Raising the pitch in the run-up to the UP Assembly polls, Rahul Gandhi today said that had anyone from the Gandhi family been active in 1992, the Babri Masjid demolition would have never taken place.
Speaking to reporters on the way from Meerut to Deoband in the Muslim heartland of UP, Gandhi said: “Had anyone from the Gandhi family been active then, it would not have happened at all. I have heard my father telling my mother that he would have stood in front of the masjid to protect it.”
“Since 1991, the Congress has not fought elections in UP in a proper fashion. But this time we are going to do that.”
And addressing students at Deoband’s Islamic seminary, Rahul reminded them of his family’s heritage. “I am blind to caste and religion. I see everyone as Hindustani… If one Hindustani tries to harm another, I promise I will come in between. Please remember that I am the grandson of Indira Gandhi,” he told the audience.
Though aimed at garnering crucial Muslim votes in the Assembly elections, his remark that the Babri Masjid demolition would not have taken place if a Gandhi had been active in politics then betrays both ignorance of history and a dynastic arrogance that smack of political immaturity.
Since the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 took place when the P V Narasimha Rao government was ruling at the Centre, Rahul’s comments are a direct indictment of his own party and its erstwhile prime minister. Several senior Congress leaders at that time were critical of Rao’s perceived inaction that facilitated the demolition on that “Black Sunday.”
But none, including Arjun Singh, quit the party over the demolition. As such, it was a collective failure of the Congress and the Central government. To distance his family from the party at this stage and give the impression that only the Gandhi family was the custodian of secular values which the party did not uphold is unlikely to help the Congress’s overall image — and as such is bad politics.
But it is also skewed history because well before Narasimha Rao took over power, it was the Rajiv Gandhi regime’s flirtation with “soft Hindutva” that helped the Ramjanmabhoomi campaign launched by the RSS-VHP-combine from the mid-1980s.
In fact, apart from December 6, 1992, two other dates are significant in the bitter Babri Masjid-Ramjanmbhoomi dispute that eventually led to the demolition. The first is February 1, 1986 when the locks of Babri Masjid were opened to allow Hindus to worship the Ram Lalla idol in its precincts. The Faizabad court order allowing the opening of the locks and the Central government’s decision to overturn the Supreme Court verdict on the Shah Bano case by adopting the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill in May 1986 were widely seen as twin initiatives of the Rajiv regime to appease fundamentalist elements in both communities, a balancing act of sorts that backfired badly.
Both the decisions gave a big fillip to the Hindutva forces — if the Shah Bano issue gave the BJP ammunition to accuse the Congress of “Muslim appeasement”, the opening of the locks played a crucial role in whipping up the VHP’s campaign for the “liberation” of Ramjanmabhoomi and the construction of a “grand temple” at the site of the mosque.
The second important date in the Ayodhya saga is November 9, 1989. By that time, the VHP-led movement had acquired a great deal of momentum. But instead of confronting or countering the campaign, the Rajiv Gandhi government once again sought to compromise with the Hindutva forces. Reeling under the Bofors crisis, a beleaguered Rajiv Gandhi allowed the assorted sants and sadhus mobilized by the VHP to perform “shilanyas” (foundation laying ceremony) for the Ram temple on disputed land that was dubiously declared to be undisputed. With the general elections just a few days away, the Rajiv government dispatched Union Home Minister Buta Singh to Ayodhya and the “shilanyas” took place under his “supervision.”
Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic assassination in May 1990 and Sonia Gandhi’s refusal to formally join politics temporarily removed the Gandhis from the helm of the Congress. It is a matter of speculation, therefore, whether the Babri Masjid would have survived if either had been leader at the time. As for Rajiv Gandhi’s reported remark to Sonia that he would protect Babri Masjid with his life, it can only be regarded as a private conversation that is unlikely to cut much ice today since he gave no such public assurance throughout the late Eighties when the dispute was at its height.
By raking up the Babri Masjid issue at this stage, Rahul Gandhi may actually end up doing a disservice to the party. The rift between the Muslim community and the Congress has healed in recent years — although the Congress may not be able to take advantage of this in view of its organizational weakness in UP — and Sonia Gandhi’s secular credentials remain particularly sound among the minorities.
But even a cursory study of Congress politics shows that the Nehru-Gandhi family cannot be seen as an ideological monolith and different members of the family have pursued different sets of politics. Indira Gandhi flirted with Hindutva in her second term in office from 1980-84. Rajiv Gandhi’s 1989 election campaign (believed to be masterminded by Arun Nehru who eventually joined the BJP) focused on the “nation in danger” theme and though its target was Sikh extremism, it evoked a great response from Hindutva-minded sections. And his years in office were marked by periodic compromises that helped the revival of the RSS-BJP.
Sonia Gandhi, since she took over as party chief, has tried to substantially restore the Congress’s Nehruvian secularism. But Rahul Gandhi’s claim on behalf of the entire Gandhi family may only revive memories of the Congress’s own soft Hindutva under Indira and Rajiv to the detriment of the current politics and interests of the party.
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