EVEN after two years of publication, the late PV Narasimha Rao’s Ayodhya, 6 December 1992 (Penguin Viking) is not visible in any bookshop in the country. And what is more than passing strange is that neither the Bharatiya Janata Party nor the Congress seems interested in a parliamentary debate on a subject so crucial for India’s unity and integrity.
As Prime Minister, Rao records that the assault on the Babari Masjid was made when political parties were fully aware of the fact that prolonged negotiations were taking place to arrive at a consensus on all outstanding issues arising out of the masjid/temple in Ayodhya. There appeared to be just more than connivance on the part of the BJP, then in power in Uttar Pradesh, that enabled the party alliance to mount an assault on the structure with the intent of bringing it down. That it was decided to force the communal issue on to the national agenda became evident when it began its journey from Somnath.
Indira Gandhi, with the prescience of the emerging communal politics, and alive to the fact that any religious based politics would lead to the breakdown of integrity worked out by the anti-colonial struggles by diverse people coming together and continuing that unity, introduced certain provisions in the Constitution by way of the 42nd Amendment. She had anticipated the rise of conservative groups which would retard the growth of an egalitarian society and decided to spell out its direction quite specifically. To make the objective in the Preamble more explicit, the concepts of secularism and socialism were included. In the Fundamental Duties chapter, the concept of fraternity was emphasized and these were not touched by subsequent governments.
The Ayodhya Rath Yathra was intended to disrupt that unity. The consequent violence was becoming genocidal and the character it took on silenced criticism. This silence of the liberal among the majority accorded these trends a representative status. Vulgarized adversarial politics, the sole objective of which had come to mean capture of power, had lost sight of a very significant fact — namely “India’s anti-colonial nationalism was a movement that claimed openness in its cultural policy and included all those who subscribe to questioning the colonial rule.” (Romilla Thapar.) Unfettered by the country’s partition on religious lines,
“we went ahead and framed a constitution with the full understanding of the existence of plural communities and tribes and ethnic groups with a determination to mold the diversity into an ‘Indian (national) identity’.”
The Rath Yathra from Somnath was intended to disrupt this effort. PV Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister at that time but even before that he had been appointed chairman of the committee set up by Rajiv Gandhi to examine the issues raised by Ayodhya. He was aware always that this issue had to be examined from the constitutional perspective. He was aware of the the possibility that any step he might take could lead to social disorder of unimaginable magnitude and could leave behind an endemic religious conflict that would be more intense than the ethnic conflicts in Europe and other parts of the world after World War II.
The unity structured by anti-colonial struggles of pre-independence and the fraternal and cultural relations that fostered unity was written into the Constitution by the 42nd Amendment in the Preamble and as a separate part (IV A). The attempt to evolve an Indian identity was sought to be disrupted by the social disorder and bring about irreparable fragmentation of the Hindu community, in itself a plural society full of internal conflicts and caste belligerence that would not admit any homogenous administration and adjustment. The various disastrous possibilities stared Rao in the face.
Perhaps these and other reasons impelled him to maintain a record of events. He did not write a book to be read and reviewed. Instead, he meant for Parliament and the people to debate and settle the issue of secularism. The Supreme Court and his cabinet never read the Constitution to understand and administer. He had his book published posthumously so that it might be debated untainted by the prejudices against him as a politician and in his role of Prime Minister. He was undoubtedly an intellectual as eminent as Nehru, though he did not have the luster and legend the latter had. But as Prime Minister, he deserves an audience.
Rao made a meticulous record of the events that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. In it he set down that secularism, which came under strain right from the beginning of the British government’s “divide and rule”, seemed unreal even at the time of Partition. It became a pillar of the Constitution quite naturally because of Indian tradition and national leaders’ conviction. But an out and out theocratic state across the border could not but leave some ugly secular spots on this side as well.
“Some parties found in anti-secularism the potential of a vote-rich issue, preying on the emotional pressures generated by the human tragedies of Partition days. The idea always seemed to politicise the Hindu majority on one side until it fetched electoral victories to them by sheer numbers.” First, Rao noticed a clear qualitative shift in the Supreme Court’s approach to Article 356. The constant abuse of this provision led to an invitation of judicial scrutiny of the decision to impose President’s Rule. The Central government did not desire any adverse interference by the Supreme Court. The agitation for a Ram temple and the protection of minority interests were involved. The nation was watching the government’s dealing with this issue. Rao took all precautions to ensure that the decisions taken were democratic. The National Integration Council, which met on 2 and 23 November 1992, went through the situation threadbare and was against the imposition of President’s Rule. The Governor’s Report also advised against that course.
President’s Rule was a device provided by the Constitution to enforce federal discipline and by a constitutional consensus this provision was introduced after much debate at a time when the memory of Hitler was still fresh in the minds of the constituent assembly members. The apex court’s panic was that India would go Communist and together with Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian ways would destroy the inter-institutional and constitutional discipline so necessary to carry on governance.
In his report, Rao stressed the reluctance of the Supreme Court to entrust the Centre with the responsibility of dealing with the situation, so much so that three constitutional authorities were involved almost simultaneously. In the first instance, what was the trend of the Supreme Court? One may argue that it may act independently and the government need not have been influenced by the Supreme Court in taking executive decisions. But Rao wondered if this was possible. The shadow of the 1975 Emergency, with the Congress ruling at the Centre to some extent and the long period of abuse of President’s Rule, decidedly influenced the Court in delaying swift action that was so necessary.
Every day the government was in some way interacting with the administration in Uttar Pradesh and the Bench of the Supreme Court. The court was directing the state government to file affidavits covering every doubt, every clarification and every assurance as required by law. Such affidavits were filed almost every day by the state government. Was it possible to assume they were false affidavits? It was not possible for anyone to say that despite these affirmations and assurances, the Centre should have acted in ignorance of the state government’s conduct. In a quasi-federal set-up, with the presence of plural communities, how did one carry on governance of the plural communities? Was it possible to differ violently on integrating secular values and still claim recognition as a political party in the parliamentary system under the Constitution? These and other fundamental political and constitutional questions plagued Narasimha Rao in those dark days of Ayodhya in the winter o f 1992. What would be accepted as democratic governance and what would not was the question that confronted the Prime Minister every day in December 1992.
Rao wrote in his report on Ayodhya that “the situation inevitably throws open some very intricate constitutional and ideological questions. Are the BJP, the Muslim League, the Hindu Maha Sabha, etc, on the one hand, and the other parties such as the Congress, Janata Dal, the Communist parties, etc, on the other in the elections under the same Constitution finding it a level playing field in the 1980s and 1990s? Yet I thought it proper to flag these pertinent questions very briefly, since they are bound to affect future elections, for the simple reason that religious faith in India, if allowed to be used as electoral issue, is much too tempting a short cut to votes. It will be impossible to set things right after allowing these trends to continue for a long time, bringing in signal successes again and again on the basis of a grossly unfair and impermissible advantage to one party which flies in the face our Constitution”.
Paramilitary forces were placed at the disposal of the state government in adequate numbers. While the state government asked for forces, it never made effective use of them. The forces needed 23 magistrates for their effective use but these magistrates were not made available, nor did the state government make any preventive arrests. The reading of the report informs one to infer that the state government was acting as a political adversary, though covertly, and proceedings pending in court were used as a camouflage. Rao “expected the BJP to behave as a responsible parliamentary political party told them to act with candor and a modicum of fairness”.
In the debate in Parliament after the demolition of the Babari Masjid, Rao, in his intervention on 21 December, referred to the issue raised by Inderjit Gupta. After reading a resolution in the constituent assembly, he proceeded, “In a secular democracy what is the place of non-secular parties or what should be the composition and programme of parties participating in that democracy, is a question that needs a national debate… Those who wish to participate in the elections would have to participate on the basis of certain guidelines, certain principles which are common to all and which are defined very clearly in the Constitution.” He called for a wider debate on “how this aberration that is menacing this country these two decades has to be set right”.
MN Venkatachalliah, former Chief Justice of India, puts it succinctly, “The purpose of law in a plural society is not the progressive assimilation of the minorities in the majoritarian milieu. This would not solve the problem, but vainly seeks to dissolve it.” Rao’s book is, therefore, meant to spur a debate by Parliament and the people on the issue of the plurality of communities and governance.