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The Rediff Interview/Kanchi Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati

July 16, 2003

The Shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, Sri Jayendra Saraswati's negotiations with the All India Muslim Personal Law Board over the Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya, have run into rough water. In an exclusive interview with Managing Editor Saisuresh Sivaswamy at his Mutt in Kanchipuram, in Tamil Nadu, on Tuesday, the seer explains what went wrong, and how the talks could get back on track.

What is the extent of your, your Mutt's involvement in Ayodhya? Is it only the temple?

In Ayodhya the Kanchi Mutt has set up a trust, the Kanchi Ayodhya Nagara Development Trust. On it we have our Mutt officials, and locals, including a Muslim. The people of that area, whether Hindu or Muslim, are very poor; the mahants and such people are also there, living in big bungalows, they are happy. So we thought of doing something for the people, to do some social service, for the poor to prosper. We teach them tailoring, and buy readymade clothes from them which is sold in Hyderabad, so they have a steady livelihood. We have also started embroidery classes recently, and both Hindus and Muslims are part of this project. That is one endeavour of ours that is on in Ayodhya.

Apart from that we have also set up a small information technology project in Ayodhya, in which both Hindus and Muslims, men and women, participate. We have taken on rent a small place there, hired two teachers to teach them IT, and help them set up on their own by giving them whatever help they may need. One batch is over and the second batch commenced on the 6th of this month.

We want to see the people of Ayodhya happy. There is no point in fighting over Ram, Krishna, this god or that, in Ayodhya. Feed the stomach, Swamigal, they say. They are now able to look after themselves, their family, with dignity. Both communities are living with dignity, which is important.

But what about the main problem in Ayodhya?

As far as Ayodhya is concerned there is no problem at all. Not through the Mutts there, or through the poor people. If any problem is there it is coming through outside forces. If these forces were to keep away the problem you are referring to will automatically solve itself.

I am talking about the specific problem over the Ram temple. You and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board had this exchange of letters, which raised a lot of hope all around, and then came your letter dated July 1, in which you raised Kashi and Mathura over which the Board expressed its dismay.

Why? Leave their feelings alone. OK, I agree, maybe I need not have mentioned Kashi and Mathura, I don't want them either, but what about the other points in my letter? They have used this as a pretext to ignore the other points mentioned by me.

What else did you say?

We had said, in the first letter, to give us the undisputed area, and to build a wall in the middle if they feel that we will extend the temple, if they don't trust us. We will in the meantime talk, look to the court judgment etc. No one else should interfere in this matter, it should be sorted out by the two sides. Then they asked for some clarifications. You had mentioned the court judgment, they said, so can you tell us where the Ramalayam's garba griha will be located? Show the same on the map, they said.

We wrote to them that the undisputed and disputed areas, which were separate earlier, have become one, is not in existence anymore. They were separate, which is why we had asked for it, but now there is no separation of disputed and undisputed areas. In the last developments of the last few months the two parts have become one.

What are these developments you referred to?

The matter went to the Supreme Court for vacating the stay on the undisputed land given during the Bhoomi Pujan, which ruled that the stay will be vacated only when the status of the disputed land is sorted out. After that there is no point talking about disputed and undisputed areas, they have become one. There is no sense in them saying they won't give the undisputed area, both are now disputed. Given that, if we want the talks to go anywhere, we have to start discussing the disputed area since the court has made even the undisputed area into a disputed one.

On what basis did you ask for the disputed land?

We gave them reasons for saying so. One, for the sake of communal harmony. This issue has led to a lot of violence, and will lead to more violence in which poor people will get killed. You must develop a spirit of give-and-take. It is the vishwas-bhoomi [land of faith] for Hindus. For you, it is of a man who you call great today [Babar], we don't know what he was then. We don't also know if there was a temple there. Hindus have the faith that he was born there, so keeping in mind this faith if you give up the area it will lead to communal harmony, we told them.

Two, today, Lord Ram is already seated there, although in a small jhopdi, it is the reality. As of today if you think anyone can move him from there, it is impossible. Just as the undisputed and disputed areas have become one, it is also evident that Lord Ram has occupied the site. If he is moved, there will be mass protests, so he cannot be moved. Even a human being, over twelve years, acquires property, family etc. Also, whether occupied land or unoccupied, if someone has resided in a place for twelve years the law recognizes him as the owner. But we told them, we are not here to claim ownership. It may be yours but we are asking you to give it up in our favour. We can also go the law's way but we are asking you.

Next, there are already many mosques in that town, some 20. But only eight have prayers offered there still, the others are in a state of disrepair. No one's come forward to repair them, nor has the government given permission for it. In this situation if you erect another mosque who do you expect to come and pray there? You build a temple or mosque when there are people around. Like, when you build a colony you build a Vinayak temple. But you don't erect a temple just because the land is yours, you build where there is scope for public worship. Similarly there is no need for public worship in a mosque there, where will the people come from? For this reason also you must give in to us, we said.

More, we all accept Allah as great, the supreme power. We pray to such a god, in a mosque worthy of him, or in a holy place, or even when you find the time and place. But here is a mosque named after Babar, who came here, fought and won, so you decide, is he of importance, or is Allah of importance? Allah is supreme, but do we rate Babar who came here and fought as equally important? This fact of his war, whenever it was fought in history, will be remembered forever. If you want the ill will to go, remove Babar. Otherwise, his memory will keep coming up, and the problem will keep recurring.

Lastly, we all agree that communal harmony is needed. The Wakf Board has given up so much land in so many places, for schools, colleges, etc. It is nothing new. Given that, if you give up this site for the sake of communal harmony, you will come to occupy an exalted position. Because, although only a handful of Muslims may be terrorists they have given the entire community a bad name. Because of them the general perception is that a Muslim is someone who will only fight. But, if you were to think in a spirit of accommodation, you will enhance the reputation of Indian Muslims across the world, as a people who are willing to give in for communal harmony.

I had written all this to them, in my last letter

Which led to the Board digging its heels in. But why Kashi and Mathura?

That was extra, yes. I don't need it, it is not needed now, but I said one day Hindus may ask for them so be prepared mentally for it, that's all. But it was unnecessary, yes, though we had said it.

But it is that which apparently created all the problems.

You are wrong, that did not create any problems at all. I have a copy of their resolution, and do you know, there is not a word in it about that point. They have not said anything about it. On the contrary, they have mentioned there is a difference between my first and second letters.

Yes, there seems to be a hint of a threat in your second letter.

What threat? Isn't there a difference between saying 'prepare yourself mentally' and 'get ready to fight'? If your office says your performance is not good, is that a threat? It means to change your behaviour, to perform better, and cannot be considered a threat, but sound advice. If someone mistakes advice for a threat, what can I do! The two are different.

When you say, 'if you don't do this I will kill you, harm you' that is a threat, but we are not doing it. To consider well-meaning advice as a threat is the wrong approach. Anyway, let it be, we have no such desire in our minds.

In all fairness, their reply should have been to question why I am asking for the disputed area instead of the undisputed area. But they never wanted to know! If they had asked me I would have told them that the two have become one now, both are a problem today. Since the whole land has now become disputed, where do we start from if not the disputed area so that the non-disputed area also comes out? This has to be faced, but no one wants to face it.

So what is the next stage in the negotiations?

Unless they are willing to face all this we will not talk about the next phase.

But what do you expect to see from them?

The news must come out, that they realize we changed our view was that since the disputed and non-disputed have become one, we broached the disputed land. This has to happen.

Second, they have announced that no one has the right to give away Allah's land. Even during the various Muslim empires they have given grants to various temples and Mutts, including land. Grants were given to the Sringeri Mutt, our [Kanchi] Mutt, to the Srirangam temple and many others. One of them even built a temple! That proves there's nothing that says Allah's property cannot be given away.

Apart from what the Wakf Board owns everything else belongs to Allah. If the world is Allah's property how can they be different with just one piece of land? They have not answered that properly. They had clarifications of my first letter, but no doubts over the second letter. Why? So how did they decide Allah's property cannot be given, how did they decide that we are threatening them? Did I ask anything for myself?

Since I mentioned Kashi and Mathura they should have wanted to know what will happen later, who will ask, when, how, shall we talk about it now. Instead of that they decide that Allah's property cannot be given away, so how do they want to solve the problem? The way we say everything is Bhagwan's they believe Allah's property is all over, fine, but how can they say they cannot give only that portion? What, they don't buy and sell shops and houses? Whose property is that, Allah's or theirs?

According to the Quran, the world belongs to Allah, not one bit of land here or there. In countries like Pakistan mosques have been razed, only recently one was pulled down, but did you see any protest over it? In Afghanistan and Iraq many were ruined in the war. Such questions should be debated upon and done with. Instead, they say it is Allah's property and get stuck on one point: you raised Kashi and Mathura which we don't like.

Finally they say looking at their image, honour, respect, dignity, their consensus, the consensus of all Indians they will consider [my proposal]. They have taken a minority status, and now talk about Indian consensus? Let them then give up the minority status.

The counterpoint to what you say is, why can't Hindus show their large heart, the oft-repeated line that all faiths are equal, by giving away the site to Muslims? Why are you stuck on it?

Yes, Hindus have a large heart, all faiths are equal. If it were not, such a senior religious leader like the Shankaracharya will not be talking to them. I have gone to Lucknow to talk to them, no saint has done that, no Hindu has gone there. Why did I go to Lucknow when they called me? For peace and communal harmony. Did they show me similar respect? I did not go there to see their architecture and such stuff.

We were discussing this problem, so I went to an Arabic school there to talk to them, putting my prestige aside so that something positive may come about. Communal harmony can come about if both are in agreement. Has Allah told them to fight all the time, don't they have a spirit of give and take? Where can they go apart from India? We all have to live together right here.

Don't you agree Muslims harbour a sense of grievance over December 6, 1992, when the Babri Masjid was pulled down by Hindus?

What has happened has happened. They may feel that way but how long will they grieve over December 6? Our temples have also been demolished, people killed. In Kashmir many temples were destroyed, our people are still being killed there. Shouldn't we also harbour similar feelings? Both sides should forget. In day to day life there will be many grievances, they should not be nursed.

December 6 cannot last forever. How many people must be upset over Babar's mosque in that sacred site? You have been grieving for 10 years, many people have grouses going back hundreds of years. After all he defeated us and built that structure, didn't he? Both sides have grievances, and both sides should get over them, one can't live that way.

Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj

Part II: 'Show me another janambhoomi and we will go there'

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