An agitation by Ayodhya sadhus threatens BJP's Ram Janmabhoomi strategy

Paramhans Das, the mahant of the Tapaswi Chhawani temple in the Ayodhya, began a hunger strike on 1 October demanding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi pass legislation that removes all roadblocks to constructing the Ram temple.
06 October, 2018

Even as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party attempts to rekindle the communally sensitive issue of building a Ram temple in Ayodhya, a large number of sadhus in the city—most of them old friends of the BJP—are creating new problems for its temple strategy before next year’s general election. On 5 October, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—which, like the BJP, is affiliated to the Sangh Parivar—held a meeting at its headquarters in Delhi with the declared objective of drawing a roadmap for the construction of the Ram temple. Fifty sadhus with ties to the organisation participated, but only five of them were from Ayodhya, the nerve centre of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

The sadhus of Ayodhya, meanwhile, have begun an agitation of their own. Paramhans Das, the mahant of the Tapaswi Chhawani temple in the city’s Ramghat neighbourhood, began a hunger strike on 1 October demanding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi pass legislation that removes all roadblocks to constructing the Ram temple. The venue of his fast, opposite his temple, has drawn a number of local sadhus, some of whom have been constantly raising anti-BJP slogans. Their protest threatens the internal cohesion of the VHP and risks jeopardising an important support base for the BJP.

“Our demand is simple,” Paramhans Das, who has for years been an active supporter of the VHP, told me over the phone. “The BJP must fulfil its election promise regarding the construction of the Ram temple before the government’s term ends. We have found that there is hardly anything to gain by waiting further. In the next few months, the general election will be announced and the model code of conduct will be imposed. The BJP will once again start seeking the people’s vote for the construction of the Ram temple. That is why I decided not to wait any longer and sat on fast.”

Dharam Das, the chief of Ayodhya’s most powerful monastic order, the Nirvani Akhara, held the BJP responsible for the chaos. “While the Ayodhya issue is being heard by the Supreme Court, the leaders of the BJP, the VHP and the RSS are busy intensifying the temple campaign. They know that the government cannot take any initiative until the Supreme Court gives its judgment, yet they continue to whip up passions. It worked for some time, but you cannot fool sadhus forever. They are feeling betrayed.”

This anger, he said, was the reason “that the VHP cannot even organise an open meeting of sadhus in Ayodhya,” and had to hold its meeting in Delhi. Despite being a member of the Kendriya Margdarshak Mandal, the central governing body of the VHP, Dharam Das did not attend the Delhi meeting.

Ever since 1984, when it took up the Ram Janmabhoomi issue as its central plank for the political mobilisation of Hindus, the VHP has had a turbulent relationship with the sadhus of Ayodhya. Throughout the 1980s, its campaign in Ayodhya was largely conducted by a handful of sadhus who had little support among the local monks. It was only after LK Advani’s rath yatra in 1990—which traversed through the country with the rallying cry of “Mandir wahin banayenge,” and left a trail of communal clashes—that the VHP succeeded in carving out a considerable foothold in the city.

The alignment that enabled the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992 could not last long. By the mid-1990s, Ayodhya’s sadhus were once again a divided lot. Most of them returned to their day-to-day activities, managing real estate and hobnobbing with politicians not just belonging to the BJP, but also the Congress and the Samajwadi Party.

“The projection of Modi as the prime ministerial candidate ahead of the last Lok Sabha elections united most of the sadhus of Ayodhya and brought them under the influence of the VHP,” Paramhans Das told me. “But despite coming to power by promising a Ram temple in Ayodhya, Modi has done nothing. Most of the sadhus feel betrayed. Only those who think they can get something from it are still obeying the VHP. Modi has not even visited Ayodhya. He was also instrumental in ejecting Pravin Togadia, who was asking him to fulfil his promise, from the VHP.”

Togadia, who was a former international president of the VHP and is now a prominent critic of Modi, preferred not to comment on the growing inability of the current VHP leadership to keep its flock of sadhus together in Ayodhya. “Since 1984, all 15 Dharma Sansads of the VHP have passed the same resolution, demanding central legislation to clear the way for the construction of the Ram temple,” he told me over the phone. “Now the BJP government has an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Who has stopped it from passing such a law and fulfilling the popular demand?”