Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Was Narasimha Rao responsible for Babri masjid?

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Vinay Sitapati recounts the events leading up December 6, 1992, and tries to absolve Prime Minister Narasimha Rao of complicity with right-wing parties in its demolition. Excerpts:

6 December 1992. Narasimha Rao woke up at 7 a.m., later than usual since it was a Sunday. He read the day’s newspapers. The Times of India reported that more than ‘2.25 lakh VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] volunteers are poised to’ perform prayers right next to the Babri Masjid. The article quoted the VHP spokesman promise that ‘volunteers would not violate the court orders’.

The prime minister then spent thirty minutes walking on a specially installed treadmill. His personal physician, K. Srinath Reddy, arrived soon after. They chatted in Telugu and English, while Reddy took samples of Rao’s blood and urine.

 Since it was a Sunday, Reddy, a cardiologist at AIIMS hospital, spent the rest of the day at home with his family. At around noon, he switched on the television. Channels showed calm in Ayodhya—the three domes of Babri Masjid visible. At 12.20 p.m., Reddy saw live on television, the assault on the first dome by thousands of Hindu activists. By 1.55 p.m., the first dome had collapsed. Reddy watched, numb. His father, K.V. Raghunatha Reddy, was an inveterate socialist, and this had rubbed off on the son. Reddy remembers, ‘It was the worst day for Indian secularism.’

Almost immediately after, Reddy thought to himself, ‘The prime minister is a heart patient. How will he be feeling?’ A bypass surgery in 1990 had nearly caused Rao to retire from politics.

Commandoes guard Sri Krishna Janmasthan Temple in Mathura on December 6, 2014. Photo: UNI
Commandoes guard Sri Krishna Janmasthan Temple in Mathura on December 6, 2014. Photo: UNI

Reddy rushed to the prime minister’s office. Rao was standing when he entered, a gaggle of officials and politicians around him. They were all staring at the television. The third dome of the mosque had just fallen. ‘Why have you come now?’ Rao angrily asked Reddy. But the doctor insisted that his patient be examined. Rao moved to a small anteroom. ‘His mind was elsewhere,’ Reddy remembers, ‘but he was an obedient patient.’

Srinath Reddy checked the prime minister’s pulse and blood pressure. ‘As I expected, his heart was racing away . . . pulse was very fast . . . BP had risen. His face was glowering red, he was agitated.’ Dr Reddy gave Rao an extra dose of beta blocker, and left only when the PM had visibly calmed.

Twenty-three years later, Reddy recalls Rao’s physical state: ‘I am fairly convinced as a doctor that his personal reaction to the demolition was one of honest agitation. It is not that of a person who would have planned it or been complicit in it.’

‘The body does not lie.’ ….

 Narasimha Rao was born into an observant Brahmin family. He came of political age fighting against the Muslim ruler of Hyderabad state, where he worked alongside the Hindu Mahasabha, Arya Samaj and the communists. His guru, Ramananda Tirtha, exemplified these contradictions: he was a Hindu swami, communist and Congressman—all rolled into one. Rao’s entire life had been wrapped around morning pujas and yearly pilgrimages. In April 1991, two months before becoming prime minister, he had accepted the post of the religious head of a Hindu order in Courtallam. For some, this religious past opens Rao up to charges of being anti-Muslim.

There is no evidence for this accusation. It wasn’t just Rao who worked with Hindu groups during the liberation of Hyderabad in 1948; so had the entire state Congress. More than any Indian prime minister, Rao had grown up around Islam and Muslims. He was well read in Koranic text, and could speak Urdu and Persian better than he could Sanskrit. ‘There was no communalism in the man,’ his Muslim foreign secretary Salman Haidar says. ‘He was clean in heart.’

The difference lay in his idea of secularism. As Haidar puts it, ‘He was well aware of India’s communality.’ Unlike the westernized Jawaharlal Nehru, Rao did not see India as a nation of individuals but as a federation of caste and religious groups.

Rao’s Hindu self-identity also led him to a naïve portrait of the BJP. Rao had to fend off communists through his electoral career, never Hindu nationalists. On the other hand, Rao’s rival within the Congress, Arjun Singh, had battled with (and lost to) the BJP in his home state of Madhya Pradesh. In his memoirs, Arjun Singh recalls lying in a hospital bed in Bhopal when he heard Advani’s rath yatra pass by, its menacing slogans adding to his sense of siege. Rao had never had this ex-perience; he thought of the BJP as misguided Hindus rather than dangerous adversaries.

Rao was also blinded by personal chemistry. He was close to several BJP leaders, from Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Murli Manohar Joshi, to Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. The one leader Rao did not care for was L.K. Advani, at the time the BJP’s most prominent voice. Advani had fled Sindh in Pakistan during the partition of India. Unlike Rao, Advani was not a practising Hindu. As humourless as Vajpayee was jovial, he was also more disciplined. Advani’s organizational skills were almost solely responsible for the rapid rise of the BJP.

For Narasimha Rao, this rise represented less a visceral threat to secularism than a threat to the Hindu vote bank that had historically voted for the Congress. While he was worried that Muslims were leaving the Congress, he was equally concerned that the majority—upper- and backward-caste Hindus—were moving towards the BJP. ‘If only minorities vote for the Congress, how can we win?’ Rao said to a friend. In his book on Ayodhya, Rao blames Congressmen for a ‘subconscious inhibition that any expression of [Hindu] religious sentiment on our part, even if we felt it strongly, would be seen as “non-secular”. As a result, the BJP became the sole repository and protector of the Hin-du religion in the public mind.’

‘You have to understand,’ he once told an unconvinced Mani Shankar Aiyar, ‘this is a Hindu country.’

This belief in India’s Hinduness as well as his own led Rao to his master stroke (or so, he thought) in protecting the mosque without imposing Central rule.

As Indira and Rajiv’s chief negotiator with various dissident…  groups in the 1980s, Rao had specialized in backchannel talks, where pragmatic deals could be made away from the public glare. Starting in the middle of November 1992, prime minister Rao began similar backchannel talks with various Hindu groups, convincing them to protect the Babri mosque.

While these groups had a somewhat common agenda, they were distinct organizations with their own leaders. The BJP was the political face, while the RSS was a nominally apolitical organization, as were the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal. The Shiv Sena was an entirely separate political party…. Narasimha Rao—scholar of Hinduism—was confident he could convince them all.

Rao had personal relations with a number of swamis, from the Sringeri Shankaracharya to the Pejawar Swami. In addition, he deployed the Tamil Nadu Congressman R. Kumaramangalam to reach out to gurus from south India, while his astrologers N.K. Sharma and Chandraswami dealt with north Indian godmen…. Chandraswami remembers meeting Rao many times that November. ‘I took the Shankaracharya to meet the PM… also Acharya Ram Vilas Vedanti.’

In each of these meetings, Rao would press for an assurance that the Babri mosque would be unharmed. He would even break into Sanskrit and quote Hindu scriptures to make his point. A senior intelligence bureau official assisting Rao remembers being present. ‘They were frauds, some of them,’ he says. ‘I told the PM that these are men of straw.’

‘I am a Brahmin,’ Rao replied to this official. ‘I know how to deal with these people.’

Since Rao had studied in Nagpur, knew Marathi, and had represented nearby Ramtek in Parliament, he knew many RSS leaders…. Rao’s old friend Madhukar Dattatraya ‘Balasaheb’ Deoras, was the head of the RSS. Rao spoke to him on the phone many times that November. He also met with the RSS leader (and Deoras’s eventual successor) Raj-endra Singh. Singh, known as ‘Rajju bhaiya’, was less in the thrall of the prime minister. N.K. Sharma says, ‘Rajju bhaiya was a Thakur, so he was against Narasimha Rao.’

Rao also negotiated in secret with the VHP, whose messianic leader Ashok Singhal was an architect of the Ayodhya movement. Singhal came from a wealthy family of Allahabad, and lived close to Jawaharlal Nehru’s ancestral home. Their ideas of India, however, could not have been more different. Naresh Chandra recalls a meeting in 7 Race Course Road where Rao pressed Ashok Singhal to have more patience and not insist upon a showdown on 6 December. When Rao asked the BJP leader Bhairon Singh Shekhawat to speak to the VHP, Shekhawat confessed to Naresh Chandra that his efforts were not having much effect.

Finally, Rao spent much of November 1992 in secret meetings with the leadership of the BJP. Since Rao’s friend Vajpayee was less involved in the Ayodhya movement, Rao focused his attention on L.K. Advani—the party’s organisation man. If anyone in the BJP could protect the mosque, Rao felt, it was Advani. He asked B. Raman, from the spy agency RAW, for a ‘safe house’ where he could meet Advani in secret. Raman located a guest house that had been used by Rajiv Gandhi to meet the leadership of the Akali Dal right before Operation Blue Star in 1984.

On 18 November 1992, Rao met Advani for a secret conversation. In preparation for the meeting, the home ministry sent him a memo, asking Rao to clarify with Advani the ‘plans for the resumption of Kar Seva at Ayodhya from 6.12.1992’. The memo asked that the BJP postpone either the kar seva until the Supreme Court resolved the feud, or issue a public statement saying that the proposed temple would not be built on the disputed land. Rao also met with Kalyan Singh that day, and once again the day after, on 19 November…. P.V.R.K. Prasad remembers, ‘Around November 25th, Advani, Vajpayee and Kalyan Singh visited house number five on Race Course Road. The meeting was top secret. I was in the room then. They assured him the mosque would be intact.’

In parallel, the prime minister sought reassurance from Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the chief minister of Rajasthan who had been representing the BJP during the negotiations with Muslim groups. A courtly and courteous Rajput, Shekhawat prided himself as a man of his word. Rao and Shekhawat shared a medical doctor. On 2 December, this doctor walked into Rao’s home and—within earshot of several others—said, ‘Shekhawat sahib se baat ho gayi hai. All is good.’ Chandraswami too spoke with Shekhawat. ‘He said nothing will happen to the mosque. Narasimha Rao believed him. Even I believed that the mosque will not be broken.’

The contents of Rao’s meetings—with a constellation of religious and political Hindu leaders—have remained undisclosed until now…. He did not even mention them in his book on Ayodhya, published after his death. However, the fact that at least some meetings between the prime minister and Hindu groups occurred in November 1992 has made it to the press. They have been interpreted as proof that Rao had, what the legal scholar A.G. Noorani calls, a tacit ‘understanding’ with the BJP. The truth, unearthed here, reveals the opposite. Far from secretly conniving to demolish the mosque, Rao was, in fact, secretly conniving to protect it.

They also demonstrate his miscalculation. ‘All these people who were consulted had a heightened sense of their importance. Rao misjudged that,’ Naresh Chandra says. ‘The people who were really creating the problem were the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena,’ a home ministry official adds. But these were the two groups that Rao did not reach out to, in the belief that they could be controlled by his friends in the BJP, RSS and to a lesser extent, the VHP. As Jairam Ramesh puts it, ‘My own reading is that he overestimated his ability in dealing with these Hindu groups.’….

On the morning of 6 December 1992, Rao met Dr Srinath Reddy. He also met with his astrologer. ‘I cannot share what I said there,’ N.K. Sharma says….

Meanwhile, at 9.30 a.m., Madhav Godbole spoke to the head of the Central paramilitary forces in Ayodhya, telling him that if the state government required his help he did not have to wait for formal orders from the Central government. This sequence of events is chronicled in a clandestine note that Godbole sent Rao after 6 December. By 11.30 a.m., a large but peaceful crowd was being addressed by leaders of the BJP and VHP. Between 11.45 a.m. and 12 noon, the chief of police and administration for Ayodhya walked around the perimeter of the Babri Masjid. Everything was in order.

At about noon, a teenaged kar sevak jumped across the boundary and vaulted on top of the mosque dome. He was not stopped by any one of the policemen present. That first kar sevak was joined by thousands of others, who began chipping away at the domes. There was a galaxy of BJP leaders present who had spent the past year whipping up passion on the issue. L.K. Advani made requests on the public address system for the kar sevaks to come down. He was ignored.

Rao’s home telephone began to ring. ‘I called up Kumaramangalam immediately,’ Jairam Ramesh remembers. ‘Kumaramangalam said that Rao was not to be reached.’ Another Congressman called up the PM’s house. ‘Khandekar picked up. He told me that the prime minister was in his room. He did not want to be disturbed.’ Arjun Singh later claimed that he had tried to reach Rao at his house, but was told ‘. . . he has locked himself in his room and our directions are not to disturb him under any circumstances.’ Many other politicians called, none of whom could get through. This inability to reach Rao led to the rumour that the prime minister was sleeping while Babri was under attack. A senior journalist even claimed—on the basis of a conversation he claimed he had with a socialist politician who, in turn, claimed he had heard it from someone else, who, in turn, claimed he was witness to the fact—that Rao was doing puja when the mosque fell. Is there truth to these allegations?

That Rao was sleeping is verifiably false. From 12.15 p.m., when the first dome was under attack, Rao was on the phone with several of his officials. Naresh Chandra and Madhav Godbole were both in the home secretary’s office, monitoring developments. ‘The prime minister was being informed on a regular basis,’ Chandra says. The Cabinet secretary S. Rajgopal was also present….

Around 2 p.m., Rao was joined by a host of officials. Two of them, P.V.R.K. Prasad and the law secretary, P.C. Rao, later gave a press conference confirming this. P.C. Rao even listed other officials who could vouch for the fact that Rao was awake and monitoring the situation.

One might still wonder why Narasimha Rao refused to take calls from some politicians between 12 and 2 p.m.. Even though he was awake and on the phone with officials, why did he remain within his locked room?

A friend provides the answer. ‘I was with him in the room throughout,’ this person says. He was ‘normal until 12 [noon]. As he saw [what was happening] on TV…  for a few minutes he couldn’t talk. He was not speaking. He trusted all those people very much.’

‘After a few minutes,’ this person says, ‘he began calling. He called the DIB (director of the intelligence bureau, Vaidya), then (home minister) S.B. Chavan.’ ….

This testimony—along with the evidence of those whom Rao spoke to in those critical hours—is critical to disproving the myth of Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burnt. Why then has this friend of Rao not spoken in his defence?

‘He promised me to keep it a secret. He made me swear.’

As if to make up for lost time, Rao swung into action on 7 December. He met a series of Muslims leaders—who were all furious at his inability to protect the mosque. On 8 Dec-ember, his appointment diary shows, he met the Naib Imam, Jamma Masjid + 8’. Two days after, the Rao government banned the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal, declaring them as ‘unlawful’ organizations.

There was pressure on Rao to rebuild the mosque on the same spot. In another error of judgement, he decided not to. But he was not the only one who thought so. The minister of defence, Sharad Pawar, sent Rao a private memo on 12 December, cautioning against building the mosque on the same place. ‘If the masjid is rebuilt at the same site . . . [the] issue is likely to be exploited again and again for spearheading mass movements. In such a situation the minority community will have to continuously face insecurity and tension.’

There is no question that Rao made the wrong decision on Babri Masjid. He should have imposed President’s rule between 1 November and 24 November 1992. This decision would have been constitutionally suspect and politically fraught. The Supreme Court might have held the move illegal; the BJP would surely have brought a no-confidence motion in Parliament, Rao’s rivals in the Congress would have blamed him, and the prime minister might have lost his job. But it was a risk that should have been taken. The fall of Babri Masjid was an event that shook the foundations of independent India like few others. Many Indians woke up to a different country on 7 December, and still blame the prime minister of the day. History has judged Narasimha Rao harshly.

But this is a judgement made with the benefit of hindsight, after knowing how events unfolded on 6 December. Knowing only what Rao did before 6 December, what can we fairly accuse him of?

To accuse him of plotting the demolition is a lie, and will remain one until contrary evidence emerges—which it has not in the twenty-four years since. Not only is there no hard proof that Rao aided the conspiracy, there is plenty to indicate that he tried to protect the mosque through secret talks with Hindu leaders….

What then can Rao be legitimately criticized for?

book extract

His error was that, against the judgement of his officials (and, it must be admitted, Arjun Singh), Rao reposed his faith in members of the VHP, BJP, RSS and sundry Hindu gurus. To be fair to Rao, he began these informal talks only when he realized he had few formal options. But he should have known that people like L.K. Advani were either in on the conspiracy (as the Liberhan Commission says they were) or were riding a tiger they could not control. For a statesman with a preternatural instinct for his own weaknesses, Rao’s overconfidence in his ability to convince Hindu groups must go down as a serious failure of judgement.

Rao’s desperation to protect his own minority government also clouded his instincts. Salman Khurshid says, ‘The tragedy about Rao sahib is that his attempt to do consensus building is what destroyed him.’ This ‘consensus building’ was driven by Narasimha Rao’s interest in appeasing both the Hindu as well as Muslim vote bank, instead of a single-minded focus on protecting the mosque. Rao wanted to protect the mosque and protect Hindu sentiments and protect himself. He ended up with the mosque destroyed, Hindus unattracted to the Congress, and his own reputation in tatters….

It led to the killing of many innocents, mainly Muslims, in the riots that followed. It also symbolized for many the passing of Nehruvian secularism.

But that demise was not caused by the destruction of a disused mosque…. It stemmed from the rise of the BJP. As long as the mosque stood, the BJP could play on the Hindu humiliation they claimed it symbolized, and rise from a party with two seats in 1984 to 120 seats in 1991.

In the final analysis, therefore, the enduring political victim of the Babri demolition was Narasimha Rao himself. Some of this was his doing, much of it deliberate defamation by his own party. As Narasimha Rao put it…  in his book on the events of 6 December, ‘…those responsible for the vandalism had got not only the Babri Masjid demolished, but along with the Babri Masjid it was me whom they were trying to demolish.’



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