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The 'sants' go marching in

By Rajeev Dhavan

A political shadow-boxing persists between the VHP and the Prime Minister on the Ayodhya issue. No one is fooled by this.

INDIA CANNOT posture secularism in Kashmir and communalism in Uttar Pradesh. Apart from the legalities of accession, India's case on Kashmir is founded on its secularism's innate capacity to be fair and just to all Muslims. In Kashmir, India combats political Muslim miscreants. India's case on Ayodhya cannot ignore the barbaric demolition of a mosque; and hand over the site to political Hindu miscreants. The BJP's White Paper of 1993 was defiantly unrepentant on the destruction of the mosque on December 6, 1992. The BJP's electoral successes were temple based. Today if the BJP plays down the temple issue in the 2002 elections in Uttar Pradesh, it does so in the confidence that the VHP and other allies have made it an issue.

The VHP pretends to quarrel with the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee because its so-called right to the undisputed land is in suspense. But, Mr. Vajpayee has always been on its side. His musings from Kumarakom in January 2001 took a communal stance on constructing the temple in Ayodhya. By January 20, 2001, the `sants' had declared their intention to build a temple in Ayodhya. Mr. Vajpayee did not say no, kept a mild secular distance and left matters in the air even as the exact schedule for construction was flaunted in singular detail. As matters gathered momentum from August 2001, Mr. Vajpayee's response was to revive the Ayodhya cell which, predictably, did nothing. In January 2002, matters have been bought to a head again. Now the `sants' want the adjacent land acquired in 1993. Why? Obviously to start building in the surrounding area so that the mosque site is hemmed in as a fait accompli. Instead of dealing with the issue, Mr. Vajpayee has sent the matter to his Law Minister, Arun Jaitley. The VHP pretends to be miffed about this. A political shadow-boxing persists between the VHP and the Prime Minister. No one is fooled by this. The charade goes on.

Enter Mr. Jaitley to save the situation. If it was really within the gift of Mr. Jaitley would it not have been resolved earlier? As interpreted by the Supreme Court in the Babri Masjid case (1994), the Acquisition of Certain Area in Ayodhya Act, 1993, divides the acquired property into two portions: (a) the actual `site land' of the mosque on which proceedings have been going on since 1950 and (b) the `adjacent land' which provides access to the `site land' and may have to go with the site. Justice Verma's remarkable judgment will be remembered for both its legal acrobatics and its pro-Hindu stance — despite stray passages on secularism and strictures on the Hindu miscreants who destroyed the mosque. But, this judgment was welcome because it brought peace if not harmony. It is the law of the land. Justice Verma declared that the fate of the `site lands' would be decided by the pending suits in Lucknow. However, the `adjacent land' of 67 acres, if not required to fulfil the purposes of the acquisition, could be returned to the Hindu organisations and others who had been rapaciously buying up land in the surrounding area to enclose the mosque. It may be recalled that Kalyan Singh's BJP Government had also bought up 2.77 acres for the State to promote tourism! The VHP wants the adjacent lands returned now. This is obviously mala fide public mischief to crowd in the site and perpetuate the fait accompli begun by the 1992 destruction of the mosque. The question is whether and when the adjacent lands can be given back.

Despite its failings, Justice Verma's judgment is clear on these issues. In the first place, Justice Verma upheld the acquisition of the `adjacent land' as "...necessary to ensure that the final outcome of adjudication should not be rendered meaningless by the existence of properties belonging to Hindus in the vicinity of the disputed structure in case Muslims are held entitled to the disputed site". And, to obviate doubt, Justice Verma added that if the Muslims succeed to the disputed structure, "...their success should not be thwarted by denial of proper access to, and enjoyment of rights in, the disputed area by exercise of rights of ownership of Hindu owners in the adjacent areas''. The Supreme Court specifically took note of the fact that the `Manas Bhawan' and `Sita Ki Rasoi' belonging to the Hindus "...closely overlook the disputed site and are acquired because (of their) strategic location". The court was clear that the question of releasing these lands would arise only "...at a later stage when the exact area acquired which is needed for achieving the professed purpose of acquisition can be determined". After that stage, it was both `permissible, and desirable' to return the property. The VHP supporters point to that part of the judgment which states that while there was an embargo in the transfer of `site land' till the adjudication is complete, the transfer of the 'adjacent land' is not similarly inhibited. This, read in the context of the judgment, can hardly be taken to read that the Government will return the land to Hindu owners if the VHP demands it. The whole point of the acquisition was to resolve the dispute by law and to hold on to the whole property until the purpose of the acquisition was complete. Of course, the parties could settle matters before that. Both the Act of 1993 and the judgment of 1994 would be hopelessly undermined if the Government yielded to coercive threats of the VHP and found support for the VHP in the brilliantly fertile mind of Mr. Jaitley.

For the basis of a possible settlement, we need to turn to the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. What is correct for the Bamiyan statues applies with greater force to the Babri Masjid. A settlement is possible along the following basis: (i) It is agreed by all that the Babri Masjid be re-built as a pre-condition to further solutions. (ii) Once this is agreed, the future site of the Babri Masjid including alternative site in the vicinity be determined — perhaps as part of a sarva dharma complex. (iii) On the mosque being restored, the temple may be re-built at the site or nearby. (iv) The entire area is planned out to obviate future friction and tension. (v) A status quo on all other temples, mosques and heritage buildings in India be accepted. This would still require intense negotiations. At present, Mr. Vajpayee runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds. He muses support to the VHP when he is resting in Kerala, pleads for the Muslims in Kashmir, espouses Indian secularism in New York and reaps the electoral benefits of temple agitation in Uttar Pradesh. Statesmanship cannot rest on legal quibbles in favour of the VHP. The judgment is clear. A statesmanship solution would restore the mosque and build the temple by negotiated settlement. But, is Mr. Vajpayee the leader of a Hindu party or an Indian nation. Mr. Vajpayee is called upon to play the statesman? Will he succumb to party political pressure? Or will he rise to the occasion? When I was arguing the Babri Masjid question, Justice Bharucha threw me a seemingly deceptive question: which side was I appearing for Hindu, Muslim or some other? I answered: "I appear for secularism." This is not about Hindus and Muslims but Indian secularism.

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