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Ayodhya Part 5: Mandal’s Caste & Quota vs BJP’s Rath & Ram

Advani’s 1990 rath yatra was a political masterstroke to mobilize kar sevaks for a Ram Mandir and to counter Mandal.

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Ayodhya Part 5: Mandal’s Caste & Quota vs BJP’s Rath & Ram
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(This article was originally published on 6 December 2015. To mark 30 years since the demolition of the Babri Masjid, we are republishing this from The Quint's archives.)

The Quint retraces the events that led to the demolition of the disputed structure in this seven-part documentary series.

A day before he was to kickstart the 10,000 kilometer Rath Yatra, Advani received an audio cassette from Manoj Kumar, the actor. On it, was a song by Lata Mageshkar that became the de facto anthem of his chariot march. The song was from a popular Hindi film starring Nutan and its lyrics just happened to meet the need of the hour.

The mission, as BJP President LK Advani chose to accept, was to undertake an extensive mass contact programme from the Somnath Temple in Gujarat to “Ram Janmabhoomi” Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.

The Somnath Temple was a particularly coveted target for Mahmood Ghazni - a Turkish Sultan who plundered India seventeen times in a span of twenty-five years in AD 1001-26. The decision to pick the ‘Hindus only’ temple was heavy with religious and political symbolism.

In his autobiography, ‘My Country, My Life’, Advani traces the history of the restoration and rebuilding of the Somnath Temple. The Nawab of Junagadh defected to Pakistan leaving the Hindu-dominated province to India. The proposal to rebuild the temple was met with resistance from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad but Sardar Patel assumed an uncompromising stand on the matter and the proposal received the approval of the Nehru Cabinet.

In a position to exert some influence at the Centre, the BJP hoped to repeat history in Ayodhya.

Ruins of the Somnath Temple photographed in 1869. (Photo Courtesy: Tata Building India) 
Gold-plated pillars of the Somnath Temple. (Photo: Reuters)

Politics of Caste & Quota

On August 7, 1990 Prime Minister VP Singh accepted the Mandal Commission Report which had been lying in cold storage for ten years. The commission was constituted by the Morarji Desai government and given two extensions by the Indira Gandhi government “to determine the criteria for defining the socially and educationally backward classes”and “to recommend steps for their advancement.”

The Mandal commission recommended 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes at all levels of government service. In effect, it meant 52% of the country’s population at the time was eligible for reservation in government institutions and departments.

A large section of the upper caste Hindu and minority students rose in protest against the government’s decision.


The Rath

On September 12 1990, the BJP President LK Advani called for a press conference at the 11 Ashoka Road party office and announced his decision to join the VHP’s kar sewa for a Ram Mandir on October 30.

The original plan, according to LK Advani, was to visit few villages in some states on foot and whip up support for a Ram Mandir. Advani shared the plan with his close confidante Pramod Mahajan who pointed out that going on foot would slow the procession down. “A jeep yatra then?”, Advani asked.

Advani’s Rath Yatra was stopped a week before he could be part of VHP’s kar seva in Ayodhya. (Photo: The Quint)

But Mahajan had something a little more theatrical in mind and an air-conditioned Toyota mini-bus was redesigned to look like an ornate chariot that would traverse eight states and the union territory of Delhi.

Up until now, the BJP had remained nuanced in its opposition to the 27% reservation for OBCs. But as a relatively new Hindu nationalist party it could not afford to spurn its developing upper caste Hindu support base in North India.


Anti-Mandal Protests

On September 19, 1990, a commerce student at Delhi University’s Deshbandhu college, Rajiv Goswami, led a protest march to Delhi’s AIIMS intersection, poured oil over himself and lit a match.

Goswami was rushed to the Burns Ward of the Safdarjung hospital which was right across the road. He survived the self-immolation bid with serious damage to his liver and kidneys, which ultimately led to his demise in February 2004.

The otherwise busy crossing, was unofficially renamed ‘Rajiv Chowk’.

Rajiv Goswami died of complications brought on years after he set fire to himself. (Photo Courtesy: Chalu Purza)

News of the self-immolation bid further enraged students who engaged with the police in what several publications described as a Tiananmen Square-like protest at Delhi’s Vijay Chowk. The violence was fast spreading to other cities and VP Singh’s continuance as Prime Minister looked increasingly untenable.

LK Advani was among the long list of VIPs who tried to visit Rajiv Goswami in hospital. Agitated anti-Mandal students did not allow the BJP President to even reach Goswami’s hospital bed. After the incident, the BJP ditched the nuance and specified its stand against Mandal.

BJP had secured 85 seats in the 1989 General Election and were finally in a position to influence national politics. (Photo: Reuters)

The Yatra

On September 25 1990, Advani prayed at Somnath and kicked off the Rath Yatra. BJP General Secretary and Chief Strategist KN Govindacharya monitored the Yatra from Delhi. Preparations in Guajrat were handled by Shankersinh Vaghela and Narendra Modi. The Bajrang Dal ensured that crowds showed up accessorised with six-inch long tridents, which they insisted were symbolic and well under the size limit stated in the Arms Act. And Pramod Mahajan, who accompanied Advani, co-ordinated media interactions through the Yatra.

In his speeches, Advani projected Mandal as a ploy to divide the Hindu community. In effect, the Rath Yatra would project the BJP as an anti-Janta Dal, anti-Congress option that intended to unite Hindus not just on religious, but also political grounds.

This plunged the VP Singh government, that was already wracked by rumours of a rebellion on Rajiv Gandhi’s instigation, further into a state of uncertainty.

Slogan painted on the back of Advani’s rath read, “Go forward, we are with you. Progress towards a temple, we will be your hands”. (Photo: Screen grab/Ram Ke Naam)

The reported communal violence that followed Advani’s Rath Yatra in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana, was downplayed or denied by the BJP.

The VP Singh government, mindful of the adverse impact of the yatra on his government, did not move in to arrest Advani. Fear of a communal backlash in an already polarised atmosphere could have forced the PM to exercise restraint.

Instead, he held negotiations with his coalition partner BJP and its affiliates – the VHP and the RSS to reach some consensus on the unwavering demand for a Ram Mandir at the exact spot where Babri Masjid stood.

In the midst of these talks, on October 30, 1990, Advani reached Delhi. When the talks failed, Advani resumed the yatra and reached Bihar.


The Arrest

First-time Bihar Chief Minister and Janta Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav had warned Advani to turn back his Rath to Delhi. (Photo: Screemgrab/Ram Ke Naam)

On October 23, 1990 Advani addressed a mammoth rally at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan and after holding meetings at Hajipur and Tajpur, reached the Samastipur circuit house at 2:30 am. Paramilitary forces were deployed early in the morning, the air-strip was readied and phone lines from Bihar to the rest of the country were temporarily snapped.

At 6 AM, RK Singh knocked on Advani’s door and showed him an arrest warrant. Before being taken away, he wrote a letter to the President informing him of the BJP’s decision to withdraw support to the VP Singh government.

R.K Singh (now a BJP MP from Ara) had been directed by Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav to arrest Advani. (Photo: Screen grab/Ram Ke Naam)

Not only did Advani’s rath yatra set in motion the wheels for the ultimate desecration at Babri Masjid two years later, it also defined the country’s politics. It did away with the notion of secularism and created a “nationalist” and “secular” goalpost, the definitions of which continue to evolve even today.

Cameraperson: Siddharth Safaya

Editor: Hitesh Singh

Producer: Esha Paul

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