March 3, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

Memories of resolution and resolve

I've been in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. Not a particularly pretty town, but there's nothing particularly wrong with it either. An average north Indian town, that's all. The only reason I mention it is that this week, memories of Palampur are probably wafting through many minds, and I don't mean just mine. A lot of people are probably thinking all the way back to 1989, to when the BJP held its national executive meeting there.

At that meeting, the BJP adopted a simple resolution that echoes till today. The dispute in Ayodhya, the BJP resolved in 1989 -- that same dispute, yes -- cannot find solution in the courts. It can and must be settled in only one of two ways: legislation or negotiations between the quarrelling parties.

That resolution contributed to the BJP's decision to pull the rug from under the then Government of India, headed by Prime Minister V P Singh. Singh had been urging that the two sides wait for the tangle to make its way through our courts. The BJP would have none of that -- how could the courts rule on this matter of faith, they asked righteously -- and withdrew support to Singh.

Freeze frame through some events of the next 13 years. Singh's government fell. L K Advani's Toyota-yatra rambled through the country, rousing people to fever pitch against the Babri Masjid. A mob gathered from all over the country destroyed the mosque in 1992. Riots erupted in Bombay, Surat and elsewhere, killing close to a thousand in Bombay alone. "Retaliatory" bomb blasts killed another 250 in Bombay in March 1993. The BJP finally tasted power -- the real reason for the entire fracas, don't we know -- in 1996. Then more firmly, though in a coalition, in 1999.

Along the way, a commission of inquiry left no doubt about who bore the largest share of blame for those riots in Bombay. But precisely those guilty people, by then in power in Maharashtra, predictably threw its report out; not one notable figure has been punished. Another commission inquires into the destruction of the mosque in fits and starts, hampered by the cavalier way in which Advani himself, and his fellow travellers, treat its proceedings. A trial of the accused in the bomb blasts meanders along, unmindful that nine years have elapsed and if some of the accused finally get acquitted, they will have spent a decade or more in jail anyway. That's justice, it seems.

And so here we are in 2002. Thirteen years since Palampur. Thirteen years of violence, hatred, injustice, hypocrisy, political deviousness and unstable governments. The legacy of a movement.

And at the end of this 25 per cent of our independent history, what do we find? Prime Minister Vajpayee announces that his efforts to find a solution to the Ayodhya dispute -- whatever they may have been -- have "failed". The only course -- the ONLY one, please note he says -- is "to await the court verdict" (as reported in The Times of India).

For a man who resolved with his party -- then not in office, OK -- that the dispute could not be resolved in the courts, this is a complete and abject turnabout. Besides, Vajpayee has found out first-hand just how entrenched, stubborn and entirely willing to condemn the country to more hatred and violence the people on either side of this dispute are. He has also found out first-hand that rhetoric flung about from outside office -- a resolution in Palampur, for example -- has little or no relation to the realities of holding office and running a country.

You might almost feel sorry for the man.

Except that he himself is part of those entrenched sides, prone to that same rhetoric. Except that he himself contributed in no small measure to the years of escalating and deepening hatreds we have suffered as a result of this dispute without end. The Palampur resolution is back to haunt Vajpayee as he pronounces today precisely the opposite of what he resolved then. No, I don't feel even mildly sorry for him.

Because I think, in sadness and anger, of what might have been. What if Vajpayee had stood up in Palampur, 13 years ago, and said: this resolution is meaningless. No government will be able to legislate this tangle away. Neither side is willing to compromise. So we have no choice but to pass the buck to the courts. What if he had said I don't want to be party to the bloodshed and hatred that is inevitable if we pursue this path? What if he had said I will not agree to this resolution?

Had he done those things, I know that I would certainly carry far more respect for Vajpayee than I do today. If that matters to anyone. I don't know that we'd be in a much better place, where this crazy Ayodhya quarrel is concerned, than we are today. I suspect, though, that the moral force of his stand, had he found the courage to make one in Palampur, might just have led to the compromise that we have never had over Ayodhya.

As things are, Vajpayee stands in the grave he dug for himself, very cynically and deliberately, in 1989. He and his party wanted to get into power and they knew this resolution was but one step on the road there. So damn the consequences -- it's the rest of us who suffer them, anyway -- and full steam ahead.

Now I hardly believe the courts will give us a decision soon, or that that decision will magically solve the dispute. Seeing hope now in the courts is as frankly silly as when Advani shouted hoarsely from his Toyota that no court on earth could decide this matter of faith. Or when they resolved emptily in Palampur.

To me it seems there is only one way to an answer. Trouble is, it needs a leader of great fibre -- great resolve, in fact -- to see it through. Iron man, you might say. And with the passing of Patel and Nehru, Shastri and Gandhi and Azad, it has been a generation and more since we had leaders like that.

That only way, I think, must go something like this. A strong PM quickly erects on that site in Ayodhya an institution of such enduring significance, such all-round appeal, filling such a deeply felt need, that nobody, but nobody, can argue with it.

You may have your own ideas on what fits that description. For me, what fits best is a large hospital, staffed with the finest doctors, offering clean, simple and excellent care at a cost that will make it affordable to even the poorest people in the area. And in fact, it must care first for the poor. It must be run by a strictly non-denominational trust -- meaning anyone with any religious inclination of any kind is strictly kept out. Money must be no constraint in building this hospital, in attracting the talent to staff it, in housing them so they will stay. I am talking about a hospital that will be a model to the country. That's the kind of enduring significance I mean.

I see this as filling two vital needs. One, of course, is straightforward: there are very few places in this country that can do without another hospital, and I doubt Ayodhya is one such. The second is more subtle. If a PM found the courage and vision to do something like this, it would be a slap in the faces of both sides in this impossible wrangle that never ends, that even today threatens us with more conflagration. A much-needed, richly deserved slap.

For, think about it, how can anyone plausibly object if presented with a hospital on that spot? What would they do, assault the patients? Vandalise and destroy the building?

Hmm. Forget I asked. It has been done. Thane, August 2001: Shiv Sena takes out the Singhania Hospital. Never mind.

The Ayodhya Dispute: The complete coverage

Dilip D'Souza

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