By Manini Chatterjee
It takes a particular kind of diabolic genius for perpetrators of a crime to portray themselves as victims. Over the last one week, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its two principal satellites — the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party — have indulged in just such an exercise.
On October 29, a Supreme Court bench headed by the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, refused to heed the plea of the Uttar Pradesh government for a speedy hearing on the long festering Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute — or the Ayodhya “title” suit as it is legally known — immediately after Diwali.
Listing the matter for the first week of January 2019 when a fresh bench will be constituted to hear the matter, Gogoi tersely said, “We have our own priorities.
Whether the matter will be heard in January, February or March, the appropriate bench will decide.”
The RSS-led sangh parivar did not hide its disappointment and anger. The Union minister, Giriraj Singh, expressing the tacit sentiments of his party colleagues, warned: “Hindus are running out of patience. I fear what will happen if Hindus lose patience.” The VHP working president, Arun Kumar, demanded that the government enact a law to construct a “grand” Ram temple in Ayodhya at the disputed site where the Babri Masjid was demolished. And the RSS threatened a “1992-like” agitation in the light of the delay in a judicial pronouncement.
The underlying thread linking the various threats was an admonition of the Supreme Court. Its refusal to “immediately” hear the case, they claim, went against the sentiment of “a hundred crore Hindus”, and left them “anguished” and “insulted”.
Such is the power of the Hindutva forces today that even those who do not subscribe to the ruling ideology tend to accept the rhetoric about the judiciary’s “inordinate delay” in deciding the case to allow the construction of a temple — the only solution that is now expected, and acceptable to them.
And such is the extent of Hindutva’s hegemony over our collective consciousness that few remember the unprecedented assault on the highest court of the land by the very forces who call into question that court’s “delay” today.
But with the RSS-VHP-BJP combine set to ratchet up the Ram temple issue once again as the 2019 elections draw near, it is important to revisit their perfidy in the early 1990s, as also the sagacity of the Supreme Court in those dark times.
Although almost every child in India has grown up listening to tales from the Ramayana and knows that Lord Rama was born in Ayodhya, it was not till the late 1980s that anyone knew that the “exact spot” of the lord’s birth lay beneath the central dome of a fifteenth-century mosque. But after the BJP formally backed the VHP’s campaign for the “liberation” of Ramjanmabhoomi in 1989, and especially after L K Advani’s nationwide rath yatra in 1990 in support of the cause, it turned into a mass movement through a cynical manipulation of religious sentiment combined with political mobilization.
The victory of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh in 1991 emboldened the Hindutva forces, who periodically gathered at the disputed site in Ayodhya in a show of strength. What is forgotten, though, is that the UP chief minister, Kalyan Singh, gave repeated assurances to the National Integration Council in late 1992 that the Babri Masjid would not be harmed pending a negotiated settlement or a court verdict on the dispute.
The UP government followed that up with a solemn assurance to the Supreme Court — in the form of a four-point affidavit — that only “symbolic” kar seva would be allowed at the disputed site on December 6, that no court orders would be violated, no construction activity would take place, and the mosque would be untouched.
On December 6, the darkest day in India’s history since Independence, these promises were flagrantly betrayed as thousands of kar sevaks — with the top brass of the BJP in attendance — demolished the Babri Masjid. The destruction in Ayodhya led to riots in many parts of the country, leading to death and destruction on a scale not seen since Partition. The wounds inflicted on India’s secular and pluralist fabric on that day are yet to heal; of late they are turning septic.
And yet, despite the horror and revulsion felt by vast numbers of Indians at that act of wanton vandalism, the perpetrators of the crime got away lightly. The Congress government at the Centre led by P V Narasimha Rao, after initially promising to rebuild the mosque, capitulated to the Hindutva forces by following their logic of righting “historical wrongs”.
On January 7, 1993, the then president promulgated the ‘acquisition of certain area at Ayodhya ordinance’ acquiring the site of the demolished mosque (later enacted as an Act of Parliament) and asked the Supreme Court under Article 143(1) of the Constitution whether “a Hindu temple or any Hindu religious construction” had stood where the Babri Masjid was built in 1528 CE.
It is to the great credit of the Supreme Court that it refused to entertain the question at all. In its verdict delivered on October 24, 1994, a five-judge bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India, M N Venkatachaliah, struck down Section 4(3) of the Act that provided for the abatement of all pending suits and legal proceedings in the case after the Centre’s acquisition of the disputed land. The legal battle between rival claims over the disputed site was, thus, revived.
The apex court also dismissed the presidential reference under Article 143(1) as “superfluous and unnecessary”, adding, “For this reason, we very respectfully decline to answer it and return the same.”
Despite the Supreme Court’s refusal to entertain the question, the Allahabad High Court, in its controversial 2-1 verdict delivered on September 30, 2010, held the view that the Babri Masjid was built at the site of a pre-existing temple (ignoring the sharp disagreement on the issue among archaeologists).
It went on to divide the disputed area three ways between the Nirmohi Akhara, the Ram Lalla deity and the Sunni Waqf Board. The voluminous judgment made no mention of the destruction of the Babri Masjid.
The sangh parivar hailed the verdict as a vindication of its campaign to build a temple and as exoneration of its crime of demolishing a mosque. With two thirds of the area being awarded to its supporters, it would not be difficult to “persuade” the Muslim community to give up claims on the remaining one third in the name of “national reconciliation”. After coming to power in 2014, the BJP government became even more confident that the apex court would uphold the Allahabad verdict — which had relied on matters of “faith” and myth rather than legal claims over ownership.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to be hurried into hearing the case to suit the ruling party’s electoral timetable is not the only reason for the sangh parivar’s vocal resentment. The apex court’s 1994 verdict is peppered with observations that resolutely refute Hindutva majoritarianism.
Describing the December 6 demolition as a “national shame”, the verdict said, “What was demolished was not merely an ancient structure; but the faith of the minorities in the sense of justice and fair play of [the] majority. It shook their faith in the rule of law and constitutional processes. A five hundred year old structure which was defenceless and whose safety was a sacred trust in the hands of the state government was demolished.”
The minority judgment by Justices Bharucha and A.M. Ahmadi, which held the entire Act and not just Section 4(3) to be void, expounded at length on the secular essence of the Indian state. It noted, “Secularism is thus more than a passive attitude of religious tolerance. It is a positive concept of equal treatment of all religions.
This attitude is described by some as one of neutrality towards religion or as one of benevolent neutrality… What is material is that it is a constitutional goal and a basic feature of the Constitution… Any step inconsistent with this constitutional policy is in plain words, unconstitutional.”
More tellingly, it said, “Ayodhya is a storm that will pass. The dignity and honour of the Supreme Court cannot be compromised because of it.”
The majority judgment, too, advocating a negotiated settlement, said: “Unless a solution is found which leaves everyone happy, that cannot be the beginning for continued harmony between ‘we the people of India.’”
The Narendra Modi government, goaded by the RSS, may be tempted to take the ordinance or legislation route to whip up the temple issue. But without the imprimatur of the Supreme Court, the temple — no matter how grand — will be a testament to aggression and hate, not piety and faith even for ardent devotees of Lord Rama…
War or peace?
By Dr Akmal Hussain
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi on Sunday, April 7, in a press briefing in Multan, announced that the government had “reliable” information that India was planning another attack on Pakistan. He revealed that during a meeting of the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security, the three service chiefs had indicated that they were ready with plans of multiple strikes against Pakistan across a wide front and were awaiting a “political nod”, which was duly given by PM Modi during the meeting.
After the political boomerang of the failed Balakot strike, simple statistical theory would suggest to the military mind that the larger the number of strikes next time the higher the probability of at least one succeeding. The chances of partial success would increase if the air attack is across a wide front: the defending air force would have to spread itself thin and so the number of intercepting aircraft that could be fielded against any one group of attackers would be reduced.
Such a military adventure by India would not simply be a repeat strike after Balakot. It would be a precipitous escalation, fraught with the risk of full-scale conventional war that could quickly lead to a catastrophic nuclear exchange. When India suffered a setback in the Balakot engagement, they reportedly readied themselves for a missile strike against three Pakistani cities on the night of February 27.
There is no technology in existence that can determine whether or not incoming missiles have a nuclear payload. So Pakistan’s declaration that they would launch triple the number of missiles in retaliation, as soon as Indian missiles left their launch pads, carried the grim possibility of a nuclear war in the Subcontinent. If we had come so close to Armageddon soon after even a single abortive strike, imagine how much greater would be the risk of escalation to the nuclear level during a full-scale conventional war.
At present, and in the foreseeable future, two aspects of the structure of the India-Pakistan relationship create a hair trigger that can quickly and repeatedly bring the two countries to flashpoint. First, a popular freedom movement in Kashmir that, despite their protracted coercion, Indian security forces have been unable to suppress. It has instead produced a pantheon of martyrs and a new generation of militant youths willing to sacrifice themselves for freedom. Under these circumstances the internal dynamics of the Kashmiri movement can generate acts of violent rebellion against Indian troops at any time.
Second, on the other side of the border for many years non-state groups of militant extremists who have off and on received patronage continue to exist. The toxic mix of these two elements creates an environment in which spectacular acts of violence by Kashmiri youth could be blamed on “Pakistan-based terrorists” by India. This could intensify tensions, precipitating another military conflict. The past cannot be taken as a guide to say how it will end, whether in peace or nuclear war.
Given the firepower of modern conventional weaponry, significant loss of territory can occur during the initial onslaught that could escalate to the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. Once nuclear weapons are used on enemy troops, all-out nuclear war would follow. The recent history of India-Pakistan military conflict however has shown that even before a full-scale conventional war, a limited, localised battle can bring the two sides to the nuclear precipice.
For example, during the Kargil conflict in 1999 when the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington to ask the then US president Clinton to help end the conflict, he was shown satellite pictures of nuclear weapons being loaded onto F16s as evidence for a shocked PM of how close the two countries were to a nuclear war. Then again during the first two days of the February 2019 conflict involving limited Air Force engagements, nuclear missiles were reportedly readied on the night of February 27 for use by both sides.
So far these confrontations have induced timely intercession by the international community and peoples of the Subcontinent have survived by the skin of their teeth. But what a future confrontation will bring, whether we live or die in a nuclear war is inherently uncertain. Its probability cannot be estimated.
Some take comfort in the fact that seven confrontations in the past did not result in full-scale war as international pressure to defuse tensions worked. However, this 100 percent success in preventing war in the past cannot be used as a basis for saying it will not occur the next time around. This is because in society as much as in the relationship between states the averages of the past do not necessarily hold into the future. This is unlike natural phenomena where averages of the past as expressed in natural laws do hold into the future.
For example, take the law of gravity: if you had dropped an object and it fell to the ground yesterday, there is a high probability that it would fall again if you dropped it tomorrow. But in society, probability estimates which are essentially based on projecting the past into the future are not possible in principle. The pattern of social phenomena and human behaviour observed in the past can in the future be shattered by unique events or a combination of unique events.
As the preceding discussion argues, even a limited conventional conflict following a terrorist incident can quickly escalate to the nuclear threshold. It is vital, therefore, for the two countries supported by the world community to address the explosive structure of a situation that leads to repeated military confrontation.
Millions of citizens in both countries are mired in poverty, illiteracy and disease. Thousands of children are dying at birth every day; of those who survive birth, thousands die before they are five years old. Of the children who live beyond five years, millions are suffering from malnutrition, their bodies stunted, their brains dulled. Millions of children roam the streets and alleys, deprived of quality education, abandoned by society and state and living without hope. Instead of halting this massacre of innocents together, the two states are marching in lockstep to a nuclear catastrophe.
It is time for the leaderships of both India and Pakistan to reflect on the irrationality and inhumanity of using proxy wars or ‘surgical strikes’ as a means of achieving national security. The power of a nation lies not in following the course of mutual annihilation but pursuing the path of peace for the welfare of its citizens. The leaderships of the two countries should dip their cupped hands into their shared civilisational well-springs. Imbibe the sense of compassion and human solidarity to care for our children rather than killing them.
Rubbing salt on the wounds:
By Aleem Faizee
Another assault on the people of Malegaon – this is how a shopkeeper in Malegaon reacted to the news of the BJP fielding Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur from Bhopal against Congress’ Digvijaya Singh in this Lok Sabha election.
It’s like rubbing salt on our wounds, another Malegaon resident said.
For the people in Malegaon, the announcement of Pragya Thakur’s candidature has brought back the ghastly memories of 29 September 2008, when the city was rocked by a bomb blast. Thakur is facing trial in the case.
On the night of the blast, it was about 9.40 pm and people were about to finish Salaat-ut-Taraweeh – special night prayers offered during the month of Ramadan – when they heard a loud sound of explosion. At first, they thought it could be a cylinder blast accident. But it soon emerged that it was a bomb blast.
The blast spot was just metres away from the Ladies Fashion Market at Anjuman Chowk where a huge crowd of women and children were busy shopping for Eid al Fitr. There was chaos near Bhikku Chowk – the site of the blast. People carried the bleeding victims, more than a hundred, to hospitals using whatever means they could find.
The blast claimed six lives. One of them was 5-year-old Farheen Shaikh who was out to buy some snacks and was on her way back home to have Ramadan dinner with her grandmother.
Among the injured was Abdullah Jamaluddin Ansari of Shakeel Transport. The 75-year-old man, during initial investigation, had said he had noticed the LML Freedom motorcycle, which was later traced to Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and led to her arrest, parked in front of his office since afternoon that day. He had also informed the police chowki, a stone’s throw away from the blast site, but claimed that no action was taken.
Javed Ansari, owner of a photocopier shop, was also injured in the Malegaon blast. It took him over three years to recover and resume work.
But for these blast victims, life has never been the same since that September night.
While Javed Ansari and the family of Farheen Shaikh left the locality after the blast, Shakeel Transport’s Abdullah Ansari died last year. Following the blast, Ansari often looked at the wall clock in his shop, which had stopped working at 9.37 pm – the time of the blast – and waited for justice.
One doesn’t know how he would have reacted to the news of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and contesting the Lok Sabha election.
By fielding Sadhvi Pragya, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants people to believe that she and other accused arrested in various blast cases were ‘framed in fabricated cases’ and that ‘saffron terror’ is a myth.
But while doing so the, BJP has undermined the fact that Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur still remains a key accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case. As per court papers, the first evidence that led to her arrest was the LML Freedom motorcycle that was registered in her name and was used to plant the bomb. There are also some audio tapes and visuals too. Based on these evidences, the Bombay trial court judge had observed that there was enough ground to establish Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur’s role in the blast.
Ironically, while nominating Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur as the party candidate, the BJP did not think about the kind of message this would send to all the world leaders with whom Narendra Modi has often taken up the issue of terrorism.
The people of Malegaon, who had been hearing about the pressure on some officers and public prosecutor Rohini Salian ‘to go soft’ in the case, have almost lost all hope of getting justice. Wife of Mumbai ATS chief Hemant Karkare – the officer who initially investigated the case – had turned down then-Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s monetary compensation after 26/11 attacks.
Therefore, the BJP’s decision to field Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur in this election is neither shocking nor surprising for most people in Malegaon. But it is painful, especially for the blast victims and their families.
Majboot Sarkars Overrated?
Prior to the 1990s, coalition governments in Indian politics were considered to be an aberration and not particularly desirable. The lack of coalitions in India was clearly tied to the one-party preponderance of the Congress. So, when the party sensed defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, it tried to remind voters of how shambolic the 1977 Janata government had been.
The VP Singh-led National Front government formed in 1989 was perhaps the strangest political entity that people had witnessed in Indian politics. Propped up by the Left parties on one side, and the right-wing BJP that provided support with its 86 seats on the other – the government proved to be short lived.
The grand old party then supported the Chandrashekhar Singh government for four months, after which it decided to withdraw support and elections in 1991 brought back a Congress-led coalition government in the country. With that, the era of coalition politics was well and truly upon us.
Coalition governments were the new normal in Indian politics and would continue to be so until 2014, when the Narendra Modi-led government became the first in three decades since 1984, to win a clear majority.
In 1996, there was a short-lived Vajpayee-led BJP government for 13 days, followed by the rather soporific one led by HD Deve Gowda that lasted until 1997. After that, IK Gujral led the United Front coalition government that lasted from April 1997 to March 1998.
By then, the political scenario of the country was beginning to look a bit like a game of musical chairs. However, things stabilised with Atal Bihari Vajpayee returning in 1998, hanging on for a year and then getting re-elected in 1999 to finally last a whole term.
After that, with a full decade of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance leading the way, Indian politics developed a version of the two party system, rather, a two coalition system. Numerous political parties have coalesced around BJP and the Congress in the form of the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance, respectively.
Congress governments in coalition have brought about some of the most momentous and far-reaching changes. It was the Narasimha Rao-led government that introduced the economic reforms, which for better or worse, changed the country tremendously.
One simple indicator of the worth of coalitions is the fact that many thought that the UPA-I government was too hobbled by the presence of the Left, as it was a hindrance to the economic reforms associated with Congress governments since 1991.
The withdrawal of Left support, followed by the more emphatic victory that led to UPA-II in 2009, was supposed to bring in a more decisive and unfettered government. Yet, it is the UPA-I government that is remembered for the succession of rights-based legislation it introduced, while UPA II has come to be associated with crony capitalism.
Similarly, the NDA-I government of Vajpayee, with all of its coalition pulls and pressures ensured two things. First, the core and often contentious BJP issues, which are Article 370, Babri Masjid and Uniform Civil Code, were relegated to the back-burner.
Second, the Vajpayee-led BJP government could well and truly be said to have a fringe and a centre, with the fringe remaining where any fringe should belong.
However, the ruling BJP government of the day has once again brought the core contentious issues to the forefront. It has also ensured that the fringe encompasses the party uniformly, leaving no hint of nuance or differentiation.
What this suggests is that weaker coalitions may actually perform better. More importantly, coalitions are able to more naturally weave in the vital regional parties that act as breakwaters in the path of potentially elective despotism.
Are majority governments over-rated?
What have supposedly strong and stable majority governments been able to do? Have they taken decisive measures or brought about ‘big-ticket economic reforms’, untroubled by the petty pulls of coalition partners?
Take the 1984 Rajiv Gandhi government with its mammoth majority of above 400 hundred seats. In less than two years, it started playing communally divisive politics around the Babri Masjid and Shah Bano issues.
The Congress thought it was being cleverly even handed by dealing out both majority and minority communal cards. The drift in the Rajiv Gandhi government could be sensed right in the middle of its term when it lost badly in the Haryana assembly elections of 1987. It lost the hugely symbolic Allahabad by-election in 1988 to V.P. Singh, and the rest we are prone to saying, is history.
The question then is this: Could the supposed strength and stability provided by majority governments be overrated? What has the Modi government achieved on the back of its huge mandate? Has it squandered that majority much like the Rajiv Gandhi led government of 1984-89? Can Modi return to power? This has been a bit of a see-saw question.
When Modi’s government came to power with a huge landslide, or ‘tsunami’ if you will, conventional wisdom was that he was here to stay for at least two terms. The UP assembly elections in 2017 seemed to confirm this. After that, it has been more of a will he/won’t he guessing game. The jury is well and truly out on this one.