Sharat Pradhan in Ayodhya
Evidently with an eye on the coming assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has got down to renewing its campaign to construct a Ram temple on the debris of the 16th century Babri Masjid that was pulled down by Hindu fanatics just over nine years ago.
Led by VHP chief Ashok Singhal, nearly 3,000 sadhus [holy men] clad in the traditional saffron robes with sandalwood paste smeared on their foreheads completed the first leg of their five-day journey at Lucknow. They propose to move on to Delhi, where they will hold a meeting with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on January 27.
"Our objective is to remind the prime minister to hand over the officially acquired land in Ayodhya latest by March 12," Singhal told a fairly large gathering of VHP volunteers who had converged at Lucknow's Laxman Mela grounds in the afternoon.
Significantly, during his visit to Lucknow earlier this month the prime minister too had expressed the hope that he would be able to have the contentious issue resolved through dialogue by March 12.
The central government had acquired 67 acres of land around the disputed shrine in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. A makeshift temple has stood on the debris since.
The yatra set off from the banks of the Saryu in Ayodhya at around 0930 IST with about 60 vehicles, including 20 buses, in tow. There was much fanfare as the holy men raised cries of 'Jai Shree Ram'.
Singhal flagged off the yatra after performing prayers in a makeshift Ram temple installed in a modified saffron-coloured truck to give it the look of a rath (chariot). A young man attired as Hanuman stood atop this rath as the rally moved on to intermittent cries of 'Jai Shree Ram' amidst the blowing of conch shells all along the 130km route to Lucknow.
Notwithstanding the Bharatiya Janata Party's claims to the contrary, the yatra is widely believed to be aimed at whipping up Hindu passions to garner the community's support for the party ahead of the election next month.
This was clearly visible at the Lucknow rally addressed by Singhal and other VHP leaders. The VHP chief focussed his attention on the "immediate return" of what he termed "the undisputed 46 acres of land originally owned by the Ram Janmbhoomi Trust from which it was acquired by the central government". He sought to give the audience the impression that the matter of dispute before the high court only pertained to "that piece of 80ft x 40ft land on which the disputed structure [Babri Masjid] once stood".
And as if to run down the Congress in the eyes of Muslims, who appear to be slowly looking up to the party again, Singhal pointed out that "the shilanyas of the temple was carried out by us during a Congress regime in UP on land that was declared 'undisputed' even by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi". He said, "We could start the construction from that point and then wait for the judicial verdict on the disputed area."
The yatra that will make similar halts and address roadside rallies all along the 630km drive to Delhi was reminiscent of Lal Kishenchand Advani's 1990 rath yatra that was openly proclaimed as a move to "unite and mobilise Hindus" behind the BJP.
The octogenarian chief of the Ram Janmbhoomi Trust, Mahant Ram Chandra Paramhans, however, threw a spanner in the works when he declined to join what was called the 'Sant Chetavni Yatra' (warning march by saints).
Paramhans, who was responsible for the sudden 'mysterious' emergence of an idol of Lord Ram inside the Babri Masjid on the night of December 22, 1949, was reacting to the recently intensified security in and around the ancient town.
His decision to keep away from the yatra put everyone in a fix. While VHP supremo Singhal hurriedly rushed to meet him after flagging off the yatra, word was sent from Delhi to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Rajnath Singh to pacify the rebellious religious leader.
"Ayodhya has been turned into a prison for the last two months; the unnecessarily enhanced security arrangements have hit not only pilgrims, but local shopkeepers, residents and even the monkeys," he remarked. "My protest is against the restrictions on the movement of vehicles in the town, which prevents pilgrims from reaching the ashrams where they can put up; this in turn affects the livelihood of sadhus and shopkeepers alike."
Local shopkeepers corroborated this. "Ever since the security was intensified and traffic restrictions imposed, our clientele has come down drastically," complained Ram Chander, who runs a bangle store.
Bhagwandas Pandey, a sweetmeat vendor, jumped for joy on learning that the administration was going to lift the ban. "It will be back to business," he said.
Paramhans's primary demand to allow free movement of vehicular traffic on the streets of Ayodhya was conceded after three hours of talks with the state's top officials in Singhal's presence. Principal Secretary (Home) Naresh Dayal and Director General of Police R K Pandit were flown in by helicopter from Lucknow to pacify Paramhans.
The restrictions had been ordered after Singhal had forced his way past the security men into the makeshift temple in October last.
The belligerent Paramhans even threatened to go ahead with his new slogan of 'Ayodhya bachao, BJP hatao (save Ayodhya, remove the BJP)' if his other demand for access to the inner precincts of the makeshift temple was not conceded. He was referring to the sudden withdrawal of permission to perform a traditional annual religious ritual inside the temple. It was in pursuance of this demand that activists of the Ram Janmbhoomi Sewa Samiti were staging a round-the-clock 'dharna' [sit-in] just outside the gates to the heavily barricaded complex.
"I wish to remind Prime Minister Vajpayee that the three times he has risen to that coveted chair were solely because of Ayodhya; so he must not strangle the people of this place, otherwise the BJP will have to face the music at the coming elections," he warned.
Not just Paramhans's remarks, the 35-minute speech delivered by Singhal in Lucknow and the manner in which the yatra was hyped clearly revealed the VHP's real mission. "VHP and BJP are two sides of the same coin," quipped Suman Gupta, a journalist working for a popular Faizabad-based daily Jan Morcha, "and whatever they do is in tandem, to supplement each other." Dr M C Verma, a retired government doctor in Lucknow, felt "the whole thing was being masterminded by the RSS, whose obvious game plan is to make an attempt at whipping up Hindu passions to polarise votes for the BJP".
"Why else would they have chosen this time," said S V Singh, a Lucknow University professor.
VHP's Ayodhya rally begins on a peaceful note
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