Sri Sri Ups the Communal Ante By Wading into Ayodhya's Murky Waters

Political godman's warning that India will plunge into civil war if the Babri-Masjid/Ram Mandir issue isn't resolved in favour of 'Hindus'  is seen as tantamount to inciting violence.

“If the court rules against the temple, there will be bloodshed,” Sri Sri said.

New Delhi: Political watchers are divided over whether Sri Sri Ravishankar just had a foot-in-mouth moment or is playing a deeper political game on behalf of the ruling establishment in the run up to the next general election.

Jumping into the Ayodhya quagmire, the godman-entrepreneur has decided that the contentious Babri Masjid/Ram Mandir dispute, that has raged for years since the 1980s and torn India apart, will escalate into a “civil war” unless it is resolved through an “out-of-court settlement”.

“If [the] Ram Mandir issue is not solved, we will have a Syria in India,” the Art of Living founder told India Today in an interview on Monday.

The dispute, he said, could be simply resolved if Muslims “give up” their claims on Ayodhya. “Muslims should give up their claim on Ayodhya as a goodwill gesture… Ayodhya is not [a] place of faith for Muslims.”

Adding fuel to fire, Sri Sri has also penned an open letter to the members of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB). “I urge the leaders of both faiths to take this action seriously. Otherwise, we are pushing our country to the brink of a civil war,” he wrote.

He outlined four possible situations – the court giving the disputed land to the Muslims, awarding the land to the Hindus, upholding the Allahabad high court order that says there should be a mosque built on one acre whilst the remaining 60 acres be utilised to build the temple; or parliament passing legislation to settle the temple-mosque dispute.

But, he underlined: “We cannot make Lord Rama to be born in another place.”

“In all the four options, either through the court or through the government, the result will be devastating for the nation in general and the Muslim community in particular,” he said.

In 2010, the Allahabad high court had ruled in favour of dividing the land where the Babri Masjid stood equally among three parties – the Sunni Waqf Board, Nirmohi Akhara and ‘Ram Lalla” (represented by various Hindutva outfits). With the matter on appeal in the Supreme Court, attempts are being made by pro-BJP religious leaders like Sri Sri – with the assistance of several media houses – to engineer an out-of-court deal that will allow the temple to be built. However, just two week ago it was reported that the three plaintiffs have all said that they will not accept any out-of-court settlement.

Ravishankar went a step further, suggesting that Hindus would erupt in violence if the Supreme Court fails to  uphold Hindutva demands that the entire land be handed over for the construction of a Ram temple. “If the court rules against the temple, there will be bloodshed. Government may not be able to implement the court order. Do you think the majority community will accept such an order?”

Towards the goal of coming to an out-of-court settlement, Sri Sri has reportedly been meeting Hindu and Muslim leaders to solve the issue, though it is not clear who these ‘leaders’ represent or who has given them a mandate to speak or negotiate on behalf of India’s Hindus and Muslims. While jokes are flying about on whether this is his bid to become a Nobel Peace Prize winner, more than anything, the verdict on social media was that he is speaking out of turn on an issue that is already being heard by the Supreme Court.

However, Sri Sri is adamant that the court’s opinion will never be taken seriously, no matter which party it favours. “Some people are opposing my efforts because they thrive on conflict. All people will never agree with the court verdict,” he said.

“Muslims are not surrendering this land to the people who demolished the Babri Masjid or to a particular organisation. On the contrary, they are gifting it to the people of India. They must keep this in their minds and spirit. It is only reconciliation and an expression of their broad-mindedness, benevolence, magnanimity and goodwill.”

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hold its next hearing in the case on March 14.

Contentious land

Asking how Sri Sri has any authority over the matter, the president of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) Asaduddin Owaisi had dismissed all offers of mediation in November 2017.

“AIMPLB has clearly stated that they will not accept any such offer, he (Sri Sri) should not indulge in any kite flying,” he said.

The Shia Waqf Board, some of whose representatives have been in touch with Sri Sri, claim the Babri Masjid was built by Mir Baqi, a Shia, and had Shia mutawwalis (caretakers) till 1946. However, in all the legal proceedings on the title to the disputed land, the courts have held that it is the UP Sunni Waqf Board which has a claim and not the Shia board.

As the 2019 Lok Sabha elections draw closer, the chorus from the ruling BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and all its affiliates on the issue has only been getting louder. Sangeet Som, a BJP legislator notorious for giving inflammatory speeches – he is among those charged with instigating communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 – asserted in 2017 that construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya (and a Krishna temple at another site the Sangh parivar claims in Mathura) cannot be stopped.

Som said that the BJP government would also rewrite history books to include the names of many Hindu kings who do not find any mention in them.

Despite the claims of Hindutva politicians, there is no evidence that a Ram temple ever existed at the site where the Babri Masjid, which was torn down on December 6, 1992, once stood. Nor is there any historical record of Babur destroying a temple in Ayodhya to make way for the 16th century mosque. During the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s tenure, a major archaeological dig was organised at the site but that too failed to validate the claims that had been made by supporters of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

As eminent historian D.N. Jha noted, “If it is a case of ‘belief,’ then it becomes an issue of theology, not archaeology.”

Historian Vinay Lal wrote in a column in the Indian Express: “The archaeological evidence, in other words, indicates not a temple but rather the distinct possibility of a Muslim settlement at or in the proximity of the mosque from the thirteenth century onwards.”

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Criminal charges were filed against L.K. Advani, Uma Bharati and other senior leaders for their role in the December 1992 conspiracy to demolish the mosque. Though Vajpayee made a speech to ‘karsevals’ a day before the demolition, “There are sharp stones there. The ground has to be levelled,” he was never charged. In later years, he  labelled the mosque’s destruction a “misadventure” and a matter of “deep sorrow”. Advani too eventually called December 6 – the day of the mosque’s demolition – the “saddest day of my life” though the Sangh parivar marks it as ‘shaurya divas‘, or the ‘day of bravery’.

“The party is with you,” NDTV quoted BJP president Amit Shah as telling Advani the day the Supreme Court confirmed that the former deputy prime minister must stand trial for the razing of the mosque. The party has taken the position that the demolition of mosque was not planned but a spontaneous act of agitating karsevaks and that there was no conspiracy.

Though nearly 30 years have passed since the mosque was torn down, neither case – land dispute nor demolition – has reached any conclusion.

Sri Sri’s chequered past

Sri Sri may be an icon for many of his believers across India and the world, but he is no stranger to controversy himself and has at times been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

In 2017, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) held the Art of Living foundation responsible for the damage to the Yamuna floodplains caused by the holding of its ‘World Culture Festival’ in 2016.

Sri Sri’s website at that point said the NGT was “biased, unscientific and lacks credibility”.

For Sri Sri, the NGT verdict was a hard pill to swallow. He lashed out at the government, saying that the festival had only been made possible because the foundation had obtained all the necessary permissions from it. He also made it clear that the foundation never caused any damage.

This was his reply to the NGT questioning how the guru could have called the body “biased”, something which they called “shocking”.

An expert panel had told the NGT that rehabilitation of the Yamuna floodplains destroyed by AOL’s festival would cost Rs 13.29 crore and take a minimum of 10 years.