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The Kanchi Shankaracharya's proposal raises fresh hopes, unnerves the VHP

Jayendra Saraswati (File) Jayendra Saraswati | PTI

This story was first published in THE WEEK issue dated July 6, 2003

It sounds too good to be true. And probably is. Never before in the 18-year history of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement has a final resolution to the problem appeared so imminent. Sankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati of Kanchi, key negotiator in the proposed settlement, is bursting with optimism. The government is in a tizzy, with senior ministers constantly in touch with the seer over the telephone. Defence Minister George Fernandes and Finance Minister Jaswant Singh even flew down to Kanchipuram on June 22 to confer with him. "The Sankaracharya is making a sincere bid to end this controversy once and for all, and it is the duty of all right thinking people to support him," said BJP general secretary Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.

The Sankaracharya is confident of a breakthrough by July 6, the day on which the 51-member working committee of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board meets in Lucknow to consider his proposals for solving the problem. Has a golden compromise, never thought of in all these years, been found? Will the Sankaracharya formula find at least partial acceptance?

Neither the Sankaracharya nor the chairman of the board, Maulana Rabe Hasan Nadwi, have revealed what the proposals are. A two-page letter on the Sankaracharya's letterhead reached Nadwi in Lucknow on June 21, but neither sender nor recipient is willing to say a word till July 6.

But informed leaks hint that the key suggestion is that the Muslim community—specifically the Central Sunni Waqf Board, which is contesting the original Ayodhya title suit—give up its claim to the exact spot on which the Babri Masjid had stood before it was demolished in December 1992, in lieu of which the Hindus will forsake forever their demand for disputed religious sites at Kashi and Mathura. To sweeten the pill further, the proposals reportedly maintain that the Central government will not only provide land to rebuild the Babri Masjid, but also pay for the construction—but obviously its location will be some distance away from the original site.

Will the board even consider this? Right from the start of the movement it was the site on which the Babri Masjid had stood that was the bone of contention. No Muslim ever objected to the building of a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya: it was the slogan, mandir wohin banayenge, which brought him up short. If the site had not been crucial to Muslim sentiments, wouldn't the issue have been resolved long ago? "The Babri Masjid site was never negotiable and still isn't," said Kasim Rasul Ilyas, convenor of the board. "I have not seen the proposals myself yet, but if they involve rebuilding the masjid at a different site, we cannot even consider them."

The concessions on Mathura and Kashi cut no ice with Ilyas. He pointed to the Religious Places Act, passed more than a decade ago, which decrees that at all shrines, barring the Ram Janmabhoomi, the status quo which existed at Independence would be maintained. "We don't recognise any controversy over the Gyanvapi mosque at Kashi, or the Idgah mosque at Mathura," Ilyas said. "The law provides that they will remain as they are. Any agitation the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) ever mounts against these two shrines, will be completely illegal." Muslim leaders were equally dismissive of the reported government offer to pay for the construction of a new masjid.

The Kanchi Sankaracharya first made an attempt to broker a settlement on Ayodhya in March last year, when the VHP was insistent on starting construction of the Ram temple in the area adjacent to the disputed spot. It was a more modest effort, as he sought to persuade the board to allow the VHP to begin construction. The board turned down this plea; the Supreme Court too subsequently upheld the board's position. Is it feasible that the board will now surrender the disputed area?

Ilyas expected the negotiations to resume from the point where they were broken off last year. "At that time we were told that the VHP would wait for the judicial verdict," he said. "We were told that the VHP was even willing to shift to another site, if the court ruled against it. We expect the Sankaracharya to stand by that." Muslim leaders said there had been no major development since then to prod them into radically alter their position.

Statements by other board members have been different. In Lucknow, Maulana Sajjad Nomani, considered close to the board chairman, sounded much more conciliatory. "The Board has always been willing to consider an honourable proposal, and this one fits the bill," he said soon after receiving the letter. How did he feel about giving up the coveted, controversial Babri Masjid site? "The exact location of the two structures, the temple and the mosque, can be worked out after creating the right atmosphere," he said. "We will discuss the proposal with an open mind."

When the Sankaracharya revealed on June 8 that he had resumed discussions on Ayodhya with Muslim leaders, a host of them, led by Syed Shahabuddin and Ilyas, contradicted him. "It is unfortunate that the Sankaracharya is making such a baseless claim," Ilyas then stated. As it later emerged, the Sankaracharya had met the board chairman in Lucknow, of which these leaders were unaware.

Later, of course, a fig leaf of an explanation was provided to say that the Sankaracharya met the ageing cleric only to enquire about his health! Are different Muslim leaders then pulling in different directions, with some keen to put Ayodhya behind them, and others determined not to yield an inch? Why has the Sankaracharya claimed that Muslim leaders were willing to hand over the disputed site to religious heads, but not to organisations politically inclined—a clear barb at the VHP?

The July 6 meeting of the board promises to be tempestuous. Will the hawks carry the day or the doves? "Why should we reject the formula outright?" asked Ilyas. "Maybe we will suggest modifications."

Muslim opinion may be divided over the Sankaracharya's formula, but Hindu hardline opinion definitely is not. The VHP is furious at the likelihood of the Sankaracharya stealing its thunder. "After conducting an agitation for 18 years we certainly do not want anyone else muscling in," said senior VHP leader Champak Rai. From June 9, a day after the Sankaracharya revealed he had been making efforts to resolve Ayodhya, the VHP diatribe against him—and the government for encouraging him—has been unceasing. VHP President Ashok Singhal compared the Sankaracharya's suggestions to "serving halwa in a commode". "All kinds of secret deals are being made," he charged, "but Hindu society will not tolerate any compromise with its interests."

Pure panic appeared to overtake the VHP as Singhal and Pravin Togadia rushed to RSS supremo K. Sudarshan to complain; Singhal flew down to Kanchipuram to warn the Sankaracharya against interfering; a bunch of pro-VHP sadhus passed a resolution in Ayodhya urging the Sankaracharya to abandon his efforts; a national executive was convened in Raipur on June 26 to find ways to meet the challenge. Fortunately for the VHP, the RSS lent it complete support. "No solution to Ayodhya is possible without the involvement of the VHP," declared RSS spokesman Ram Madhav. "The VHP's views must be accommodated."

What are these views? No compromise of any kind. Neither will the claims on the Kashi and Mathura mosques be given up, nor will any masjid be allowed to be constructed anywhere in the vicinity of the Ram temple, even if the Muslims are prepared to give up their claim on the disputed site. "Ayodhya is a Hindu holy town. Why should a mosque be allowed to come up there? There are too many mosques in Ayodhya as it is," declared Rai. On both issues the RSS has thrown its weight behind the VHP.

The VHP has even laised the spectre of the Sankaracharya—with complete government backing -making other concessions to Muslims. "There is talk of allowing namaz in about 1,000 ASI controlled heritage mosques," noted Ram Madhav. "The RSS does not think it is feasible at all." There has even been wild speculation that the government is considering job reservations for Muslims in return for the disputed site! In fact, neither of them figure in the Sankaracharya's proposals.

Convincing its fellow parivar members, of the efficacy of the Sankaracharya's formula will be even more difficult for the BJP than eliciting Muslim support. Ayodhya has always been a tough nut to crack. It has not softened with age.