December 22, 1949. In the dead of a dark, cold night in Ayodhya, the idol of Lord Ram appears in the structure called Babri Masjid. It creates a sensation in the twin cities of Ayodhya and Faizabad, and the ripples are felt across the then United Province (UP).
But it doesn’t get much coverage in the national media. No one had anticipated that more than half-a-century later, the stone foundation ceremony for a grand Ram Temple would take place at the same spot after enormous political churning and long-standing legal wrangles.
Before December 22, 1949, there had been rumbles in Ayodhya about ‘Babri’ having been erected at the birthplace of Lord Ram by a Mughal invader Babar in the 15th century, but it did not yield much churn outside the United Province.
The mysterious appearance of ‘Lord Rama’ idol at the structure, however, would later prove to be a rite of passage - politically, socially and religiously - in many ways.
After the assasination of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, the Congress was reeling under the factional battle within the party. One group of Hindu conservatives was led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and the other, left-liberal secularists were shepherded by Jawaharlal Nehru.
The then chief minister of UP, Govind Ballabh Pant, was a staunch Patel loyalist and, to sideline the Nehru faction in the biggest province of India, he sided with Hindu revivalists for political windfall and personal glory.
In the middle of 1948, a by-election took place in Faizabad. During the polls, Pant issued a clarion call to Hindus to vanquish his arch rival Acharya Narendra Dev, who was a socialist.
To attack the atheist Dev, who had the support of Muslims in Faizabad and Ayodhya, Pant labelled him the enemy of Hindus and made Ram Janambhoomi the central theme of his campaign. He also changed the official Congress candidate, Siddeshwari Prasad, with a Hindu ascetic Baba Raghav Das to kick up religious fervour and curry favours with Hindu conservatives in the constituency.
Baba Raghav Das (5,392 votes) defeated Dev 4,080 votes) in the polls and became Member of the Legislative Assembly in UP.
Later, with the active collusion of the incumbent Congress chief minister Pant and Hindu Mahasabha, Das and his proteges placed the idol in Babri and thus began the politicisation of Ram Janmabhoomi -- heralded by the Congress-led govt in UP.
Though First Information Reports (FIRs) were filed against around 60 people in the wake of the ‘appearance’ of Lord Rama idol inside the structure, the Pant government ensured that nothing significant came out of it.
However, the structure with an idol of Lord Ram was locked. Only after Pant moved to the Centre in 1954 as a Cabinet minister and vacated the post of UP CM, the political fortunes of Baba Raghav Das, who had become a pawn of the Hindu Mahasabha by then, nosedived.
And with that, Ram Janambhoomi slipped off the political radar. At least, for the next three decades.
Cut to 1986. Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was facing the heat from a large section of Hindus over the controversial Shah Bano case in which the government at the Centre overturned the Supreme Court’s judgement allowing monthly allowance to a Muslim divorcee. At that time, both conservative Muslims and a large section of Brahmins were the core vote banks of the Congress.
Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to overturn the SC’s decision, through an ordinance, pleased conservative Muslims but Hindus were up in the arms. To appease Hindus, especially Brahmins, Gandhi issued an order to open the locks of Babri Masjid and also gave permission for ‘shilanyas’ (foundation stone), effectively the permission to start the ‘puja’ inside the structure.
Later, beset with Bofors controversy, he started the campaign of 1989 general elections from Ayodhya to send out a strong message to Hindus. However, by then, a reinvigorated Bharatiya Janata Party, a new ‘avatar’ of erstwhile Jan Sangh, had emerged and it took over the Ram Janmabhoomi issue from the Congress and pushed it with much more fanfare and audacity.
Lal Krishna Advani started the tendentious Rath Yatra from Somnath with a clearly pronounced vision to build a grand Ram Temple at Ayodhya. His Rath Yatra triggered a wave of riots throughout the country, leading to many people dying.
But since the Congress had to take care of its minority vote bank, it became more and more apologetic about the Ram Janambhoomi issue despite being the cause of the issue.
The BJP rode spectacularly on Ram Janambhoomi issue as its electoral prospects soared drastically across the country. Later, on December 6, 1992, a swarm of kar sevaks brought down the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in the presence of the media and policemen. The churn sparked off by the Rath Yatra had culminated into the demolition of the 16th century mosque.
The concern had been floating about the gathering of large flocks of kar sevaks in Ayodhya, but the then Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, belonging to the conservative clique of the Congress, did little to assuage the impending inflammatory situation.
According to an apocryphal account, Rao locked himself in the temple of house on December 6 when the destruction of Babri began and ordered his staff not to disturb him come what may. He came out of his temple only when the demolition was complete.
After the Rao tenure, Sonia Gandhi, the wife of Rajiv Gandhi who had been assassinated in 1991, became the president of the Congress in 1998. By then a sizable section Muslims had deserted Congress because of the party’s inability to protect Babri Masjid. The minorities had started patronising regional parties especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
To woo Muslims all over again, the Congress, under Sonia’s leadership, started distancing itself from Rao’s legacy under whose watch as the prime minister, the demolition had taken place. The party almost tried to camouflage the history of Congress -- from Pant to Rajiv -- in politicising the Ram Janambhoomi issue for electoral gains.
During the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance-1 tenure, the party even questioned the existence of Lord Ram in the court. Between 1998 and 2014, the Congress repeatedly faced barbs of ‘Muslim appeasement’ from the BJP leaders.
But there seems to be a change of orientation once again post the jaw-dropping rise of the BJP after Narendra Modi became the PM of India. Modi made development his central plank but never shied away from wearing his religion on his sleeve.
His demonisation of the Congress, especially Gandhis, as a party of Muslims saw a large section of Hindus voting for him by rising above their caste identities.
The abrogation of Article 370 and the SC’s decision to allow Ram Mandir to be built at the Janmabhoomi, two core issues, has also raised his stature among the majority community. Even Sonia expressed concern at a media event about the fact the Congress being labelled a party of minorities.
From Rahul Gandhi proclaiming himself to be a ‘janeu-dhari’ Hindu to many veteran Congress leaders singing paeans to Lord Ram and suddenly displaying their Hindu identities publicly, the newfangled credo is clear: woo Hindus all over again.
A party that fell between the stools is making an effort to rise again from the abyss, on the back of the Lord whose existence they denied not too long ago. But is it too late?
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