, the VHP needed to rope in the assembled religious leaders -- and that is where the stumbling blocks are. The Akhara Parishad, headed at this time by Brahmacharya Gopalanand, had announced as early as January 9 its decision to boycott the Dharam Sansad.

Asked the reason for the proposed boycott, a mahant attached to the Juna Akhara explains, with some heat: "Hindu dharma is not the property of any one body. The VHP cannot on its own decide to call an assembly, and sanctify it with the name of 'Dharam Sansad'. What kind of Dharam Sansad is this anyway, without the Shankaracharyas participating?"

The akhara boycott dealt a double blow to the VHP. For one, its hopes of using the assembled akharas to lend a further air of legitimacy to its temple-building programme took a beating. And worse, it proved to be a bit of a public relations disaster, given that one of the akharas party to the boycott is the Dighamber Akhara -- whose head is none other than Mahant Ramchandra Paramhans, president of the Ram Janambhoomi Nyas and frontline VHP leader.

"There are 32 akharas today and god knows how many Shankaracharyas, what does it matter to us if a few of them don't turn up? They lose, not us," argues Shirish Chandra Dixit, vice president of the VHP. "You will see, on the 19th, that the vast majority of the sadhus and sants present here will turn up for the Dharam Sansad."

In that '32 akharas' party line, lies a little gimmick. Officially, no one will talk about it. Unofficially, however, VHP workers are so kicked by their own smarts that they can't help boasting a little bit. "What is an akhara? A few sadhus get together, they elect a mahamandaleshwar, and that is that, you have an akhara," explains one worker, adding with a smile, "Anyone can start an akhara -- you can, if you want to."

Unstated, but obvious if you ask around among the leading akharas, is the fact that the VHP has discreetly funded several akharas of recent vintage. The ploy is simple -- 14 akharas form part of the Akhara Parishad. The only way to undercut the effect of their boycott is to create a situation where these akharas are not in a majority -- in other words, play the numbers game.

Thus, of the 32 (some put the number of akharas present and participating at the Kumbh Mela at 36), only the 14 senior akharas are part of the boycott. Which from the VHP's point of view means that 18 akharas are participating -- so now, who has the majority?

Meanwhile, VHP leaders of the order of Vishnu Hari Dalmiya and Acharya Giriraj Kishore have camped in Kumbh Nagar for the past few days, engaging in a hectic series of meetings with senior religious leaders. And already, the results are showing.

Earlier this month, the three senior Shankaracharyas -- Jagatguru Jayendra Saraswati of Kanchipuram, Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati of Dwarka, and Swami Nischalanand Saraswati of Puri -- had at the end of a Kumbh-centric conclave blasted the VHP for politicising the issue of temple construction, dissociated themselves from the Dharam Sansad, and called upon the faithful to preserve the sanctity of the faith, and not allow politicians to hijack it for their own ends.

The three Shankaracharyas at that time presented a united front on the issue -- a unity that is now cracking under the strain of the VHP's diplomatic assault. Jayendra Saraswati gave the first indication that the VHP could be winning the war when, yesterday, he reversed his stance on the Dharam Sansad. "Of course I will attend the Sansad, the VHP has my blessings," the Kanchi seer proclaimed, from his temporary residence at Shankar Viman Mandapam.

What then of the earlier stand, that Hinduism was being hijacked by the VHP? "It is not the VHP, but political parties such as the Congress, the BJP and the Left parties, that have been using the issue of the Ram temple as a vote-winning device," the Shankaracharya avers.

The turnaround by the Kanchi seer has given the VHP a huge high. "What the Akhara Parishad was saying, about the Sankaracharyas not blessing our Dharam Sansad, is all hogwash," exults Shirish Chandra Dixit.

He doesn't say so in so many words -- but the feeling within the VHP camp is that the Kanchi seer is the thin edge of the wedge, and with him now openly backing the proposed Dharam Sansad, the other Shankaracharyas will fall in line.

And if that happens, then the Akhara Parishad has no option but to call off its boycott plan and attend the Sansad, since it pegged its initial objections on the non-participation by the Shankaracharyas.

This, then, has been the focus of VHP manouevering over the past few days -- get the Shankaracharyas to endorse the Sansad, use it to crack the unity of the Akhara Parishad, and when the Dharam Sansad officially begins, present a picture of a united, unanimous assemblage of Hindu religious leaders to endorse its plans.

Whether it will all happen in time is still unclear -- and therefore, the VHP is not making any definite promises at this point about the possible outcome of the Sansad. "We did not say officially that a date for construction of the Ram Temple will be announced at the Sansad," a senior VHP leader says. "The Sansad is not about the Ram temple alone, but about various problems facing Hinduism today -- we will during the Sansad be discussing and passing resolutions on issues like cow slaughter, the purification of the Ganga, the conversions being carried out by Christian missionaries, and so on."

So the Ram temple is not on the agenda?

"That is not what I said," the leader points out. "The Ram temple too is on the agenda. We intend to announce a year-long Jan Jagran programme, aimed at educating the people about the need for the construction of the Ram temple."

So no definite date for the construction will be announced?

The question is stone-walled. "Without the Sansad having met, how can I tell you what it will decide?"

The unstated, but obvious, bottomline? The VHP will not, at this point, make any official statement that could rock the boat. Instead, it will continue its efforts to rope in the other Shankaracharyas, and through them the akharas . And if the assembled mass of Hindu leaders do come together under the VHP umbrella tomorrow, then the VHP will use the opportunity to go for broke, and name the date.

Alternately, if there are important holdouts, if the VHP does not succeed, in the 24 hours remaining, to bring the Shankaracharyas and akharas into one united fold, then the Dharam Sansad will soft-pedal, contenting itself with announcing a Jan Jagran programme that will keep the temple on the agenda, yet not upset the religious leaders.

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