Temple Rerun: Tracing Ram Rath Yatra, 25 years later

On Sept 25, 1990, L K Advani took off from Somnath temple on a rath yatra for Ayodhya, on the agenda of building the Ram mandir — changing the course of BJP and of the country’s politics.

Updated: September 27, 2015 7:24 am

On a cool, breezy September 25, a holiday due to Eid, the Somnath temple is buzzing. Priests in bright-yellow kurtas and red dhotis are waiting for visitors coming through security checks. They are mostly locals, apart from some women from Kerala and Bengal. A fibreglass statue of a seated Lord Shiva peeps over the high compound wall. Water representing the Ganga was supposed to flow from Shiva’s matted hair, but the project didn’t take off.

Down a corridor to the side is a photo exhibition of the Somnath temple in ruins, before it was reconstructed. Few venture that side.

A prominent black-and-white board at the entrance also draws little attention. ‘This is a pilgrimage for Hindus,’ the board says. ‘Non-Hindus will be allowed only after permission from the general manager.’

bharatiya janata party, BJP rath Yatra, LK Advani, Advani rath yatra, 1990 bjp rath yatra, ayodhya ram temple, RSS, Keshubhai Patel, somnath temple, gujarat news, india news, latest news Veteran BJP leader LK Advani at the Rath Yatra in 1990. Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra was timed to cover 10,000 km from here to reach Ayodhya on October 30, to coincide with the BJP’s proposed kar seva. (Source: Express archive photo)

There are no politicians around, nor any politics. Little to remind that it was from here, this day exactly 25 years ago, that L K Advani set off on his Ram Rath Yatra for Ayodhya, setting the course for the BJP, changing the politics of the country, and paving the way for the then unknown “backroom manager” of this enterprise, Narendra Modi.

Advani, who used to visit Somnath every year on September 25 — the day chosen for being the birth anniversary of Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay — stopped it after 2010, the year the Allahabad High Court gave its verdict on the disputed Ayodhya Ramjanmabhoomi site. “After this judgment, he felt, ‘My stand stands vindicated’. So the yearly ritual came to an end,” says a source close to Advani.

A year earlier, Advani had been dealt a humiliating defeat in the general elections by the UPA — marking the beginning of the end of his control on the party.

In the temple town of Prabhas Patan too, where Somnath is located, time has clearly moved on.

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Modi last visited Somnath in February 2014, just before he began the Lok Sabha election campaign, when he performed puja and inaugurated the golden garbha griha.

On Friday, the only person from the BJP who returned to the Somnath temple to celebrate 25 years of the Ram Rath Yatra was Mukund Kulkarni, the office secretary of the Maharashtra BJP who was one of the leaders constantly by the side of late BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan in planning the yatra.

He came with photographer Mohan Bane. “We did darshan and puja and returned to Mumbai,” Kulkarni told The Sunday Express.

***

As one drives into Prabhas Patan town, the familiar ‘Jai Shri Krishna’ greeting takes a backseat to ‘Jai Somnath’. These were the two words, as anyone familiar with Somnath history will tell you, that then deputy prime minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel wrote in his telegram to the dewan of Junagadh State Shahnawaz Bhutto, father of Pakistan’s late prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, confirming the State’s accession to the Indian Union.

Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra was timed to cover 10,000 km from here to reach Ayodhya on October 30, to coincide with the BJP’s proposed kar seva.

bharatiya janata party, BJP rath Yatra, LK Advani, Advani rath yatra, 1990 bjp rath yatra, ayodhya ram temple, RSS, Keshubhai Patel, somnath temple, gujarat news, india news, latest news A view of the Somnath Temple in Gujarat. (Source: Express photo by Javed Raja)

In his book My Country My Life, Advani writes, “The choice of Somnath as the starting point of the yatra had a powerful symbolic value, made evident by repeated references to it as the target of Muslim tyranny against the Hindus. The intention was to contextualise Ayodhya in the historical lineage of Muslim aggression and then to seek legitimacy for Mandir movement by drawing a parallel. The parallel the Sangh Parivar drew was with the reconstruction of the Somnath temple.”

However, that’s not the only story of Somnath that counts for the Sangh Parivar. The temple’s reconstruction also pitted one of the Parivar’s mascots, Sardar Patel, against the Nehruvian brand of secularism it opposes. Patel announced the temple’s reconstruction soon after Independence. After Patel died, the reconstructed temple was inaugurated by President Rajendra Prasad, who had also clashed with Nehru over “Hindu issues”.

The Somnath Assembly seat has 20 per cent Muslim voters, among the highest in constituencies across Gujarat, the rest largely OBCs. Then young men, the BJP leaders who had been the part of the yatra in 1990, remember it for “uniting Hindus” of the region. Women donated gold bangles in Ahmedabad to help build the Ram temple, recalls veteran RSS leader Pravin Maniar. Bapunagar-based Popatlal Soni put a tilak with his blood on Advani’s forehead, says former MLA Bharat Pandya.

They also have few doubts that the yatra is the reason the BJP is where it is today.

***

bharatiya janata party, BJP rath Yatra, LK Advani, Advani rath yatra, 1990 bjp rath yatra, ayodhya ram temple, RSS, Keshubhai Patel, somnath temple, gujarat news, india news, latest news The ancient pillar at the Somnath temple premises, pointing seawards states that the path beginning from the pillar, stretches till the South Pole, without any obstruction. (Source: Express photo by Javed Raja)

Yogendrasinh Padhiyar, the director of the Gujarat Pavitra Yatra Vikas Dham Board (for development of pilgrimage sites), was 20 years old at the time. He remembers Advani coming to their home in Junagadh. His father Narsinh Padhiyar was in charge of the yatra till Jetpur in Rajkot district.

Narsinh later quit the BJP to join Shankersinh Vaghela’s Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP), but returned later. “The BJP is still reaping the fruits of this yatra. Look where Narendrabhai is,” says Narsinh.

Yogendrasinh recalls that before that, as the Congress won election after election, “we would celebrate the gain of a few hundred votes”.

Vaghela, who had a bitter falling out with the BJP, now leads a struggling Congress in the Gujarat Assembly. He claims he was perhaps the first BJP leader to whom Advani confessed his plans of a yatra. “He met me in the Parliament lobby and, swearing me to secrecy, asked, ‘If I were to take out such a yatra, how many people would gather?’. I said over 5,000, surprising him.”

Sitting at his large home in Gandhinagar, Vaghela, who was present in the ‘rath’ when Advani started on the yatra, admits, “The BJP benefited hugely because of the polarisation.”

A former MLA from north Gujarat describes the yatra as a “medium to connect with the people”, in an age where there was no Internet or mobile phones.

Dattaji Chirandas, an Andhra migrant who used to head the BJP’s ‘Migrants’ Community Cell’, planned the yatra with Narendra Modi in its Ahmedabad leg. Gujarat was already a “successful laboratory”, with the BJP having won some local bodies by the time the yatra started, he says. “The BJP gained heavily after it. Its Lok Sabha tally went up to 120 in 1991 from 85, and it got Gujarat in 1995… We got Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Karnataka.”

Chirandas had also revolted with Vaghela but returned within two years to the BJP.

Pravin Tank, who split from the BJP with Vaghela and is now president of the Congress’s Junagadh unit, says he was in-charge of “chai-naashta” during the yatra. “When Advaniji was arrested in Samastipur, Bihar (bringing the yatra to an abrupt halt on October 23, 1990), we went on a riot, burnt buses and got arrested,” he says.

Gir Somnath district BJP president Zaveribhai Thakrar, a former RSS functionary, remembers they had planned a public meeting for Advani in Veraval on the evening before the Rath Yatra.

It was Modi who dissuaded them, he remembers. “Narendrabhai was annoyed. He said, ‘You want to steal the thunder from tomorrow’s event or what?’. That gave us an insight into Modi’s farsightedness and strategising abilities,” Thakrar says.

Advani eventually flew in on the morning of September 25, and the yatra took off around 11 am.

Jayantilal Barot, Chairman of the Gujarat Backward Classes Development Corporation, who planned the Gujarat leg of the yatra, says Modi, then the national general secretary, was responsible for the logistics, crowd mobilisation, and the arrangements to ensure there were no problems in Advani’s way. Thakrar recalls Modi staying eight nights at the Veraval Circuit House making the arrangements.

Everyone also remembers him playing a strictly backstage role. “He did not make any speeches.”

***

Since 1990, the Somnath Assembly seat has largely remained with Jasha Barad, now a junior minister in the Anandiben Patel government, who has won it irrespective of the party he has been affiliated to (including the BJP, Congress and Vaghela’s short-lived RJP). Barad had been one of the active mobilisers during the yatra.

Barad’s strength lies in being a Karadiya Rajput, an OBC community that’s dominant in the constituency. But he also claims to have the support of Muslims and other OBC castes. Besides, he says, he is a “grassroots man”, “always among the public”.

Former Rajkot MLA Dr Shanta Chavda was Congress general secretary at the time of the Ram Rath Yatra. She says the yatra “misled the people, luring them in the name of god”.

“Advani wanted a platform and he got it. The Congress could have also used Sardar’s name and derived political benefits, but we never thought it proper to divide people,” says Chavda.

Among the BJP old-timers, there is distinct sadness at the sidelining of Advani. “We are not happy with what happened to Advani. The chaadar episode (Advani’s Pakistan tour where he went to Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum) was used to defame him. If a leader came from another country, he does go to Rajghat to place a wreath, doesn’t he?” says Chirandas.

The Ram Mandir agenda too is now on the backburner. Fifty-two-year-old Tank, the Congressman who was then with the BJP, says their struggle was in vain. “We went from house to house collecting Re 1-Rs 2, bricks to build the temple, put our lives at risk. Where is the temple?” he says.

Barad, the Minister of State for Agriculture and Civil Aviation, disagrees that there is any regret in the BJP about this. “The movement did raise people’s expectations, but this is a democracy. We go by constitutional provisions and now the case is in the Supreme Court.”

There have been other changes. The party which grew by drawing youths from the RSS now conducts mass membership drives. Among Gujarat state ministers barely half have RSS roots.

Narsinh as well as Dattaji Chirandas, who too went with Vaghela only to return to the BJP, lament this change in the nature of the party. Says Narsinh, “We left to follow Shankersinh because we thought he did not get what he deserved in the BJP.” They returned to the BJP after he decided to align with the Congress.

Other leaders with roots in the RSS say the “service aspect is gone” and people today join the BJP for personal gains. “We used to recruit people judging them by their social and professional standing. Now we do the praveshotsav (admission) first and later the gunotsav (evaluation),” says the ex-MLA from north Gujarat who handled membership drives for the party in 2004 and 2009.

Hemaben Acharya, who joined the Jana Sangh in 1952, later became a minister, and was a participant in the yatra in Junagadh, recalls how the smallest worker counted back then. “We joined the party for maan (respect), not maal (wealth). Today the BJP is a mass party, those days it was a party of workers. While it is true that without power you cannot achieve much, and may not appeal to people, but that too is necessary.”

Vaghela’s was the first revolt in the Gujarat BJP, when he quit to form the RJP with over 40 MLAs in 1997, and became the chief minister with Congress support. He says the state BJP is no longer what it used to be. “When I was in the BJP, everyone had freedom. If I would decide a candidate, Keshubhai would agree — no consultation needed. We never went to Delhi to seek clearance,” he says.

Barot, the Gujarat Backward Classes Development Corporation chairman, believes the party lost some of its strength with Vaghela’s exit. “His role in strengthening the party was huge. He was a visionary, and brought everyone into the party,” says the former Rajya Sabha MP.

Chandrakant Sompura (73), the sculptor whose grandfather Prabhashankar designed the Somnath temple at the time of its reconstruction, is among those waiting for work to begin on the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Chandrakant, who was hired by the VHP to design the Ayodhya temple, remembers going to the disputed site and taking measurements with his steps, “because we were not allowed to take in any instruments”. The Somnath temple, he adds, was built on a budget of Rs 10-15 crore. “The Ayodhya temple today will easily cross Rs 100 crore.”

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With assets now totalling Rs 103 crore, the Somnath temple is the mainstay of the modest Prabhas Patan town. Heavy showers can snap off power connection from Veraval, the district headquarters of Gir Somnath, to the town for hours. But the temple continues to glow in floodlights fed by a special line, which derives power from a sub-station built on land donated by the temple trust.

Modi regularly attended the meetings of the Shree Somnath Trust after becoming a member in 2010. Development of the temple got a major boost after his government inducted it into the tourist circuit and promoted it as part of the Khushboo Gujarat Ki promotions, anchored by superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

The flow of devotees to the temple is highest during the month of Shravan and Mondays. But the Patidar agitation has impacted the tourist flow this year. “For the last two-three years, the footfalls have been low, because of problems in the state and unreliable weather conditions,” says the temple’s oldest trustee, J D Parmar, a retired Somnath University professor of Sanskrit.

It was former PM Morarji Desai, then the chairman of the Shree Somnath Trust, who had inducted him in 1975. “He felt there should be someone from the Scheduled Caste,” says Parmar.

Another tall BJP leader who now sits on the sidelines, Keshubhai Patel, is the current head of the Trust. He points out with pride that the temple does not believe in “untouchability”.

Five months ago though, the temple restricted entry of “non-Hindus”. Former Gujarat chief secretary and now temple trustee Pravin Laheri says the decision was taken “only to avoid conflict”. A temple source says, “After the sound and light show was started, people from the neighbourhood (Somnath has a large Muslim population) would also come to watch, and there would be arguments over the narrative.”

Vijaysinh Chavda, the temple general manager, clarifies, “Non-Hindus can go inside the temple with an escort, after registering their names. So there is really no bar on entry.”

After a heightened threat perception in 2011, the temple security was increased to 125 personnel, headed by a DSP-ranking officer. R L Solanki, the current DSP, says that for security reasons, a wall has been raised between the Arabian Sea and the temple. The point where Sardar Patel vowed to rebuild Somnath, since dubbed Vallabh Ghat, is now inaccessible, hidden behind a police picket.

Nearby, a carved stone pillar has an arrow piercing through a stone globe and pointing into the ocean. An inscription says the arrow shows ‘The light path stretching without obstruction up to the South Pole over the end of the ocean’. The globe rests on a lotus.

bharatiya janata party, BJP rath Yatra, LK Advani, Advani rath yatra, 1990 bjp rath yatra, ayodhya ram temple, RSS, Keshubhai Patel, somnath temple, gujarat news, india news, latest news A picture of the old Somnath Temple . (Source: Somnath Temple Trust)

‘Satyayug’ to ‘Kaliyug’

Ancient texts say Somnath temple was first built by Raja Somraj in gold in the Satyayug, then by Raavan in silver in Tretayug, in wood by Krishna in Dwaparyug, and finally in stone by Bhimdev Solanki in Kaliyug. Archaeological findings indicate the temple was rebuilt at least three times before Mahmud Ghaznavi’s raid in 1026. It was later attacked thrice more.

On November 13, 1947, Deputy PM Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel vowed to rebuild Somnath (the temple in ruins above). Architect Prabhashankar Sompura was picked, and limestone quarried from Chorwad (28 km from Somnath) was used for constructing the temple in the ‘Nagar’ architectural style. This style connects structures without the use of metal.

The temple was inaugurated on May 11, 1950, by President Rajendra Prasad. In 1970, a statue of Patel was inaugurated by Satya Sai Baba in the temple precinct.

Currently, the Shree Somnath Trust is building a Ram temple 2 km from Somnath. The temple has a land bank of 1,000 acres, of which 400 acres are in Diu.

The govt should not get into building Ram temple: Keshubhai Patel

Once one of the tallest BJP leaders in Gujarat, till he was brushed aside amidst the rise of Narendra Modi, Keshubhai Patel has now retired from active politics. However, one crucial position he continues to hold is the chairmanship of the Shree Somnath Trust, which maintains the temple, and which has L K Advani and Modi among its members. Last week, in a move that could not have gone unnoticed in the state BJP, which is battling the Patel agitation, he attended a meeting of the Junagadh Leuva Patidar Samaj. Excerpts from an interview:

What do you remember of the 1990 Ram Rath Yatra?

I don’t recall much. When Advani started from here, I was also at Somnath. We gave the rath a send-off, after that I don’t know much…

When did Advani and Modi become members of the Somnath trust?

There was a vacancy, and I requested Advaniji, who used to come here every year, to become a trustee. First he refused. Then I told him there is sacrifice and history associated with this temple, and he was convinced. Five years ago, there was another vacancy, and we called Narendrabhai Modi. The trust meetings are usually held in Gandhinagar, but now Narendrabhai does not have time, so the last meeting was in Delhi.

Do you think the Somnath temple has got its due?

No, not as much as it deserves. We got a little help from the Centre, but it does not compensate for its rich history.

What are your plans for the temple?

In 2004, the temple’s assets stood at Rs 5-7 crore. Now we have Rs 103 crore worth of assets, including donations. We are building a Ram temple with the donations. Donors from Delhi, Surat and Mumbai are supporting the gold-plating of the sanctum sanctorum. Eventually the entire temple will be gold-plated. The Ram mandir should be completed in a year.

Do you still support the BJP’s stated goal of building a Ram temple in Ayodhya?

There should be a Devasthan trust building it. The government should not get into it.