Debating India


Victory Of The Bigots

Prem Shankar Jha

Monday 21 July 2003, by JHA*Prem Shankar

Article Outlook India, ?dition du 21 juillet 2003.

In a sudden spin, the AIMPLB now says the Shankaracharya is resiling from an oral commitment he had made on March 5.

The bigots have won again. In the last four weeks, the hardliners in the Sangh parivar and the Sunni Muslim community have successfully ganged together to defeat A.B. Vajpayee’s courageous and well-intentioned effort to resolve the Ayodhya dispute by means of negotiation. Vajpayee’s crime, in their eyes, was that he attempted to cut them out of the search for a solution, and bring it about by appealing to moderate and enlightened sentiment among both the Hindus and the Muslims. That, needless to say, was anathema.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the talks, the AIMPLB has heaped blame on the Shankaracharya.

But a close reading of its own explanation shows that hardliners in the AIMPLB, probably those who also belonged to the Babri Masjid Action Committee, are at least as much if not more to blame. In a detailed exposition of its reasons for rejecting the Shankaracharya’s proposal, the AIMPLB claimed that it was the Shankaracharya who had asked for the meeting with the president of the AIMPLB on June 7; it was he who had brought up the issue of the Babri Masjid at the talks; and that all that the latter had committed himself to was to consider a proposal put to the board in writing.

The five-point proposal that Swami Jayendra Saraswati submitted on June 16 had proved "lacking in material particulars and was silent on many major issues". In it he had urged the AIMPLB to allow a temple to be built on the undisputed land, wall off the disputed part, arrive at an amicable settlement on its fate, and give their agreement to the court to make the basis of its verdict.

What it did not contain was any reference to an oral commitment that the Shankaracharya had given during an earlier meeting on March 5, that if the court verdict went in favour of the Waqf, "both Hindus and Muslims would abide by the court verdict...and...the Muslims would be allowed to construct the masjid at the same spot where it existed before the demolition". The AIMPLB therefore sought such clarifications, but in his letter of July 1, the Shankaracharya, far from sticking to his previous assurances, totally resiled on them and in addition asked the Muslims to be prepared to hand over the mosques at Kashi and Mathura as well. This left the AIMPLB with no option but to stick to its stand that under the Shariat, the Babri Masjid was a house of Allah and could not be alienated by sale, gift or otherwise.

This explanation sounds eminently reasonable until one examines it closely. First, we have only the AIMPLB’s version of what was said and not said on March 5. What sounds implausible is that the Shankaracharya would have committed himself to making the Hindu community accept the rebuilding of a mosque at the site of the Babri Masjid if the court verdict went in favour of the Waqf. For, he could hardly have been unaware that this would remove any incentive that the AIMPLB had to seek a compromise solution on the fate of the disputed land. Indeed, since the very premise on which the talks were being held was that a court verdict would not solve the problem because matters of faith could not be adjudicated, the Shankaracharya would have regarded any attempt to bind him to a court verdict in advance as a sign that the AIMPLB was not really sincere. It is therefore unlikely that he would have pursued the matter any further.

The fact that he did so suggests that his March 5 meeting with Maulana Rabe Hassan Nadwi was fruitful; that the two did discuss what would happen if the talks failed to end the dispute; that the Shankaracharya pointed out that in that case the matter would revert to the courts, and that all Indians were bound to respect its verdict.But this would have been a very different kind of ’commitment’ to the one the AIMPLB now claims he gave.The ’spin’ it has now given reflects the ascendancy of the hardliners in the board. This is confirmed by the statement’s emphasis upon the mosque being a house of Allah, etc. Had that been the position adopted from the start by Maulana Nadwi, there would have been no follow-up to the March 5 talks.

There can be no doubt that the Shankaracharya’s letter of July 1 made it impossible for the AIMPLB to proceed any further with the discussions. But the reason it gave, that the Shankaracharya "resiled from his earlier formula", suggests that in his discussion with Maulana Nadwi, the Shankaracharya had proposed that the Muslims donate the disputed land in Ayodhya to the Hindus in exchange for the abandonment of all claims to the Mathura and Kashi mosque sites.

However, the July 1 letter did represent a radical shift in the Shankaracharya’s stand and killed whatever chance remained of an amicable settlement. Was he therefore a wolf in sheep’s clothing all along, or did he too succumb to the relentless pressure that he came under from the RSS, the VHP and the legions of ’sadhus’ they unleashed upon him? The second is by far the more likely explanation. But one is left wondering whether he too would not have stood his ground against the VHP and RSS more firmly if he had received a more positive and prompt response from the AIMPLB. The fact is the AIMPLB allowed 15 days to elapse after receiving his June 16 letter without showing any enthusiasm for a settlement. This was no doubt because it too was locked in conflict between the moderates and the hardliners. But in those 15 days the opportunity for a negotiated settlement slipped away.

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