The Bhindranwale effect - By Shekhar Gupta Back   Home  
WHAT was the defining moment of the immediate crisis in Ayodhya that is now happily behind us, at least for the moment? I’d say it wasn’t Mahant Ramchandra Paramhans handing over the shila to the emissary from the prime minister’s office or his suicide threat a day earlier. It wasn’t the Supreme Court intervention, Soli Sorabjee’s flip-flop-flipping, or the stoic withdrawal of a disappointed Shankaracharya of Kanchi.

It was, in fact, two other inter-connected moments: Rajnath Singh touching the feet of Mahant Paramhans a fortnight ago and then following it up on Thursday with his televised appeal to withdraw his suicide threat. He described him as a ‘dharmacharya’ who everybody respects and also appealed to the ‘dharmacharyas’ of the Muslims to understand the gravity of the situation.

The past month has seen not only the government, but the entire political class wash its hands of the Ayodhya issue. Post-Partition, India’s severest internal challenge will now be handled by the Supreme Court while the entire political class, the legislature, and the executive sit back and wait for the next verdict which, indeed, would be up to the clergy on the two sides to accept and to honour.

A political issue of such humongous (courtesy, Jaipal Reddy) dimensions is being reduced to a property dispute between two sets of holy people, and it is not going to work. It is not going to work because the Ayodhya dispute is also finally about votes. The BJP has gained from it in the past and hopes to somehow revive the magic without the ‘collateral’ damage of the 1989/92 kind of communal riots.

On the other hand, the Mulayam Singh Yadav phenomenon has come about entirely because of the Babri/Ayodhya issue and the Muslims’ bitterness with the pusillanimous way the Congress handled it. As long as this issue remains at the core of the heartland politics, neither side would make a break from it just because of a Supreme Court verdict or backroom deals between the clergy, if such things ever happened in real life.

IN a democracy, political problems must be solved by the politicians, with the help of the other institutions as and where justified. Political solutions require give and take. This is not something you expect the courts to do.

Similarly, no matter how much you detest the politicians, they are a class more trustworthy than any clergy because they at least have to live within the system. A L.K. Advani leading a rath yatra is better than a Paramhans at the head of the shila procession.

The Advanis will have to come back to the system, fight elections, take their oaths of allegiance to the Constitution and be generally available for institutional scrutiny, howsoever inadequate it might be in our system.

Who is to ask Paramhans, Giriraj Kishore or even Ashok Singhal a question tomorrow if he doesn’t want to answer it? When political leaders become so unimaginative, scared, lacking in convictions as to hand over mainstream politics to undefined clergy, they usually end up paying a grave price; always in terms of their credibility, often their careers and occasionally, as creators of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale realised, in terms of their lives.

The Bhindranwale phenomenon might seem like an extreme comparison, but that is only because we still haven’t seen any Kalashnikovs yet. Otherwise, the parallels are many and striking. The Congress encouraged Bhindranwale so he could embarrass the Akali government in Punjab by making the demands they make when they are out of power.

In this case, the VHP and the so-called sants and babas have been propped up by elements within the sangh parivar to embarrass the Vajpayee government by reviving demands they sponsored when they were out of power.

Similarly, once Bhindranwale had established his presence in the Golden Temple and informally acquired the authority of the head of the Sikh church and clergy, the Akalis also found him useful. They let him make their demands, with the threat of Khalistan and the Kalashnikov. It worked for a while, but finally they ended up ceding their political authority to him.

Those of us on the terror beat then saw the rapid decline of the moderate leadership under Sant Harcharan Singh Longowal into total irrelevance.

Even when Rajiv Gandhi attempted to revive him after signing a peace accord with him a full year after Bhindranwale’s death, he had no legitimacy. Punjab wasn’t exactly drowned in sorrow when he was assassinated shortly afterwards.

It took Punjab more than a decade after that to return to conventional politics. That state, and the Sikh community, has paid a grave price over two decades for the folly of the mainstream politician ceding his middle ground to the so-called sant-samaj. This, when the Sikhs at least have the tradition of having a church that represents, even if symbolically, a common seat of spiritual and temporal power. Can all of India afford to do so now? Can India afford it if the Hindus, who happily have no such tradition of a church or a pope, go that way as well?

This is why the government has blundered in handing over the Ayodhya issue to the sants and the babas and the damage it is causing is more than merely the loss of moral ground internationally: what is Vajpayee doing hosting rastafarians in his home when Musharraf is putting his bearded ones in jail? If not cynical, vicious manoeuvring, it is just unimaginative, lazy and conviction-less politics that has enabled the babas to grab the centrestage.

Today, if the basic decision has been left to the courts and its implementation to some very poorly defined religious leadership, you can’t be faulted for asking what did we elect a government for? While Parliament wastes its time in slanging matches and walkouts, the Ayodhya/Babri issue will now be decided by people with no responsibility and accountability. Even legitimacy.

This applies equally to the Muslim side. What, for example, is the authority of the Muslim Personal Law Board to speak on behalf of all Muslims? It is, after all, no more than a Saudi funded religious NGO headed by a Qazi (Mujahidul Islam Qasmi) whose only ‘official’ status is that of the ‘chief justice’ of the Shariat law in Bihar and Orissa.

The Babri Masjid Coordination Committee is led by Syed Shahabuddin who is a charming man but who polled a royal 1.33 per cent of the vote in the Muslim majority constituency of Kishanganj the last time he contested. So you wonder who he represents except his own pompous self. This, when the man who owes his entire politics, 26 MPs and 143 MLAs in the Uttar Pradesh assembly to Muslim voters, contributes merely by walking out of Lok Sabha now and then.

Then you return to us Hindus. We may instinctively find it simple and harmless to bend and touch the feet of anybody with a flowing grey beard and matted locks but we would never trust one of that kind with anything we value in our lives.

Yet, they will now speak for the majority community in this country while a government elected primarily by it watches from the sidelines. Don’t blame history then, or the historians, if our future generations believe that Ashok Singhal, Pravin Togadia, Giriraj Kishore and Paramhans were more significant leaders of our times than Vajpayee and Advani.
Published in ExpressIndia