In an unprecedented move, Ayodhya’s top sadhus boycott the VHP’s dharm sabha

The boycott of the dharm sabha by Ayodhya's top sadhus clearly indicates that the VHP has been unable to regain the kind of foothold it used to enjoy during the early 1990s, when the Babri masjid was demolished. SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images
26 November, 2018

As the exhilaration over the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s much-hyped “dharm sabha”—held in Ayodhya on 25 November—fades, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the VHP are faced with an uncomfortable truth. The sabha was meant to gather lakhs and more in support of the construction of the Ram Mandir, but most sadhus and monastic establishments prominent in Ayodhya boycotted the event, severely denting the VHP’s hopes of regaining any significant foothold in what is the epicentre of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

Sadhus of the Nirvani and Nirmohi akharas—two of Ayodhya’s three prominent Ramanandi akharas, or militant ascetic orders—kept a distance from the VHP’s show. The Digambar akhara, the least significant of the three in Ayodhya, is the only one that was seen participating in the event.

Nritya Gopal Das, a prominent sadhu of the Digambar akhara, who heads the VHP-backed trust, Shri Ram Janma Bhoomi Nyas, was one of the main speakers at the dharm sabha. Another local sadhu who actively participated in the event was Kanhaiya Das, a district-level office-bearer of the VHP and the mahant of a temple in Ayodhya. All other prominent sadhus who spoke at the sabha were mostly outsiders, primarily from Haridwar and Chitrakoot.

“What was the point of attending the Sangh’s meeting and clapping like a fool?” Dinendra Das, the Nirmohi akhara’s Ayodhya head, told me over phone. “It would have been better for them”—referring to the VHP—“to do something to expedite the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case in the Supreme Court. People can see through the drama they do.”

The Nirmohi akhara is one of the three litigants between whom the Allahabad High Court had, in a judgment in 2010, divided the disputed site on which the Babri Masjid stood before its demolition by mob of kar sevaks in 1992. Among the attendees at the sabha was Ram Das, a sadhu who was formerly part of the Nirmohi akhara. When asked about this, Dinendra Das said, “Ever since he was expelled from the leadership of the akhara last year, he has been looking for backing from the VHP. The akhara has already disassociated itself from him.”

Dharam Das, the head of the Nirvani akhara—Ayodhya’s most powerful Ramanandi order—was more scathing. “Sadhus are simple, but you cannot assume their support so confidently especially when they know that you are doing nothing but politics,” he said.

Significantly, Dharam Das is a prominent member of Kendriya Margdarshak Mandal, the central governing body of the VHP. “I boycotted the VHP’s event because I wanted to respect the general sentiment of Ayodhya’s sadhus who feel betrayed by the BJP government at the centre,” he said.

In fact, Hanumangarhi, Ayodhya’s biggest monastic establishment, which functions as the headquarters of Nirvani akhara, was so angered by the VHP’s show of strength that most of its residents didn’t even wish to speak about it. “That is because the residents of Hanumangarhi are tired of playing into the hands of the VHP,” Sanjay Das, a prominent sadhu of Hanumangarhi, said. “They want an early resolution of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue, but the VHP has not given any signal that it is serious about that. Only at the time of elections does it get up to show that it is serious. That cannot work anymore.”

In Hanumangarhi, the decision to boycott became imminent after the heads of its four pattis, or sections—the Sagaria Patti, the Basantia Patti, the Haridwari Patti and the Ujjainia Patti—met about a week before the sabha and resolved to stay away from the VHP event. “Once the decision was taken, it became obvious that no one from Hanumangarhi would attend the VHP’s dharma dabha,” Sanjay said.

The implications of the boycott cannot be exaggerated—it is the clearest example of the fact that, despite all its efforts, the VHP has been unable to regain the kind of foothold in Ayodhya it used to enjoy during the early 1990s, preceding as well as following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. It experienced an upsurge when the Bharatiya Janata Party projected Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate ahead of the last Lok Sabha elections, but this, too, appears to have subsided.

The turbulence that has, in large part, characterised the VHP’s relationship with the sadhus of Ayodhya after the RSS outfit took up the Ram Janmabhoomi issue as its central plank in 1984, seems set to worsen in days to come. Perhaps it is the fear of this deterioration that led the local administration to virtually confine another prominent sadhu, Paramhas Das—who, in early October, led a week-long fast demanding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi pass legislation to make the construction of the temple possible—to undeclared house arrest for the duration of the sabha.

“Security forces have blocked all the gates of my ashram, and I simply cannot move out,” Paramhans Das told me over phone. “They fear that if I reach the venue of dharma sabha, I will say something that will expose the entire drama.”

Although the chief minister Adityanath made some efforts to placate him after he broke the fast, he continues to embody the local sadhus’ anger. The VHP is now viewing him with heightened suspicion—he recently issued an ultimatum to the state government that, if no concrete step for the construction of the Ram temple has been taken by 5 December, he will immolate himself the next day.

Earlier, the seriousness of his threat was doubted within several quarters of Ayodhya. But with Sunday’s event, his ultimatum has become a talking point once again—and a sword hanging over the VHP.