Govt on back foot, withdraws affidavit

Govt on back foot, withdraws affidavit

Mumbai: The government on Friday withdrew the affidavit filed in the Supreme Court by the ministry of culture on 10 and 11 September on the Sethusamudram project, and asked for three months to review the project. The court gave the government the desired three months but refused to lift a stay on dredging the Ram Sethu (or Adam’s Bridge), a coral bridge connecting India and Sri Lanka. However, it has allowed dredging to continue in other parts of the channel.

Petitioner and Janata Party leader Subramaniam Swamy, whose case against the government prompted the affidavit, claimed that the government also promised to “reconsider the entire matter, including discussing possibility of a new alignment (for the channel)". It wasn’t immediately possible to verify whether the government’s legal representatives said this before the court and, if so, what they meant by it. The submission made by Gopal Subramaniam, additional solicitor general of India, a copy of which is available with Mint, says the government will look at “all materials... including any alternative suggestions".

The Rs2,600 crore project that seeks to build a channel for ships by destroying Adam’s Bridge aims to cut passage time for ships circumnavigating India by 24 hours, but it has been controversial from the start with scientists, politicians, environmentalists, religious groups and the local populace opposing it. Hindu groups believe the bridge was built by Hindu god Ram. This week, Mint ran a four-part series looking at various issues related to the project.

Earlier this week, the government filed an affidavit that said there was no historical evidence of Ram having existed. Political parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the principal Opposition party, and religious groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (an associate of the BJP), already opposed to the project, increased the pitch of their protests. This is the affidavit that has been withdrawn by the government.

Appearing before a two-judge bench comprising Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justice R.V. Raveendran, Gopal Subramaniam said the Union government has taken this decision in “a spirit of inclusiveness and high democratic tradition, to consider a different point of view."

The Centre is expected to form a committee to look into the task of hearing the grievances of the people, including the petitioners—Rama Gopalan, the founder president of the Hindu Munnani, a Hindu group and Subramaniam Swamy—on this issue. “They will have to sit and talk to us about an alignment which does not destroy the Ram Sethu," said Swamy.

Political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan said that by withdrawing the affidavit, the government has played into the hands of the BJP. “The government has handed the issue on a platter to the BJP. They think that by withdrawing the affidavit they have taken the wind out of the opposition. In fact, this will do the exact opposite. This will re-energize the BJP."

At the VHP, the mood is jubilant and aggressive: VHP workers say they intend to continue their campaign against the destruction of the bridge. The VHP has planned a month of rallies and protests across the country starting on 26 September. Vyankatesh Abdeo, All-India joint secretary of the VHP, said the agitation would be “another month-long rath yatra (in which a chariot travels around the country rallying public support for the cause) which would end at the Prime Minister’s house in New Delhi."

Praveen Togadia, the VHP’s general secretary, said the group had no intentions of withdrawing its campaign. “We will call it a victory only when the government either cancels the project or announces an alternative alignment which will not damage the Ram Sethu," he declared.

A high-level meeting of the VHP and Bajrang Dal (another right-wing religious group) leaders is expected to take place in Delhi next week.

“Someone from the BJP will definitely go to attend the VHP meeting," said BJP leader L.K. Advani.

He added that the BJP would not let the issue of the affidavit end with the government’s withdrawal of it.

“We will be pursuing this matter. It is not just someone’s error as Bharadwaj (law minister H.R. Bharadwaj) says. Responsibility needs to be fixed. Who has done this and at what level was this affidavit approved? We need to make sure that they will not destroy the Ram Sethu."

Meanwhile, shipping minister T.R. Baalu, whose ministry oversees the Sethusamudram project, continued to remain unavailable for comment because he was “touring in Chennai."