In the first week of February 2019, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh both announced their decisions to temporarily stop the agitation for the construction of a temple on the disputed Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site, till the Lok Sabha elections are over. For months, RSS and VHP leaders have sought to revive the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, effectively making it a central electoral plank for the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Sangh Parivar has even attacked judges of the Supreme Court for what an RSS leader claimed were “delaying tactics” on taking a decision regarding the dispute. It is likely that the decision to put the agitation on hold is not to show reverence for the Supreme Court or express faith in the law of the land, but a result of efforts by religious leaders close to the Congress.
Just four months ago, Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the RSS, had pitched for an ordinance to build the temple and bypass the legal process. That month, Alok Kumar, the working president of the VHP, declared that a date for building the temple would be announced during the Dharma Sansad—a much-hyped two-day conclave of Hindi religious leaders, which took place on 31 January and 1 February this year. The Dharma Sansad was convened at the ongoing Ardh-Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj, in Uttar Pradesh. But it was attended by less than 1,000 religious leaders, most of whom were from the Sangh Parivar, and no such date for the construction of the temple was announced during the conclave.
A day before the Dharma Sansad, Swaroopanand Saraswati, the shankaracharya of the Dwarka Peeth—the head of the peeth—announced that he would lead a march to Ayodhya and lay the foundation stone for the construction of temple on 21 February. Saraswati is the spiritual guru of the Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, and is considered close to the party.
The announcement seemed to put the VHP on a knife edge and increased the stakes ahead of the Dharma Sansad. Hours after the announcement, the All India Akhara Parishad—an overarching body of 13 akharas, or militant ascetic orders—which is traditionally responsible for the organisation of Kumbh fairs, declared its decision to boycott the conclave as well.
“The RSS and the VHP are using the temple issue to promote their politics,” Narendra Giri, the president of AIAP, told me. “They are not interested in building temple at Ayodhya. That’s why we decided to boycott their Dharma Sansad.” The boycott was a major talking point in the Ardh-Kumbh. Although Giri is considered close to Saraswati and Akhilesh Yadav, the president of the Samajwadi Party, the AIAP has never stopped sadhus from taking part in the RSS’s political project. “Sadhus should stay away from politics,” Giri added. The boycott made a dent—a large number of sadhus stayed away from the conclave.
“Dharma Sansand was planned to be the occasion when the VHP would spell out a temple construction strategy in such a way that it could be used to polarise Hindu voters for the BJP in the next election,” Yatindranand Giri, a mahamandaleshwar—a high-ranked sadhu elevated by his peers—of the Juna Akhara, said. “But the pre-emptive move by Swaroopanand and the boycott call by Akhara Parishad put the VHP in a fix and turned all its Ayodhya plans meaningless.”