Contrary to the common belief that it was the Palampur resolution adopted by the Bharatiya Janata Party in June 1989 which brought the Ayodhya imbroglio into India’s political discourse, politicisation of the Ramjanmasthan issue, which has been laid to rest by the Supreme Court’s enlightened judgement, was rooted in factional politics of the Indian National Congress in the immediate aftermath of freedom. Jan Sangh, the parent party of BJP, was born in 1952. It was the first political outfit which had no umbilical link with Congress. It was founded by Shyama Prasad Mookherjee who had quit the Cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru in disgust: Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh aided him in his endeavour to bring to fore the aberrations seeping into India’s polity. Hindu nationalism has been dormant among many Congress leaders, while the party had a veneer of “secularism”. During the freedom struggle Congress acted as an umbrella organisation of different ideologies—communists and socialists were part of the Congress movement. The Congress Socialist Party, the womb of the vibrant socialist movement which provided sinews to Opposition politics in the first five decades of free India, was part of Indian National Congress since 1934. It was led by Acharya Narendra Dev, who represented the Faizabad-Ayodhya seat in the United Provinces Legislative Assembly. (Uttar Pradesh was then known as the United Provinces of Agra & Oudh—UP, for short.) Acharya Narendra Dev and 13 of his supporters quit as Congress MLAs in 1948 which necessitated byelections. In order to defeat Acharya Narendra Dev, who enjoyed rapport with Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Chief Minister of UP, Govind Ballabh Pant, sought the help of Hindu Maha Sabha and mahants of Ayodhya. Congress candidate Baba Raghav Das was a sadhu from Deoria district. He defeated Acharya Narendra Dev in a closely contested election in which religiosity was harnessed and caste politics also came to the fore. Baba Raghav Das appealed to orthodox Hindu voters by distributing tulsi leaves during his campaign.

The first instance of dispute in Ayodhya was recorded in 1855, two years prior to the British Crown formally taking over the administration of India. In its judgement the Supreme Court has excoriated the damage caused to the mosque in 1934, the incidents of December 1949 and the demolition in 1992. Congress, which sought a high pedestal on the Ayodhya issue, cannot absolve itself of the role played by a section of its leadership over the years. 1949 event was perhaps a direct fallout of the political line pursued in the June 1948 byelection. When the 1949 December incident took place a police post was set up at the site, which was named, “Police Chowki Ramjanmabhumi” and came under the jurisdiction of Sadar Thana of Faizabad. G.B. Pant was the CM and Lal Bahadur Shastri was the Home Minister of UP in 1949.

The demand for temple at Ayodhya emerged after the decision on restoration of the Somnath Temple in 1948. Sardar Vallabbhai Patel raised the issue of Somnath at a public meeting at Junagadh in November 1947 and thereafter a trust was set up with Dr K.M. Munshi as chairman, which spearheaded the restoration of the temple desecrated by Mohammad Ghori in 1026. The demand for Ayodhya temple surfaced in its aftermath. In the Palampur resolution of 1989, BJP under L.K. Advani urged Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to show the same attitude to Ayodhya as Jawaharlal Nehru had shown to Somnath.

The movement for the Ayodha temple gained momentum in the Indira Gandhi era. The Ram ki Pairi, which hosts the magnificent Deepotsav on Diwali, was constructed on the banks of the Sarayu in 1984 under Congress Chief Minister Sripati Mishra. The same year, after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s first Dharm Sansad held at New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan announced a Ram-Janaki Yatra from Sitamarhi (in Bihar, deemed Sita’s birthplace) to Delhi, Chief Minister N.D. Tiwari provided logistical support by providing a medical team to accompany the yatris. The yatris were to meet Indira Gandhi in early November to demand the opening of locks put at Babri Masjid following a court order in 1949—her assassination on 31 October 1984 prevented this. Rajiv Gandhi inherited this background when he succeeded his mother as Prime Minister.

The 1986 decision of the Rajiv government to reverse the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case taken under pressure from conservative Muslims was seen as a move in which Sharia law was given precedence over the Constitution of India. This sharpened the Ayodhya demand. In order to balance the feelings of both Muslims and Hindus the Congress leadership agreed to open the lock in Ayodhya (keys could not be found; the locks were broken open by the government). In the run-up to the 1989 elections the Rajiv government allowed shilanyas (foundation stone laying) of the temple and Rajiv Gandhi began the Lok Sabha poll campaign at Ayodhya with the promise of “Ram Rajya”. What followed was the banishment of Congress as the dominant political party and the slow but steady emergence of BJP as the party of governance in India. A headline in the Times of India on 10 November 2019 sums up the story: “Rajiv opened the lock; saffron got the key”.

Narendra Modi often says that history has chosen him as the person who has to right the past wrongs. The abolition of Article 370, bringing Kashmir into national mainstream; the resolution of the Ayodhya imbroglio (by a court order which is fair and clear) may now be followed up by asserting supremacy of the Constitution of India in another vital area: common civil code. The British divide and rule legacy of separate civil code for different religions needs to be extinguished. The Portuguese had a common civil code for all communities in Goa, Daman, Diu and Dadra-Nagar Haveli, which they ruled. When these areas were integrated with India in 1961 the Portuguese era laws continued. Since 1961 there have been a state and three union territories where common civil code is part of the statute of free India: the dithering of past regimes, which was blown away in the matter of triple talaq, needs to be further demolished in the days to come.

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