Patna: As the bhoomi pujan on August 5 for the construction of a Ram temple on the ruins of the demolished Babri mosque in Ayodhya draws near, this is an apt time to recall how Lal Krishna Advani, the now sidelined BJP leader, made the mandir a political issue in the first place.
It was, after all, Advani who cleared the ground for the Ram temple when he led the BJP and other Hindutva parties and organisations to tear down the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, clearing the ground on which on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ‘chosen’ men will enjoy the ‘blessings’ of performing the bhoomi pujan.
Three decades ago
I was a young reporter with the Hindustan Times then, assigned to cover Advani’s yatras (travels) in his rath (chariot) – a Toyota SUV bedecked with a colourful picture of a bow-and-arrow wielding Rama – in Bihar and parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh in the early 1990s. His rath travelled in a convoy with several other open-top jeeps and trucks loaded with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) volunteers chanting ‘Jai Sri Ram’ in chorus.
With this rath yatra, Advani had begun a mission to redefine history and re-write the folklore of the north Indian hinterlands from a strongly Hindutva perspective. His speeches aimed to sow hatred among Hindus towards the Babri Masjid, which symbolised the ‘invasion’ of Babur, the man who became India’s first Mughal emperor, and his army of ‘foreigners’ on Hindu soil, and consolidate the majority community into a mass of ‘victims’ grieving the loss of their ‘pride’ when the Muslims ‘invaded’ India.
It is important to recall the exact words and slogans that Advani used in these speeches, especially those he coined just ahead of the 1991 Lok Sabha elections.
Here are the four major messages that I heard Advani perpetuate when I watched him address the crowds assembled at his rallies in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Message 1: “Saugandh Ram ki Khat-e hain; Hum Mandir Wahin Banayegein (We take a vow in the name of Rama: we will build the temple exactly there).”
After chanting this slogan, Advani would explain it to his audience. “I hear some of our enthusiastic supporters chanting ‘Ek dhakka aur do, Babri masjid tod do (Give it one more push, tear down the Babri mosque)’,” he told the crowd. “We should keep in mind that Hindus don’t believe in breaking; they believe in uniting. So you should replace the ‘Ek dhakka aur do…’ slogan with ‘Saughandh Ram Ki…’,”
Though Advani’s choice of slogan sounded much less aggressive, it meant the same as ‘Ek dhakka’. For how could a temple be built ‘exactly there’ without tearing down the existing structure?
The ‘Ek dhakka’ slogan had been coined by Uma Bharti – then an acolyte of Advani. When Uma Bharti followed Advani’s yatras, she gleefully chanted ‘Ek dhakka aur do’ and her supporters repeated it in chorus.
Message 2: “The structure has been dilapidated and abandoned for decades. No azaan (prayer) has been called there for years. Even Muslim scriptures stipulate that a structure can’t be called a mosque where the azaan is not called. There is technology which can be employed to shift that structure beyond the river Saryu. The Muslims should abandon their claim on the structure and let us shift the structure from the place associated with Maryada Purushottam Ram and the symbol of the Hindus’ religious and cultural identity.”
Advani always avoided using ‘mosque’ or ‘masjid’ in his description of the 16th century historical monument and rejected its existence much before it was torn down by BJP-RSS-VHP extremists referred to as ‘kar sevaks’.
Message 3: He introduced the word “pseudo-secular” as the catch-phrase for all non-BJP parties and all leaders opposed to the theory and philosophy of the RSS. (“Pseudo secular” has now morphed into “sickular”, which RSS-BJP supporters brazenly use against those adhering to the secular values enshrined in the Constitution of India.)
He also used the phrase “appeasement of Muslims” as frequently as he could. In this way, he delegitimised the word “secular” and drove home the message that “pseudo-secular” parties and leaders had been engaged in “appeasing Muslims” ever since independence, hurting the “pride” of Hindus who have “the natural right” to govern the country in accordance with their religious-cultural belief.
Though his words were polite, Advani aimed to shake the very foundation of the Indian constitutional ethos.
Message 4: In all his speeches, Advani invoked two characters from the Ramayana: the monkey warriors Nal and Neel, who built a bridge across the ocean to enable Rama’s army to attack Lanka, the kingdom of the demon king Ravana who had kidnapped Sita.
He specifically told his audiences that Nal and Neel had inscribed the word ‘Rama’ on bricks which then floated on the surface of the ocean, making a foundation for the bridge. This was to emphasise the legendary power that Rama’s name holds when one must accomplish a challenging task. At the end of the Nal-Neel story, his supporters invariably chanted “Jai Sri Ram” in chorus.
Something out of nothing
The then Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad had Advani arrested in September 1990, thus stopping the rallies for a time. But just ahead of the 1991 elections, Advani continued his yatras in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, under the guise of campaigning for his party.
Despite the guise, he did not seek votes and appeal to the electorate to vote for his party. He focused only on the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.
All through the yatra, Advani was affable and accessible to journalists. When I asked for an interview with him at a guest house at Saharsa, the BJP workers arranged it quickly.
The first thing he asked me was: “Where are you staying? Do you have any problems with your food and lodging?”
He was so warm and polite that I felt I was important. When I finished the interview, he escorted me to the door.
Throughout the interview, Advani emphasised just one thing: that he and the entire Sangh parivar was focused on ‘rescuing’ Lord Rama’s birthplace.
“Elections will keep coming and going, but we should work to rescue Lord Rama’s birthplace and revive India’s ancient glory. Ours is a land of gods and great saints, which a young journalist like you should be conscious of,” he said while seeing me off.
To me, however, his ideas were quite bizarre.
I had grown up in a small village called Daraily Mathia in Bihar’s Siwan district, about 200 kilometres from Ayodhya. Bihar was the home of Sita’s birthplace: Janakpur in Sitaramarhi district. Our village elders always talked about the importance of Ayodhya and Janakpur. Ram and Sita were a big part of popular folk culture. But no one talked about the Babri mosque. It very seldom figured in folklore or in conversations among the villagers. I was passionate about folktales and about two decades later, I wrote a book titled The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar, which contains stories gathered from my grandmother, grandfather and other village elders. Though Ram, Sita, Krishna and Shiva were always on the lips of the villagers and figured in all folklore, there was no mention of the Babri mosque.
There was a good number of Muslims too, in our village, but they also never spoke of the Babri mosque. In fact, none of the villagers, Hindu or Muslim, knew anything about the Babri mosque. If they did know of its existence it was insignificant to their lives and lore. I myself had not heard of the mosque until I passed my matriculation from a school in Done, the neighbouring village, in 1976.
Victory and defeat
Advani’s rallies didn’t evoke much response at the time. Bihar was the bastion of the Lalu Prasad-led Janata Dal. The V.P. Singh government at the Centre had implemented the Mandal Commission report which Lalu implemented with all his might. This brought him great support from the backward classes and Dalits, who constituted over 60% of Bihar’s population.
The Muslims, then 16% of Bihar’s population, had become disenchanted with the Congress after the 1989 Bhagalpur riots and also supported the Janata Dal. As a result, the Janata Dal won 48 out of the 54 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar in the 1991 elections. Advani’s speeches gathered no electoral dividends in Bihar.
But Advani definitely widened the divide between Hindus and Muslims. Because of his rath yatra, people began discussing the Babri mosque in village tea shops and chowpals. The footsoldiers of the RSS who trailed Advani’s yatras would join the gatherings at these chowpals and tea shops and ‘enlighten’ people about Advani’s “knowledge” of Hindu culture and his “selfless sagacity” in rescuing the Hindu pride.
On August 5, Narendra Modi, Yogi Adityanath and several other Sangh parivar leaders will watch the bhoomi pujan to mark the beginning of the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. They were nobodies in the early 1990s, when Advani began redefining the idea of India.
L.K. Advani will not be in Ayodhya for the bhoomi pujan. Today, he is a nobody in the party that ‘rescued’ Hindu pride via his single-minded focus.
Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and co-author of Gopalganj to Raisina—My Political Journey, an autobiography of Lalu Prasad Yadav. He has also written The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar.