Mumbai: In a fire-fighting exercise, the government said on Thursday it would withdraw parts of an affidavit filed on its behalf in the Supreme Court that said there was no historical evidence of Ram having existed or built the Ram Sethu, a coral bridge that links India to Sri Lanka.

Law minister H.R. Bharadwaj said the government would withdraw the offending parts of the affidavit and file a supplementary one before the court on Friday. People close to the development said that Congress president and United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi had personally directed the government to do this, though Mint couldn’t independently confirm this. On Friday, the court will consider whether it should revise its own order asking the government not to do any work on the bridge.

The bridge has been at the heart of a controversy ever since the government decided to destroy it as part of a project to create a channel between the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Mannar, cutting a day’s passage for ships circumnavigating India. The project has been opposed by politicians, scientists, environmentalists and religious groups.

On Wednesday, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu organization, organized protests in various parts of the country against the project to build the channel. The previously scheduled campaign became more strident after the government’s filing to the apex court with the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, sensing a political opportunity.

“It is likely that this issue will transform the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political fortunes," predicts Mahesh Rangarajan, an independent political analyst.

Since Tuesday, Mint has been running a special four-part series—of which this is the last—on the so-called Adam’s Bridge (or Sethusamudram) project, a Rs2,600 crore effort by the government (see box above). The stories have examined the claimed economic benefits of the project and progress, or the lack thereof, on it.

The bridge at the heart of the controversy cannot be seen at all on most days. It is only when the tide is right that this coral formation that links India and Sri Lanka can be seen.

Travellers walked to Sri Lanka on this 30km long and 3km wide bridge until 1480. Then, a cyclone came and the waters consumed the bridge. Its existence passed out of common knowledge and became legend.

Hindu protestors—who believe that Ram built this bridge with the help of an army of monkeys, attacked the demon king Ravana in Lanka and rescued his wife, Sita—say that the project, which plans to cut through the Ram Sethu to create a channel linking the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, is a “deliberate design to destroy the most ancient relic of Hindu history."

On 31 August, when the apex court was informed about an alleged government plan to blast the bridge, it issued a stay on all work on the Rs2,600 crore Sethusamudram project for two weeks. A two-judge bench will hear the arguments on Friday and decide if the stay should continue or be lifted.

It is for this hearing that the government filed the affidavit saying there is no proof that Ram ever existed. Belligerent Hindus say they cannot believe this assault on their faith. Pravin Togadia, the general secretary of the VHP, said: “Do they ask the Muslims to prove that the hair in Hazratbal mosque really belongs to Prophet Mohammed? We believe this bridge was built by Ram and the belief of millions of Hindus is enough."

BJP leader L.K. Advani said in an earlier interview with Mint that the VHP should fight the project not on religious grounds alone. Last evening, after an emergency meeting with top leaders of the VHP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), another right-wing organization, he demanded that the government: withdraw the affidavit, filed on its behalf by the Archaeological Society of India, completely; apologize to the people of the country for offending their faith; and fix ministerial responsibility for the affidavit.

A political platform

The battle lines are drawn and positions have hardened, Ram Sethu watchers say.

The VHP, known to do ‘dry runs’ for the BJP in the past, has been conducting rallies, speeches and campaigns in South India over the past few months and such efforts seem to have reached critical mass.

On Wednesday, traffic came to a standstill in many parts of North India as the VHP Rasta Roko campaign forced cars and trains to stop for three hours in the morning. Many BJP and VHP workers, including key leaders such as Togadia and Ashok Singhal, were arrested.

The South remained relatively unaffected by the Rasta Roko campaign.

However, the VHP’s rally in Rameshwaram was more successful. About 50,000 people had gathered in Rameshwaram to attend the VHP’s ‘Chalo Rameshwaram’ rally in late August. Sadhus from North and South India and BJP workers from across India, including the four southern states, participated in the rally. As did, unexpectedly, Christian fishermen from the Tamil Nadu coastline, nuclear scientists from Mumbai and Chennai, and economists from Karnataka.

Vyankatesh Abdeo, all India joint secretary of the VHP, said they expected thousands to show up but “this was beyond our expectations."

Pralay Kanungo, who teaches at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Political Studies, said that this is the first time the VHP has received such mass response in South India. The fact this huge rally happened even though Ram has never captured popular imagination in the South shows that the VHP has touched a chord.

“They have been trying to achieve this for a long time now. They already have a huge Ram following in the North. This is an attempt to link North and South India through the symbol of Ram," added Kanungo.

Kanungo said it was open to debate whether the BJP would benefit from this movement in the 2009 general elections. What is unquestionable is the importance of this movement, he added.

“They have been trying hard for a South India presence since the 1960s. Even if this movement fails, it will be an important one for the BJP," said Rangarajan.

The real challenge for the BJP, though, is fighting the spectre of Ayodhya, where, in 1992, the party and its associates such as the VHP, were involved in the demolition of the Babri Masjid that allegedly stood at the site of Ram’s birthplace. “They lost credibility with that. To regain trust, once again on the Ram platform, among a people not particularly fond of Rama, is not going to be easy," Kanungo said.

But it seems that at least some people are willing to give them another chance. In Chennai, C. Subramaniam, an electrical engineer, who started an SMS campaign to save the Ram Sethu, says this is about protecting something and so it is different from Ayodhya. “This is different. Who knows if there had been a Ram temple at the site (in Ayodhya) or not? Here, we know there is a bridge. What we don’t know is who built it. And until we don’t find an answer to that question, it cannot be destroyed."

Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy

“This victory in court also marks the return of the blue-eyed boy of the RSS into the fold," Kanungo explained. Swamy, a Tamil Brahmin who teaches economics at Harvard, was one of the favourite mascots of the Sangh Parivar, until he went off on a political tangent. “But the fact that he is taking up a leadership role in this movement is a clear signal that he is back," said Kanungo.

If he gets the stay to stay, Swamy will become hero to many in the VHP and the RSS. If he fails, and the court lifts the stay, VHP and RSS workers say it will be a fight to the finish. Abdeo said: “There will be Mahabharata in the name of Ramayana in India," a reference to a coming ‘great war’.

PTI contributed to this story.