Shilanyas was a mistake, but Rajiv was not aware of unlocking Babri says Mani Shankar Aiyar

Mohd Naushad Khan

Mohd Naushad Khan

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‘Rajiv Gandhi was not consulted because he would never have agreed to such an unprincipled step.’

MANI SHANKAR AIYAR is a former Indian diplomat and union minister. He has been a long-term parliamentarian from the Congress Party and has held various ministries including Petroleum and Natural Gas and Ministry of Panchayati Raj. Aiyar has also served in Pakistan as a diplomat.

In an interview with MOHD NAUSHAD KHAN on his recent book, “The Rajiv I Knew” said Shilanyas was a big political mistake. I don’t think the Congress Party or the Congress government should have got involved with the Shilanyas or anything else to do with constructing a temple because secularism essentially means that the state has no religion.

In your book you have said that Narashimha Rao was the first prime minster of BJP. What made you to think in that direction? Is it so because of his handling of the Babri Masjid issue or for any other reason?

It was just a throwaway remark, supposed to be an ironic joke and I just don’t understand why you media people are chasing this expression when I have been using it for a very long time. It is obviously not a serious remark, obviously an ironic remark. But it seems that the media doesn’t have a sense of humor.

But there was a serious purpose behind that remark. It is connected with the way in which Narashimha Rao ji handled the Babri masjid and I have explained in my book at a very great length how he had sent for me when I was on my Ram Rahim Yatra. He said to me that he had no objection to my yatra but he did not agree with my definition of secularism. And when I said what is wrong with my definition of secularism, he said you don’t seem to realize that this is a Hindu country. I was shocked and I said to him but I thought sir we were a secular country.

Mani Shankar Aiyar

It is only the BJP that calls it a Hindurashtra. He also conducted negotiations with these people but they betrayed him and because of that he got paralyzed. So it was in that sense I said because he facilitated though inaction that the destruction of Babri masjid, which is the debris, on the basis of which the BJP is now building its Hindurashtra. Then I described him as the first BJP prime minister which is obviously an ironic remark and it is not supposed to be a statement of historical truth.

As you have just now said that Narashimha Rao was not very comfortable with the word secularism what was Rajiv Gandhi’s take on secularism?

Rajiv Gandhi on record has stated in the Lok Sabha on the 3rd of May 1989 in a debate on secularism which he moved suo-moto that only a secular India can survive and perhaps India that is not secular does not deserve to survive.

Can you please explain to our readers why you have written that Shilanyas was a mistake?

Shilanyas was a big political mistake. I don’t think the Congress Party or the Congress government should have got involved with the Shilanyas or anything else to do with constructing a temple because secularism essentially means that the state has no religion. There was also the controversy over the President Dr Rajendra Prasad wanting to be officially present at the inauguration of the Somnath temple; Nehru and his cabinet opposed this as being incompatible with the constitutional requirement that the State must be above all religions and not demonstrate affinity with any particular faiths.

Babri Masjid – A file pic

And so, I don’t think Rajiv Gandhi should have involved himself with the Shilanyas. But he felt that so long as the Babri Masjid was preserved there would be no objection to building a temple beyond the disputed area. Unfortunately, the area that was designated by Home Minister Buta Singh included as it later turned out a part of the disputed area but in any case, it was I think wrong politics to have undertaken that Shilanyas ceremony in the middle of the election process and there was a blow back I think many Muslims seeing that the Shilanyas was taking place decided not to vote for the Congress and many in those seeing that the Babri Masjid still existed decided not to vote for the Congress. And therefore, the Congress played a heavy price and we lost more than 200 seats.

So, from Shilanyas to Babri Masjid demolition what was its impact on the Congress?

Well, the reason why the Shilanyas took place is that in the run up to the elections of 1989 and then in its aftermath when V.P Singh was in power the BJPs political influence in Uttar Pradesh seemed to be growing exponentially and a number of Hindu leaders from the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh started advocating what you might call a soft Hindutva line.

On the question of the masjid/temple at Ayodhya, Rajiv Gandhi closeted himself with a cabal of advisers to work out an alternative plan for dealing with the Ram Janmabhoomi–Babri Masjid crisis. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the statesman-jurist, was the strongest voice of those making the argument that the crux of the issue lay in determining whether Babar’s general, Mir Baqi, had, in fact, destroyed an extant Ram temple to erect the Babri Masjid or whether he had only built the mosque on unused land that was now being claimed as the birthplace of Lord Ram.

Siddhartha Shankar Ray

Ray suggested that it be left to the Supreme Court to pronounce its view on this limited but crucial question after hearing the historical and archaeological evidence from respected experts. Siddhartha Ray further argued that there were two ways of securing the Supreme Court view on this ‘key question’: either under Article 142 or 143.

Under Article 142, the Supreme Court view would be expressed in court as an order that ‘shall be enforceable throughout the territory of India’ but if raised before the Supreme Court as a presidential reference under Article 143, the court’s finding would be a non-binding ‘opinion’ addressed to the president. Ray preferred raising the issue in the Supreme Court under Article 142 as that would result in a ‘binding’ order.

Another alternative that was considered related to requesting the Supreme Court to convoke a commission of inquiry under Section 3 of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, comprising five sitting judges of the Supreme Court, selected by the Chief Justice of India, to determine the question of fact as to whether, at the site of the dispute, a Ram mandir was in fact destroyed to build a masjid in its place.

If it was held that such a commission could not be established owing to the same question pending before the Allahabad High Court, an ordinance or law might be passed under Article 138 enlarging the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. These alternatives were put to PM Chandra Shekhar by Rajiv Gandhi in writing and others were conveyed orally. Chandra Shekhar finally decided on Article 143, a non-binding opinion on a presidential reference.

There is perception that because of Rajiv Gandhi the gates of Babri masjid were unlocked. How would you like to clarify it?

Of course, since it was in power, the Congress was responsible for the unlocking of the gates. But the question is who in the Congress? The Congress Chief Minister of UP, or the Congress President or the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who was responsible? Stray remarks to me by the PM indicated he had nothing to do with this tragic farce and was deeply disturbed.

Another PMO officer, Wajahat Habibullah, handled minority affairs; I was neither asked nor consulted by the PM on the matter. Wajahat Habibullah writes in his memoirs that he ‘put to PM the question of the unlocking of the gates’. Rajiv Gandhi answered, ‘I knew nothing of this development until I was told of this after the orders had been passed and executed.’ He regretted that ‘he had not been informed of this action’ but suspected it was MoS for home affairs, Arun Nehru, and his political secretary, Makhan Lal Fotedar, who were responsible. He added that he was ‘having this verified. If it [is] true, I will have to consider action.’

The internal party enquiry Rajiv Gandhi had ordered as Congress president revealed that while Arun Nehru was behind the conspiracy to open the gates at Ayodhya, Fotedar was not. So, Arun Nehru was dropped but not Fotedar. Thus did Rajiv approach this matter with the utmost rectitude; punishing the one and sparing the other, although much the easier path would have been to spare the politically powerful Arun Nehru and punish the party apparatchik, M.L. Fotedar.

The question remains: could Arun Nehru have acted so decisively in such a manner without informing the prime minister? Of course, such impudence would have been out of the question in the normal course, but as the same issue of India Today wrote, there was an ‘awed realization’ within the party of Arun Nehru’s clout which was ‘in evidence when the Party legislators in UP unanimously chose Veer Bahadur Singh, his nominee, as the new Chief Minister’ (emphasis added).

Rajiv Gandhi and Arun Nehru

The evidence on record appears to indicate that the hitherto obscure Veer Bahadur Singh had been chosen to fulfill Arun Nehru’s ulterior aim of getting the locks opened to consolidate the party’s base by pandering to Hindu Sentiment. Rajiv Gandhi was not consulted because he would never have agreed to such an unprincipled step. So, the ‘formidable cousin’ decided to present the prime minister with a fait accompli, unmindful (or, perhaps, conscious) that this would stir the cauldron of communalism.

You have also mentioned about the handling of Shah Bano case by Rajiv Gandhi. How would you like to recall it?

Yes, I have mentioned it at a great length. I don’t have to explain anything. The Supreme Court of India decided on 19 September, 2001, that far from reversing the 1985 judgment the Act passed by Rajiv Gandhi actually implemented that decision. So there was no reversal of any decision and what he did was that he incorporated that aspect of Muslim Personal Law into our Civil Law and said that Muslims should obey their own law and their own law is that if the males in the girls family the divorced family do not look after the girl and then the Waqf Board does not look after the girl and she complains to a magistrate and then the magistrate can order the State Waqf Board to make the payment and if they don’t then the chairman of the Waqf Board is in danger of being jailed.

Mani Shankar Aiyar with Rajiv Gandhi

So, it is under that judgment of February 2001 that for the last quarter of a century all Muslim divorce cases on the question of maintenance are being determined. So, what is the problem, it is quite clear that he did the right thing. It may not have been a popular thing to do but sometimes the right thing is not the popular thing.

Rajiv Gandhi’s handling of the Shah Bano controversy typified his style of working, that of carefully listening to all points of view and only then rising to his responsibility as PM to make a final decision. It was a decision that was endorsed by the Supreme Court’s judgment in 2001. That ought to have been the end of the matter. Unfortunately, however, sections of public opinion, in particular those that consider Muslim Personal Law to be callous and the 1985 SC judgment to be ‘enlightened’, continue to assert this judgment was ‘reversed’ by the Rajiv Gandhi government; that Muslim women were deprived of the rights they secured through the judgment; and that Muslim clerics were ‘appeased’.

In your book you have also said that not apologizing after the Sikh riots by Rajiv Gandhi immediately was a mistake. Do you also believe the same on Babri Masjid by the Congress?

Actually, in regard to the Babri Masjid, after the Masjid was demolished Narashimha Rao actually said he would rebuild the Masjid and there many Muslims including Syed Shahabuddin who said to me personally that who is this Hindu to build a mosque. So therefore, this suggestion to rebuild the mosque like we rebuilt the Akal Takht Sahib was not acceptable to the elements of the Muslim community and so no action on that was taken.

Narasimha Rao

But Narasimha Rao ji did set up the Liberhan Commission. The only trouble was that instead of giving the Liberhan Commission a very tight deadline within which to make their determination the issue dragged on in front of Liberhan Commission for more than a decade with the result that whatever they said became irrelevant and when it went before the Lucknow Bench of the High Court, the court simply dismissed it.

So the answer now to the question who demolished the Babri Masjid is according to our courts nobody demolished it. They just fell of its own accord as absurd, obviously someone did and the Supreme Court have now rewarded forces that were responsible for the destruction of the Babri Masjid to those who destroyed the masjid. I don’t think that is justice.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ji had said that Muslims should have first claim on the resources. What was the approach of Rajiv Gandhi towards minorities and do you think Rahul Gandhi is also following footsteps of his father to put a step of his father?

Rahul with Rajiv Gandhi

Circumstances change; you cannot prescribe what the Prime Minster of 80s may or may not have done as Prime Minster in the 2000. I don’t think this comparison is of particular use and Rahul Gandhi must first become the Prime Minister before we start comparing what he does as the prime minster with what his father did as prime minister. This is all in the realm of hypothesis and I don’t think it serves the useful purpose to answer your question.

Coming back to my next question what was the approach of Rajiv Gandhi towards minorities?

He was very sympathetic to them. He believed that our religious minorities must not only be given a place of complete equality with all other Indian citizens as per the constitution. But their special problems that arise from the fact of their being minority must be looked at with sympathy and urgency by the government. This looking at Muslims problems with sympathy and from their point of view is called appeasement by the BJP.

You appease an enemy. Neville Chamberlain was appeasing Hitler. So, are the Muslims of India our equal citizens or any enemy? How can you appease the Muslims? They are not against us our country. They in fact decided to remain in this country. So therefore, the word appeasement is wrong.

Rajiv Gandhi with Narsimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh

As far as looking after this special interest they arise from their minority status. I think that is the right thing to do for a secular state. And on what the context Manmohan Singh said was the report of the Sachar Committee which showed the economic, social, and educational and health and other problems of the Muslims particularly Pasmanda Muslims was even worse than that of Scheduled Caste. So, it was in that context he said that they should have the first claim on our resources and not because they were Muslims, but because the community happened to be economically deprived. If you twist that to say that means you deprived the Hindus and that is not what he was saying at all.

Finally, as you were minister what you have to say on Panchayati Raj initiative?

His (Rajiv Gandhi) Panchayati Raj that was his biggest initiative and gave constitutional sanctity to Panchayati raj. The institution has been running very effectively for more than 30 years. We now have about 2,60,000 institutions of democratically elected units of local self-government spread across our country. To these, we have elected some 3.2 million (32 lakh) representatives. About 6.5 lakh of these representatives and office bearers, as Sarpanch or up-sarpanch, are from the Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Scheduled Tribes (STs).

Mani Shankar Aiyar with Mohd Naushad Khan

Moreover, almost half the representatives in local bodies, rural and urban – that is, about 1.4 million (14 lakh) – are women, some 1,00,000 of whom hold the post of chairperson or vice chair and include over 20,000 SC/ST women including minorities.

The number of women democratically elected to positions and posts of responsible governance in India is larger than the total number of elected women members in the rest of the world. I think the empowerment of women that has taken place through Panchayati Raj is the single biggest achievement of independent India after the proclamation of the constitution. punjab

Also Read:

The effect of religious polarisation in India 

Congress – Where is it heading? 

AI To Help Win Electoral Battles 

A great judgment by the Indian Supreme Court

ਉੱਲੂ ਨੇਤਾ ਅਤੇ ਭੇਡਮਈ ਵੋਟਰ


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Mohd Naushad Khan

Mohd Naushad Khan

The writer is a Delhi based journalist, presently working for weekly magazine, Radiance Viewsweekly as a Sub-Editor and also contributing articles to other national publications.

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