Ayodhya Part 3: Ram Mandir First Politicised by Congress
How the BJP had to claim the Ram Mandir movement from Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress in the 1980s
The Quint retraces the events that led to the demolition of the disputed structure in this seven-part documentary series.
The Meenakshipuram Conversions
On 19 February 1981, two hundred dalit families in Meenakshipuram village in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu converted to Islam. A collective spontaneous decision, according to a SC/ST welfare report, it was prompted by years of oppression by the landed Thevar community. The village which earlier had only two Muslim families was renamed Rahmat Nagar.
Around Rs 40,000 was collected for the mass conversion ceremony, which turned into a rallying point for Hindu nationalist organisations. Religious and cultural organisations like the Arya Samaj and Vishwa Hindu Parishad made their way to Rahmat Nagar, while more militant ones like the Hindu Munnani came into existence. The BJP raked up the issue in Parliament and demanded the source of these funds be investigated by the CBI. In fact, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was among the several BJP, and Sangh Parivar leaders who visited the otherwise nondescript village.
Keepers of Hindu Morality Rattled
On 7-8 April 1984, VHP’s Ashok Singhal organised a Dharam Sansad, or a religious parliament at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan. Around 500 sadhus from across the country gathered and agreed that the Meenakshipuram conversions were indicative of “the manner in which Hinduism is currently functioning is not acceptable to a large number of people.”
It is here, for the first time, that building a Ram Mandir was listed as an objective to promote and preserve the Hindu dharma.
In September 1984, the VHP followed up its Dharam Sansad with a bike rally that ended at the banks of the Sarayu river in Ayodhya. VHP activists pledged to rebuild a Ram Mandir by mobilising Hindus from across the country. The kar sevaks were to lay the foundation for a Mandir on 31 October 1984, but news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination thwarted that plan.
In December 1984, Rajiv Gandhi was elected Prime Minister of the country in a historic election which gave him three-fourth majority in the Parliament. The Congress won 404 seats in a 533 strong Lower House. The BJP, incidentally, debuted with 2 seats.
If the politicisation of the Ayodhya movement was inadvertent due to the Meenakshipuram conversions, the Rajiv Gandhi government’s handling of the Shah Bano verdict was a calculated move that paid little dividend.
The Shah Bano Case
By mid-1984, Rajiv Gandhi was struggling to find his feet, while balancing what was fast evolving into a communal tug-of-war.
On 23 April 1985, a 62-year old Muslim woman Shah Bano won the right to alimony in the Supreme Court. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi welcomed the judgement at first, but in May 1986 he was forced to bow down to pressure from the Muslim clergy. They wanted to reserve the right to enforce their religious law and the Congress government obliged by passing The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986, which aimed to undermine the Supreme Court ruling.
As expected, the BJP and other Hindu organisations mounted their offensive against Rajiv Gandhi’s “appeasement politics”.
Politicisation of the Ayodhya Movement
The Congress’ ability to cater to both sides, because of its political might in the Parliament, and the Babri Masjid Action Committee’s nation-wide activities were bound to put pressure on the BJP’s nationalist credentials. During it’s 1989 Convention in Palampur, the party reiterated:
The National Executive of the BJP regards the current debate on the Ramjanmabhoomi issue as one which has dramatically highlighted the callous unconcern which the Congress party in particular, and the other political parties in general, betray towards the sentiments of the overwhelming majority in this country – the Hindus
This proved to be a turning point in the politicisation of the Ayodhya movement.
With the Palampur resolution, the BJP picked a goalpost and gave political legitimacy to a religious movement, forcing the Congress to play ball in the 1989 General Election, and endorse the Ram Mandir foundation stone laying (Shilanyas) at Ayodhya.
A series of political miscalculations by Rajiv Gandhi would lead the BJP to completely hijack the Ayodhya movement, and launch a Rath Yatra. The party would eventually raise its strength in the Parliament from two, to 85, to 120 seats.
Cameraperson: Siddharth Safay
Video Editor: Kunal Mehra
Producer: Esha Paul
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