Millions of Indians will heave a sigh of relief that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's deplorable plan to precipitate a crisis in Ayodhya with its Sankalp Sammelan on October 17 turned out a damp squib. VHP leaders could not enter the temple/mosque complex and perform the rituals they threatened to conduct on that day.
Indeed, two days earlier, they were left more or less pitifully pleading to be allowed to visit Ayodhya on the promise that they would remain peaceful. Finally, VHP supporters had to content themselves with a darshan of Ramlalla in small groups under the government's escort. VHP Working President Ashok Singhal stood completely isolated in his sadhu's robes when he was arrested in Ayodhya.
The flopping of the Sammelan demonstrates four things. First, a state government that's determined to uphold the law can confidently maintain the Ayodhya status quo without shedding blood. In the present instance, Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav had a specific mandate in the Allahabad high court's directive against allowing any meeting at or near the 'disputed' site.
The Supreme Court told the Centre that it too has an obligation under the Places of Worship Act 1993 to protect the status of the land vested in it. The BJP's national leadership was reluctant to destabilise the state government, especially after Mr Yadav indicated he would take a 'moderate' approach. This was reflected in his allowing some 30,000 VHP supporters to enter Ayodhya after October 17 and hold a meeting the next day attended by 12,000 people -- although even this could have been avoided.
Second, there was/is no support for the Sammelan in Ayodhya/Faizabad or Poorvanchal (Eastern UP), leave alone elsewhere in UP and the rest of the Hindi heartland. Ayodhya's traders, and a majority of its mahants and sadhus, joined hands against the VHP's disruptive activities. The lead was taken by Mahant Gyan Das of Hanumangarhi who went around Faizabad's mohallas assuring Muslims of their safety and pleading solidarity with them. The VHP now stands badly discredited in Ayodhya. Bonds of friendship between Hindus and Muslims have been greatly strengthened in and around the town.
Third, a majority of the groups which the VHP collected in the guise of Ram bhakts came from the non-Hindi speaking states. According to district administration sources, half came from Gujarat alone. Next in line were Karnataka and Maharashtra. The Ram bhakts' strength was only a small fraction of the numbers the VHP could mobilise from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. Evidently, the temple movement is running out of steam. It is also coming into direct conflict with India's judicial processes.
Finally, the 'confrontationist' nature (NB: the BJP's term, not mine) of the VHP's activities is denting the image of the entire Sangh Parivar, including its political arm, the BJP, and their collective paterfamilias, the RSS. In recognition of this, and of the VHP's growing unpopularity, the BJP has sharply criticised the Parishad. In return, the VHP has been spewing filthy abuse week in and week out at the BJP, and even more important, at Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, accusing them of 'capitulating' to that horrible thing called secularism, and of being inebriated with power! The fact that Mr Vajpayee hasn't rebuffed the VHP and instead asked the public to 'trust' it despite its campaign of abuse against him, has not enhanced his stature. The RSS too has eaten humble pie. It wants to end 'the bitterness between the Centre, state government and various Hindu sections.'
After the Sammelan fiasco, the BJP and the VHP are likely to drift further apart, with their leaders staking out their respective terrains. The BJP, especially its governmental wing dominated by Mr Vajpayee, will try to rein in the VHP. Equally certainly, the VHP will try to resist this and take hardline positions. The RSS will try to play the mediator. Here lies the BJP's dilemma. It needs to milk the Ayodhya movement politically. But it doesn't like the movement's leadership, dominated as that is by far-from-pliable Ashok Singhal and Pravin Togadia. On the one hand, the BJP wants to assert its overall political supremacy over the parivar -- to the point of antagonising the VHP. On the other, it cannot dispense with the VHP's cadres. It needs them for the next, make-or-break, Parliamentary election campaign.
The VHP, like every Sangh Parivar organisation or 'front,' has a well-defined function cut out for itself. Such 'fronts' are said to number anywhere between 150 and 300, and are active in different fields, from traders' associations to industrial trade unions, and from women to Adivasis (tribals). Some, like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, have an economic policy that's is narrowly and fiercely nationalist (but strongly anti-internationalist), and opposed to the unequal globalisation the BJP strongly favours. This enables them to occupy the opposition space, thus edging out the real Centre-Left opposition to economic neoliberalism. Yet others, like Vidya Bharati, which runs a network of 20,000 schools, are crucial to propaganda and recruitment of children. Some, like the Bajrang Dal, are composed of modern-day storm-troopers who use physical violence to intimidate opponents.
Historically, the VHP's function has been threefold: to politicise disaffected sadhus; mobilise people on sectarian, emotive and seemingly 'religious' issues like the Ram temple; and not least, raise funds for the Sangh combine as a whole, especially from North America and Britain. The VHP is close to exhausting the first two functions although it still generates cadres who are useful to the BJP. Its third function remains extremely important, indeed virtually irreplaceable. The VHP has a number of associates and organisations based in the US, UK and Canada that claim to be religious, which collect huge sums from the non-resident Indian community.
The supreme irony is that the Sangh Parivar has nothing to do with religion in the real, deep sense. Hindutva's advocates deny the richly syncretic and plural nature of Hinduism and put it into a rigid upper-caste-oriented, puritanical and intolerant frame, which is amenable to political exploitation.
Hindutva advocates have no respect for any religious sensibilities. As a non-religious agnostic, I can admire Mother Teresa's epochal social work among India's poor, without sharing her religious fervour, or believing that she really performed 'miracles.' The RSS cannot. Its first reaction to her beatification, watched by over half a million people -- many of whom admired her spirit of service much more than her religious devotion -- was to declare churlishly and peevishly that it is a 'Christian conspiracy.' According to the Sangh, the Pope honoured her for 'creating 10,000 priests in Mizoram' and contributing '50,000 Indian nuns to the Christian world.'
This speaks of a despicable meanness of spirit and bloody-mindedness -- and a complete failure to see anything good in any religion other than the Sangh's sclerotic, dried-up version of Hinduism. It also speaks of xenophobia and paranoia about non-Hindus: 'All they want to do is propagate their religion and wipe out Hinduism from this country,' says the RSS. It's our collective tragedy that the RSS is the chief leader and guide of our present national leaders. We urgently need a leadership change!