February 20, 2002


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Arvind Lavakare

The temple tempest -- yet again

Will the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's reiterated zeal to reconstruct the Ram temple at Ayodhya after March 12 end in a Mahabharat against the BJP-led government in New Delhi as well as against the Hindu-haters that abound in Hindustan? Or is all that VHP rhetoric of daring and defiance just a gimmick to swing the UP assembly election? We will know soon enough when the poll results are out.

Meanwhile, the VHP would seem to be on the wrong foot by demanding that the Government of India return the 67 acres of land near the 'disputed site' [of Ram's birth] that it had acquired under the Acquisition of Certain Areas at Ayodhya Act, 1993, despite the fact that none of those 67 acres was such over which title is claimed by the Muslims.

The VHP supports its demand for return of those 67 acres by citing the majority view of the five-member Supreme Court bench on October 24, 1994 (reported in AIR 1995 Supreme Court 605), pronounced on (i) writ petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the Act and (ii) the presidential reference of March 6, 1993, asking the apex court's opinion on "whether a Hindu temple or any Hindu religious structure existed prior to the construction of the Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid in the area on which the structure stood".

Now section 6(1) of the above Act does permit the central government to transfer the title of any area of the acquired property. However, it lays down that such vesting of the title can be passed from the central government to "any authority or other body, or trustees of any trust, set up on or after the commencement of this Act" which "is or are willing to comply with such terms and conditions as that Government may think fit to impose..."

It should be clear from the above that the Vajpayee government cannot (i) by law transfer the 67 acres to the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust that has been in existence earlier than the commencement of the above Act in 1993, or (ii) transfer the land without insisting on compliance with certain terms and conditions that may well include a bar on resumption of temple construction on that land.

Further, the majority verdict of the Supreme Court did not envisage a unilateral transfer of land acquired by the government in excess of the disputed portion. While justifying the additional acquisition, the majority judgment upheld its subsequent transfer subject to a "challenge to the acquisition of any part of the adjacent area on the ground that it is unnecessary for the purpose of achieving the objective of settling the dispute relating to the disputed area". In short, before asking for the return of those 67 acres, the VHP must first prove to the central government that those 67 acres acquired in addition to the disputed area (stated by the VHP to be 3,200 square feet) are not needed for the resolution of the basic dispute over the location of the Ram temple's sanctum sanctorum.

One therefore awaits, with bated breath almost, the decision of the law ministry on the transfer of 67 acres referred to it by the prime minister on the specific request of the VHP.

Meanwhile, keep your fingers crossed and pray that the worst doesn't happen. Judged by the sheer aggressiveness of the VHP in wanting to go ahead with the temple, come what may, we may be headed for yet another round of countrywide communal clashes, desertion of BJP members from government, a snap of ties between the BJP and its NDA partners, a new round of parliamentary elections and, not the least, a huge setback to economic reforms and development. Pakistan exploiting the scene to repeat Kargil '99 and/or increase terrorist activities in Jammu & Kashmir is also a danger in the possible scenario.

And why this self-inflicted tragedy? Because (i) successive governments in New Delhi became slave to vote-bank politics of not hurting the slightest sentiment of the Muslims; (ii) leftists and other 'intellectuals' holding positions of influence in various institutions have aided and abetted the creation of an undefined but anti-majority 'secularism' in the country; (iii) the Indian judiciary has probably created a world record by not resolving what has essentially been a property dispute first referred to the courts in 1950 and which, till date, is pending at a stage earlier to trial; (iv) the nearly 85 per cent of the Hindu population of our country has been too tolerant, too broad-minded and too fractionalised on caste-cum-sub-caste basis to unitedly vote the BJP to power with a thumping majority in Parliament.

For all you know, it may be just one Muslim whom posterity could hold responsible for the Armageddon that may come to our land after the Ides of March this year.

That man is Syed Shahabuddin, a retired officer of the Indian Foreign Service. It is he who has been the devil's advocate for the Muslims and has opposed the temple at the Ram Janmabhoomi ever since 1986 when a number of sadhus and Hindu saints set up the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas to build a dream memorial to the divine legend of the Hindus.

Thus, when the VHP proposed, as early as 1986-87, that the Hindus were ready to use available technology to reverentially shift and relocate the Babri structure because the site was important to the Hindus and the structure was to the Muslims, Shahabuddin did not approve. When Anjum Qader, the All-India Shia Conference leader, proposed that the Muslims should accept the solution of shifting, Shahabuddin wrote him a letter on July 4, 1987, stating that "even if shifting is permissible under some school of Fiqh, there is no reason at all to opt for shift... Please do not pursue this line. I remain absolutely and totally opposed to the mischievous idea of shift... Please reconsider."

In effect, an uncompromising person shot down the most reasonable proposal of the VHP acceptable to the Shia community to whom actually the Babri structure belonged.

Shahabuddin had, at one time, stated that if it were proved that a temple existed and was demolished to build the mosque, the Muslims themselves would bring down the structure. Later, he began to set the standards of proof for complying with his commitment. Thus, when unimpeachable records of the British government were tendered to prove the Hindu case, he insisted that only "pre-British evidence would be acceptable". When the writings of Muslim historians and scholars were unearthed and produced to prove that what the British had said was true, it was said that their views were not acceptable because the scholars were only following the British version.

Even with regard to pre-British evidence in support of the Hindu claim, what was demanded was "contemporaneous and pre-1528 evidence alone". Finally, when the result of December 6, 1992, revealed contemporaneous, pre-1528 evidence anterior to Babur to prove the existence of a Vaishnav temple on the site, Shahabuddin disowned his previous commitment and declared that it was no longer valid in view of the demolition.

Was it -- is it -- the Muslim intention that the matter should not be ever resolved -- at least not peacefully? It's impossible, really, to probe that kind of a psyche that confronts not only the VHP but also India and the whole world.

Tailpiece: Two of the five judges of the Supreme Court that decided the writs on the Acquisition of Areas at Ayodhya Act, 1993, and the presidential reference simultaneously refused to answer the latter. Reason: "the purpose of the Reference is opposed to secularism and is unconstitutional." There then is a new facet of Indian "secularism:" a court judgment favouring one community against another is strictly no-no!

Arvind Lavakare

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