Centre may ratchet up Ayodhya rhetoric for political gain, but violation of due process will likely boomerang on BJP
The problem is that the BJP has invested heavily in the temple issue because it thinks it can win the upcoming Vidhan Sabha elections and the Lok Sabha elections next year by exploiting it.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP’s) ‘Dharma Sabha’, scheduled for Sunday, is an unconcealed show of strength. At first sight, it appears to be a challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre to pass an ordinance for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya at the very spot where Rama was most fancifully presumed to have been born and where the Babri Masjid stood before it was demolished, bypassing the judicial verdict that is awaited.
As we shall see, however, there can be another equally compelling construal of what is supposed to happen at Ayodhya. What has been planned, according to reports, is the descent of 2 lakh people in the ‘temple town’: half of them are to be mobilised by the VHP and the other half by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It has also been reported, in practically the same breath, that the VHP is preparing 3 lakh food packets for the Hindutva activists who are going to assemble there.
This arithmetical discrepancy of 1 lakh provides the initial clue about the alternative construal. It is pretty much a cinch that the other members of the egregious Sangh Parivar will also get into the act. Thus, it would not be unreasonable to expect the BJP, the Bajrang Dal, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and others to chip in with their own cadres. From outside the family, the Shiv Sena will send volunteers. Other freebooters and freelance Hindutva peddlers can be expected to be there as well. So, the organisers are counting on a 3-lakh-strong contingent. India is, of course, not wanting when it comes to boots on the ground, so the prospect of 3 lakh people landing up in Ayodhya is not a big stretch.
The point is what the government is going to do. The Centre does not have much of a say when the Dharma Sabha is held on Sunday. But the state government, also run by the BJP, does. It has been reported that Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure has already been clamped in the area around the disputed site, with lakhs already encamped in the town, including 30,000 ‘Shiv Sainiks’. This section allows the relevant authorities, inter alia, to limit the number of people who can assemble in a particular place.
It has also been reported that a huge number of security personnel have been deployed in Ayodhya, including personnel from the regular police force, the Provincial Armed Constabulary, the Rapid Action Force and the Anti-Terrorism Squad. Intelligence agencies have also been alerted amid reports that Muslims, fearing violence, are leaving the area.
What all this will add up to will become evident soon. Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray is scheduled to offer prayers by the banks of the Saryu river on Saturday and then, on Sunday, at the makeshift Ram Lalla shrine, which is perilously close to the disputed site. The VHP and RSS have planned daylong events in Ayodhya. It is not yet clear what kind of events will be conducted, but given that RSS workers dressed as Shiva, brandishing tridents, plan to parade through the town, one can hazard a fairly accurate guess about the character of the events that have been planned.
Will the Uttar Pradesh government, headed by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a Hindutva hardliner and a certified monk, no less, prohibit incendiary activities, including public oratory? Will it take the stand that the Supreme Court will soon be pronouncing a verdict on the matter, technically a property dispute, so any act amounting to force majeure will not be allowed? We will know soon, obviously, but given the available track record, the chances that this huge congregation will run amok are significant.
The Dharma Sabha will be music to the ears of the BJP and the governments it runs. Since it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will rule before the Lok Sabha elections due around six months from now, it can now start preparing for an extra-judicial solution. Those who have been clamouring for an ordinance or a law have obviously not thought the matter through. What will an ordinance or a law achieve? The Centre cannot legislate by merely stating its intention of building a temple at the disputed site. What either the central or state government can do in practical terms is acquire the land, under the principle of ‘eminent domain’ perhaps, and build a temple.
But that route is not really open because the title of the land is contested and the matter can only be resolved by the Supreme Court. Until this happens, the property cannot be acquired because neither the Centre nor state government can acquire it from someone, the legitimate owner of the disputed land. This is a bind that the legal cell of the BJP must puzzle over before it can proceed.
The problem is that the BJP has invested heavily in the temple issue because it thinks it can win the upcoming Vidhan Sabha elections and the Lok Sabha elections next year by exploiting it. Faced with doubtful electoral prospects, especially given the ‘spectre’ of a united Opposition for the latter, the BJP has already committed itself to a campaign prominently featuring the temple issue, even though there are some indications that it does not have the kind of traction it did at the turn of the century.
The party may well figure that moving hastily to build a temple, or, at the very least, ratcheting up the rhetoric, will yield the kind of dividends it is seeking. It is complicit, to put it mildly, in Sunday’s planned programmes. But can legally and constitutionally-elected governments actually go ahead and build the temple by main force, thus rendering the Supreme Court proceedings infructuous? One would like to think it can’t or shouldn’t.
We have seen time and again over the past four-and-a-half years, however, that the incumbent government at the Centre does not much care for the substance of constitutionality, or even appearances, but it could well find that another flagrant violation of due process will boomerang.
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