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The Ayodhya Ram Temple and LK Advani's (Sour) Grapes of Rath

It is difficult to feel sympathy for the man whose yatra has led to what is happening in India today.
Narendra Modi with L.K. Advani during Advani's rath yatra. Photo: Twitter

The Ram Temple Trust has ‘requested’ veteran Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi not to come to the inauguration of Maryada Purshottam Shri Ram Janambhoomi Mandir on January 22. They are “elders” of the family, a Trust official said, and because of their age and health they were advised to stay away. Advani is 96 and Joshi will turn 90 next month.

This touching concern for their health was apparently not shared by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which promptly invited both to come. So now the decision lies with these two elders. Will they show up?

What a downfall it has been for both, especially Advani, the architect of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, whose yatra in 1990 paved the way for next month’s inauguration. Setting out in his Toyota converted into a rath, a chariot, he toured the country campaigning for a Ram temple in place of the Masjid which had stood there for 400 years, leaving death and destruction in his wake, mainly of Muslims.

In December 1992, the Masjid was brought down — a telling image then is of Murli Manohar Joshi hugging Uma Bharati — and more violence against Muslims followed, which engulfed Mumbai.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Photo: Sanjay Sharma/INDIAPIX NETWORK

The political gains became clear soon after — the first Shiv Sena-BJP government was formed in 1995, followed by a BJP-led coalition in Delhi, headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1996. He remained in power till 2004. Ten years later, Narendra Modi took office. It is during his term that the Supreme Court awarded the Babri Masjid site to a gaggle of individuals and groups linked politically to those who brought the mosque down, thereby legally endorsing what the vandals were demanding — and now the temple is ready to be inaugurated.

It is obvious therefore that Advani can be credited — if that is the word — for not just Narendra Modi’s rise but also the temple. To be not invited to its opening therefore must hurt.

Not just that — Advani supported Modi, under whose rule Gujarat had seen brutal violence against Muslims in 2002, at a time when the BJP leadership wanted to remove him. And when Modi became PM, he did not acknowledge Advani’s debt. Advani and his senior colleagues were relegated to the ‘Margadarshak Mandal’, a bogus body of elders who would guide the party, which has never been heard of again. Putting them out to pasture meant that they have simply disappeared from public life. An entire generation has no clue who Advani or Joshi are. For them, Modi rises above everyone else, and he can do what he likes.

But reading about the treatment meted out to the elders of BJP — in a society which is supposed to respect senior citizens — a question emerges: How should we react when Messrs Advani and Joshi are treated so disrespectfully? Should we feel bad? Should they have been invited to see the results of their hard work? Or is this just genuine concern about their age and health?

Many journalists and others who have met Advani say he is extremely courteous and polite. Indeed, this is said of several BJP leaders of that era. Yet, somehow, it is very difficult to muster up any sympathy or righteous indignation at their plight. Anyone who was around at the time will recall India was riven by the Rath Yatra and what came after, how it brought out the ugliest in our society, and how the country’s secular ethos was shattered in the worst possible way. That was the beginning of the emergence of a virulent strain of communalism, which manifested itself not only as violence on the streets, but also showed up among urban, educated types who suddenly discovered their Hindu roots. In polite drawing rooms, urban sophisticates started talking about why Hindus needed to assert themselves in ‘their country’. Anti-minority sentiment was expressed freely.

The virulent communalism seen in family WhatsApp groups now had its beginnings then. Twenty-five years after Advani’s cynical Rath Yatra, the BJP came to power and we have all seen what has happened since.

At this moment, watching what we have become and where we are heading, we may fall into the trap of thinking those were simpler, more innocent days. They were not. The Rath Yatra too was a grab for power using religion, but it succeeded only up to a point. The Vajpayee government was in a coalition where the partners acted as a brake to the more nefarious plans of the BJP (though even then there was interference in education, history and culture). The institutions held steadfast — the media was not so craven, the judiciary was independent and Parliament asked questions. And the Indian public, unconvinced by the tall claims of India Shining, threw out Vajpayee and his government in 2004.

Today, we have no such respite, no checks and balances. Much of the media lies prostrate, the judiciary has decided to fall in place, the Opposition parties can’t seem to get their act together, and most frightening of all, the Indian public is in full Bhakti mode, supporting the government and Narendra Modi in everything, even when its own interests are being hurt. All this is a result of that Rath Yatra.

So when an “elder”, the progenitor of today’s India, is humiliated by his successors, it is difficult to feel bad for him. He is merely paying his dues.

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