UP has seen several outbreaks of communal incidents since 2009, according to data journalism site IndiaSpend.com, which said that between 2009 and March 2013, the state witnessed 482 incidents of communal violence, the highest for any state in the country, resulting in 105 deaths. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint (Ramesh Pathania/Mint)
UP has seen several outbreaks of communal incidents since 2009, according to data journalism site IndiaSpend.com, which said that between 2009 and March 2013, the state witnessed 482 incidents of communal violence, the highest for any state in the country, resulting in 105 deaths. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
(Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

Ayodhya once again emerges as ground zero in UP politics

On Sunday, the VHP cadres will face off against the state govt that has refused permission to the VHP’s 20-day Yatra

New Delhi: On Wednesday, the annual street fair, Saavan Mela, in Ayodhya wore an uncharateristically deserted look—like the uneasy calm before a storm.

On Sunday, the storm is expected to break as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP’s) cadres face off against a determined state government that doesn’t want to allow the right-wing Hindu organization to use the town to revive its campaign to build a temple at the disputed site where the Babri Masjid stood before it was demolished in 1992, and where, many Hindu’s believe, Ram was born.

The VHP is part of the extended so-called Sangh Parivar of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) whose political face is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Uttar Pradesh’s (UP’s) Samajwadi Party (SP) government has refused permission to the VHP for the launch of its 20-day Chaurasi Kos Yatra. Neither sides seem willing to blink in what is threatening to become a spat that will further polarize the people of UP, and possibly India, along religious lines. UP has seen several outbreaks of communal incidents since 2009, according to data journalism site IndiaSpend.com, which said that between 2009 and March 2013, the state witnessed 482 incidents of communal violence, the highest for any state in the country, resulting in 105 deaths. On 21 August, two people died in communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar district of the state. The ruling SP has always counted Muslims among its voter base.

UP, with a population of 200 million, sends 80 representatives to the Lok Sabha, and the SP, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav who harbours ambitions of a national role in the next government, would like to do well in the next general election scheduled for 2014. The BJP once ruled the state, which is key to its hopes of displacing the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in the coming general election. As is Bihar, which sends 40 representatives to the Lok Sabha.

The BJP has steered clear of getting directly involved in the SP-VHP stand-off, but the party does support the campaign. “This is a religious practice that has been going on for hundreds of years. Such religious congregation, of any religion, which has been happening for years and if it is peaceful should not be prohibited," the party’s national spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said.

The religious practice in question is the Chaurasi Kos Yatra (Kos is an ancient Indian measure of distance and Chaurasi means 84) that the VHP plans to launch on Sunday.

“The yatra’s aim is to get blessings from Lord Ram and discuss the present situation. From there whatever the sants (seers) decide and announce, would be taken back to the whole country and the message will be spread," Vinod Bansal, media chief of the Delhi unit of the VHP, known as the Indraprastha Vishwa Hindu Parishad, said.

Though not overtly stated, the expectation is that the gathering will make three demands: No mosque within the cultural boundary of Ayodhya; no mosque in the entire country called “Babri Masjid"; and the construction of a Ram temple. The cultural boundary is 84 Kos, approximately 252km.

The VHP has 41 administrative units in the country. Over the 20 days of the campaign, these units will take two-day turns in praying at the disputed site.

After the 1992 demolition of the 16th century Babri Masjid, the disputed site is under controlled access. A 2010 Allahabad high court ruling ordered the trifurcation of the land among the disputed parties, with a third going to Muslim groups and two-thirds to the Hindu groups. That decision has been appealed in the Supreme Court.

On 19 July, the VHP demanded that the BJP introduce a Bill in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament, to build a Ram temple at the site. “The BJP should not be inhibited by its lack of requisite numbers as the other parties would be exposed if they prefer to oppose the Bill," a report in The Hindu newspaper quoted Acharya Giriraj Kishore, vice-president of the VHP as saying.

The RSS backed the VHP’s call.

The VHP is also very clear that the Ram temple is an electoral issue, and matters in 2014.

“Lok Sabha elections are going to take place in 2014 and we will make Ram Mandir an election agenda. We will ask the people to vote for those who assure to effect government’s promise to initiate the construction of a grand Ram Mandir in Ayodhya," said Surendra Jain, national secretary of the VHP.

“Ever since the country has got independence, this has been a key electoral agenda," added Ashok Singhal, veteran leader of the VHP and its former international president.

In July, the VHP warned of a larger agitation if its demand on the Bill was not met, and the 25 August launch of the campaign could be part of that.

“We have been constantly pressurizing the central government to either bring a Bill or to effect this through a government notification. This has to be made a national campaign and the Chaurasi Kos Yatra is just the first step towards it," Jain added.

Polarization

The state government may have said it won’t allow the campaign on Sunday. But in Ayodhya, Muslims, especially those who witnessed the 1992 demolition of the mosque, are worried.

“We do feel a little unsafe, somehow we know that if something happens, our community would be the first to get affected. Memories of Babri Masjid are still fresh although ours was one of the few localities which did not face any communal clashes post the incident," said Abdul Rauf, 81.

Analysts say the BJP (through the VHP) and the SP are positioning themselves on either side of the debate in a bid to appeal to their core constituencies. The SP is hoping that the controversy will distract voters from the deteriorating law and order situation in the state. And the BJP is hoping to consolidate its own vote bank—something that will be crucial in a likely four-cornered contest that will also feature the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

“This sort of positioning works for both the parties. While Mulayam Singh Yadav has used his trump card by denying permission to the yatra— the Muslims are bound to inch closer to the party—the BJP will continue with what can be called the narrative of the suffering of the Hindus," said Badri Narayan, a UP-based political analyst.

“While the BJP, RSS and the VHP can no longer risk a repeat of the Babri Masjid episode, they will try to put forth the message in a more veiled manner," he added.

And not without reason—Hindus in the state still think it is a relevant issue.

“In Ayodhya, the Ram Janmabhoomi will always be a political issue and keeping the issue alive is in the interest of the BJP," said Nand Kishore Trivedi, a 49-year-old businessman who owns a book shop in Ayodhya. “While some people do think that the party did not do enough to construct the Ram Mandir when it was in power (as head of the National Democratic Alliance between 1999 and 2004), the fact also remains that this is the only party that can be expected to stand by the issue."

Will it work

While, the Hindutva agenda successfully worked for the BJP in the early 1990s and the years following it, analysts say the party has now adopted a so-called saffron-lite (or Hindutva-lite) approach in states such as Bihar, and packaged it with a focus on development.

“This combination of good governance, development and nationalism is what will work in our favour. People want to continuously drag us in the Ram Mandir issue; Ram Mandir is not a political issue, it is a matter of faith," said Lakshmikant Bajpai, state president of the BJP’s UP unit.

“The coming elections will be a reflection of the aspirations of the youth and how they connect with Modi, they see him as the solution to inflation and raging corruption in the country," he added, referring to Narendra Modi, widely considered the party’s prime ministerial candidate.

Experts agree.

“Development with Hindutva is the way forward for BJP. They will want development as a slogan and Hindutva as an undercurrent. The Ram Janmabhoomi will always recur in their rhetoric of Hindutva," Narayan said.

According to the Census of 2001, Muslims make up 18.5% of the population of UP.

“If this yatra indeed gains the kind of support that the RSS and the VHP are expecting it to, then the entire Muslim vote will tilt towards Mulayam Singh, who will once again emerge as the protector of Muslims," Narayan said.

Security measures

The local administration is taking no chances. Besides putting in place adequate security measures, it has also sought additional personnel from the district headquarters in Faizabad.

“Section 144 has been imposed in entire Faizabad district which includes a complete ban on assembly, demonstrations and if any of it happens, then necessary legal action would be taken," said K.B. Singh, senior superintendent of police, Faizabad district.

The state administration is ready with paramilitary forces, including female constables to deal with the sadhvis or female sages, “anti-rioting mechanism" , even “temporary jails" according to Singh.

The caution is understandable as the administration faced severe criticism after communal clashes broke out at Ayodhya’s twin city, Faizabad last October. The shop of Waqeel Ahmed Khan, 45, was severely damaged and he claims it cost him 90 lakh.

“The way the conditions are, the manner in which the administration has been holding emergency meetings coupled with the rumours that are doing rounds...people are naturally scared that things may go out of control," Khan said.

Khan rebuilt his shop months after the attacks, and replaced the wooden racks with aluminium ones. “They don’t get burned down as quickly as wood does," he said.

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