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Shah, Sinha And Sabarimala

Shah, Sinha And Sabarimala

When politics moves fast, it is good to fall back on memory. It is not frozen in time and space, but can show both the beginning and the end of any event, move, development, crisis.

Rakesh Sinha, associate professor in a Delhi University college, the RSS face in television debates and head of one of its scores of research think tanks, and recently levered by it as a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, in his first major intervention in the Upper House of Parliament hinted he was bringing a Private members bill for the government to construct a resplendent Ram Temple in Ayodhya at the spot where the Babri masjid stood till it was razed on 6th December 1992. There is a make shift temple at the heavily guarded spot and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind, Hindu or Muslim, that the mosque will never rise again on its old foundations.

But what got the national air electrified with just a few months to go to the general elections in the spring of 2019 was his challenge to the Opposition. Mr. Sinha said on social media he would ask Rahul Gandhi and Opposition leaders for their support. “Will Rahul Gandhi, Sitaram Yechury, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and Laloo Prasad Yadav support a private member Bill on Ayodhya? They frequently ask the date (of Ram temple construction) from RSS and BJP, now onus is on them to answer,” he tweeted. It is time to separate “truth from lies”.

This is quite in keeping with his style on TV, as it is with the BJP’s chief media bullterrier, Dr Sambit Patra who is wont to burst forth with his chant “Say jai Shree Ram right now,” when some poor opponent seems cornered mildly whispering a secular argument. Like Patra, Sinha has no fear of constitutional institutions, though sometimes both preface any mention of them by the courteous “Hon’ble” Court. The Ram temple issue, he said, did not appear to be a priority for the Supreme Court which hastened to rule on Section 377 and the Tamil Jallikattu issues. “But the Ram temple is a top priority for Hindu society,” he declaimed in the expanded characters Twitter now allows.

But let us not take Sinha lightly, as some savants want to when they point out a Private Members Bill is just an occasion to discuss an issue, and not to legislate on it.

A couple of generations of citizens have forgotten but old timers, specially among political scientists and the Christian community, will remember one private members bill which almost became law. This was the infamous OP Tyagi bill, which, to put it politely, wanted to bottle the community by banning all conversions. That was early in 1979. The Bill was “adopted” or blessed by the ruling dispensation of the day.

Indira Gandhi had been defeated in 1977, punished for imposing the state of Emergency in 1975. Morarji Desai had become prime minister at the head of the multi-hued Janata party which brought the Lohiyaites and the Socialists in the same group as the RSS and the Jana Sangh, the precursor to the BJP. A year and a half of shared imprisonment in Mrs Gandhi’s jails had brought even the Marxists in support.

But mostly it served to give the Sangh its first taste of power with Atal Behari Vajpayee as the Foreign Minister who would speak Hindi in the United Nations, and Lal Krishna Advani, the cadre builder, as the Information and Broadcasting man who would sow the seeds that in 2014 flowered as a full-fledged national media apparatus loyal to the RSS brand of religious nationalism. The cub reporters of 1977 are the chief editors of today, and some are media owners.

Tyagi got a hero’s welcome as he articulated his bill which would make conversions by force or fraud illegal, with heavy punishment. This was quite like the Freedom of Religion Acts that existed in Arunachal Pradesh and Orissa. But those were confined to the boundaries of the states. This was a national Bill and fulfilled the aspirations of the RSS to wipe out the missionary presence in the Tribal Belt where it was establishing itself alongside the new mining empires that were exploring the underground treasures of iron and coal under those tribal mountains and forests. The church’s work among the Tribals and the Dalits posed a challenge. The Presidential Order of 1950 disempowering Christian converts had taken care of the Dalit issue. Tyagi would take care of the Tribals.

The Christian community protested in large numbers from Amritsar to Mumbai. But it was not their protest that defeated the Private Members Bill which almost became a government bill. It was the failure of the Janata government to survive its internal contradictions. Then government fell. Parliament was dissolved, and new elections called. Mrs Gandhi romped home to power once again, to rule till her assassination in 1984.

But the Sangh and the BJP learnt their lesson, how to use threats and legislation to polarise the nation, and to win votes.

It may not work this time, even Rakesh Sinha possibly knows it in his heart. He is not waiting for the debate in Parliament. He wants to corner the Congress and expose its soft Hindutva projected through the many temple visits of Rahul Gandhi, the claims by some Congressmen that he is a Shiva devotee, and his own attempt at showing himself a devotee by wearing the sacred thread of the Brahmins. His grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru and mother Indira were Pundits, Kashmiri Brahmins. His father was a Parsee and mother, an Italy born baptised Catholic who has never publicly revealed which faith she follows after her marriage with Rajiv Gandhi.

This is a Catch 22 for the Congress and for the Samajwadi Party and other groups whose membership is largely from the Hindi heartland which is also basic Hindu heartland. The Bahujan Samaj party, with its ambivalent Ambedkarite Buddhism too finds itself in the same bind, but perhaps to a lesser degree. Also, Ambedkar was radical in his abuse of Hinduism, the average Dalit member of the BSP can also be seen in the local Hindu temple.

Rahul Gandhi’s Congress cannot say they oppose a Ram temple. His senior advisers such as former law minister Kapil Sibal hum and haw about waiting for the Supreme Court ruling on the title suit about the ownership of the land on which the mosque stood. His younger advisers, who possibly take their cue from the same spiritual sources that got Indira Gandhi to start wearing thick holy rudraksha beads, are bent on presenting him a better alternative not only to Prime Minister Narendra Modi but also to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. Rahul Gandhi’s Congress has supported the move triggered by the RSS to defy the Supreme Court which has ruled that women of menstruating age can enter the sanctorum of the Sabarimala temple from where they had been banned decades ago. The Congress has been aggressive in challenging the Left government in Kerala which has obeyed the Court and offered police assistance to anyone who wants to pay her respects to the celibate deity.

Sabarimala, many think, is the litmus test of this election for the Congress and the BJP.

Right wing thinker and editor of the very pro RSS magazine Swarajya, R Jagannathan, in a signed article “Mandir Bachao: Why Sabarimala Is More Important Than Ram Mandir Right Now,” says Amit Shah will have to win this test of wills first. Save the Sabarimala Temple first from desecration before you talk of Building the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. The BJP’s pathway to the south will be opened if it wins this contest, he thinks. And he is right. The BJP is making desperate attempts for decades to win a parliamentary seat in Kerala. It has won an assembly seat, and it has seen a significant rise in its share of votes in communities that were earlier voting for the Congress and, surprisingly, even those who were once of the CPM camp. It may well win a seat this time. This is one reason it does not wait any opportunity, using all the media might it can, to pulverise the hapless Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor, he of the long locks and the big words.

Jagannathan says in rather harsh words “Clearly, the Supreme Court is not going to play to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) timeline on the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, as its decision to delay the hearings till January shows. If anyone in the BJP thought this was going to happen before the 2019 elections, they must have been delusional.”

To expect the Supreme Court – in fact, any court – to decide such a hugely contentious issue just in time for an election would be damaging its own credibility. If the verdict went one way, it would have been accused of pandering to majoritarianism; if it went another way, it would have angered the Hindus. A compromise solution would have satisfied nobody, and more review petitions would have been filed.

“The BJP is actually focusing on the wrong Mandir: its priority should not be the Ram Mandir, which can come in its own time, but Sabarimala. Its watchword for the coming elections should be Mandir Bachao, rather than Mandir Banao.”

Amit Shah has understood this. He has asked the government to move a plea in the Supreme Court for a stay of its verdict on Sabarimala to get the left Front Kerala government to force it to release devotees. The Kerala High Court has issued a warning.

But Shah is bound still by the policy, and the threat of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. Bhagwat, who is now as visible as Narendra Modi and Shah, has said the cadres would not be satisfied with anything less than a temple at the exact spot of the Mosque. He has in recent days kept up an almost continuous chant that the government bring forth a law through an ordinance if required to construct the temple. The chant has been picked up by most the BJP members of parliament and in the states.

Shah has been forced to repeat it, telling a meeting of party leaders this week that steps will be taken to clear the decks for launching construction of the temple before the polls. BJP National Executive member Perala Sekharjee told the press in Hyderabad, “Shah had said clearly that considering the developments, I believe that construction of Ram temple will begin before the coming general elections."

The argument by the Congress and others that the verdict would affect the Lok Sabha elections was rejected by the Supreme Court. But it does not seem inclined to oblige the ruling party on this issue, even if dilutes its decision on the Sabarimala by modifying its order to make it less offensive to the family that controls access to the temple.

Shah, like Bhagwat, does not really care for such niceties as the Constitution and courts of law. He is among few heads of political parties who have been on jail on criminal charges, and got released through decisions which are still questioned by human rights activists. He knows that courts, at least up to the high court level, can and often be “persuaded.”

It was left to Brinda karat of the CPM to call a spade a bloody shovel. "Amit Shah's speech in Kerala using, typical of his style, the language of a school bully, should be seen as a direct assault on the Supreme Court of India. He said that courts should not give orders which cannot be implemented. Although he was speaking on the Sabarimala judgement reversing the ban on women's entry into the temple, what he said has wider implications. For example, this week the court is to hear a petition concerning the Ayodhya issue. Is this an "advance" ominous warning to the apex court: do as we want or face the consequences of your orders being flouted? Following his party chief, Adityanath, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, has already commented that if the court can rule on Sabarimala, it can also for Ayodhya. The link is clear enough.”

It is good to go back to 1992 and remember another dialogue between the Supreme Court of India and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. The congress was in power at the Centre. PV Narasimha Rao was the prime minister with the Central security forces and the army at his command. The hordes of the Sangh Parivar were marching towards the Babri masjid from across the country.

The Supreme Court asked then UP Chief Minister, Kalyan Singh, to ensure the safety of the mosque. Kalyan Singh gave his solemn word he would do so. To the top leaders’ encouraging commands of Ëk Dhaka aur Do, Heave-ho as it would in the language of English miners, the Sangh commandos demolished the massive structure which had withstood quake and rain for centuries. Kalyan Singh went on to become Governor, his son a legislator. The Supreme Court wrung its collective hands. The Prime minister of the day chose not to wake up from his siesta. The police watched helplessly. The army waited for orders that never came.

The Sangh has no written Constitution. It does not know how to obey the statutes. It has no respect for the Indian Penal Code. Its leadership gives commands. Its cadres follow those commands, howsoever against the law of the land they may be.

Rakesh Sinha is doing us a favour by going through the motions of a Bill in parliament, howsoever flimsy that procedure may be.

Shah does not believe in such niceties.

Neither, of course, does Mohan Bhagwat. He has more than once hinted that the RSS loves the BJP, but is its battalions of cadres in the states can help anyone. They have done so in the past, often. The rumour mill speaks of Nitin Gadkari as the Sangh’s secret weapon in 2019. With unemployment rife, rural economy in shambles with the ban on sale of cattle the last straw, the rupee in free fall and the stock market in palpitations, Shah has reason to be worried about his patron, mentor and friend Narendra Modi.

(Published on 05th November 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 45)