Did Congress's sadhu politics force VHP and RSS to shelve their temple agitation plan?

Swaroopanand Saraswati and the Congress leader Digvijay Singh at a protest at Jantar Mantar on 18 June 2012 in New Delhi, India. In the first week of February 2019, the VHP and RSS to put the Ram temple agitation on hold. This might be because of efforts by religious leaders deemed close to the Congress, such as Saraswati. Sonu Mehta/ Hindustan Times / Getty Images
Elections 2024
08 February, 2019

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.”

Shortly before the Dharma Sansad began, Bhagwat met prominent religious leaders associated with the VHP, Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and Keshav Prasad Maurya, the state’s deputy chief minister. But they were unable to form a strategy to wrest the ground captured by Congress-backed Saraswati. As a result, when the Dharma Sansad began, the Sangh Parivar was already on the back foot. Though the VHP had displayed a replica of the Ram temple prominently in one of its camps at the Ardh-Kumbh, it barely got any attention.

More than half of the pandal was empty on both days of the conclave. On the first day, none of the speakers, including Bhagwat and Ramdev, a self-proclaimed godman and business tycoon, discussed the temple issue at all. They directed their ire towards the Congress, Saraswati and their efforts to divide Hindu sadhus. While Bhagwat stressed upon the significance of the BJP’s victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and asked sadhus to “defeat the conspiracy being hatched to divide us,” Ramdev exhorted religious leaders to tell their followers to “vote against those who are trying to break the unity among Hindus.”

The VHP adopted two resolutions on the first day of the Dharma Sansad—one on the “conspiracy to disintegrate Hindu society,” and another that called for launching a “struggle to save tradition and belief in Sabarimala.” The former appeared to underline the Sangh Parivar’s helplessness on being outwitted by the Congress-backed Saraswati, and the latter, too, seemed like an attempt to divert attention away from the Sangh Parivar’s nervousness on Ram temple issue.

Even on the second day when the Dharma Sansad took up the issue, it was ambiguously addressed. The resolution adopted in this regard noted that with the Lok Sabha elections about to be announced, “the sant samaj”—community—“shall not give the pseudo-secular pack the opportunity to drag this holy and important movement into a political vortex and swamp.” The Sangh Parivar seemed cornered—it had failed to spell out its Ayodhya plan in the Dharma Sansad.

In his speech on the second day, Bhagwat’s soft stance on the temple issue did not meet the expectations of the VHP and the RSS members. He said that the government was making all efforts to settle the issue as early as possible—arguing that the centre’s application to the Supreme Court, seeking a part of the land near the disputed Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site to be returned to its original owners, was a step in that direction. Bhagwat’s speech triggered an angry protest by a section of sadhus present at Dharma Sansad. It was followed sloganeering to demand the announcement of date for the construction of Ram temple.

The Sangh Parivar’s obstacles regarding the Ram temple issue did not end there—they increased the day after the Dharma Sansad. Namdeo Das Tyagi, a high-profile sadhu popularly known as Computer Baba, had organised a conclave called Santon Ki Mann Ki Baat, named on the lines of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popular radio programme Mann ki Baat. Computer Baba, like Saraswati, is known for his proximity to Congress and Digvijaya Singh. In the recently held assembly election at Madhya Pradesh, Computer Baba had played a key role in mobilising sadhus and organising their rallies in several parts of the state against the then BJP government.

On the day after the Dharma Sansad, sadhus who were outraged at the VHP’s failure to declare a date for construction of Ram temple flocked in large numbers to Computer Baba’s conclave. In the conclave, he vowed to uproot the BJP government from centre in the next Lok Sabha election if an ordinance for the construction of temple was not brought within 24 days. “The BJP ditched Hindus who voted for it in 2014. If it does not bring an ordinance on Rama temple they will throw it out of power in the next election,” he told me. The unfolding of these events suggests that the Congress's strategy to outmanoeuvre the Sangh Parivar successfully compelled the RSS to scale down its agitation for the construction of a Ram temple.