NEW DELHI: India’s Hindu fundamentalists are on the march again. Nine years after they shocked the world with their Bamiyan-style demolition of a 16th century mosque at Ayodhya in northern Uttar Pradesh state, they want to build a temple to Lord Ram at that precise site.

Mobilized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), the fundamentalists, linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party of India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, demand that the disputed site be handed over to them by March 12.

The 26.8-hectare plot was taken over by the government under a special law in 1993.

On Jan 20, the World Hindu Council organized a gathering of saffron-clad ‘sadhus’ (holy men) at Ayodhya to reaffirm the March 12 “deadline” and launch a ‘chetavani yatra’ (warning procession) to New Delhi.

A delegation of ‘sadhus’ met Vajpayee on Jan 27 and extracted from him a promise that he would try to find a legal solution to the temple dispute.

Vajpayee hedged the promise with the condition that there be a “consensus” within the ruling coalition, the National Democratic Alliance, and that even the opposition parties agree to transfer the disputed land to a Hindu trust to build a temple.

Yet ironically, it is Vajpayee, the so-called Hindu “moderate”, who boosted the sectarian temple demand last year by saying it represents the “national sentiment”. He also legitimized the March 12 “deadline”.

The BJP and the World Hindi Council have a close, symbiotic, “revolving door” relationship. They are both members of the ‘sangh parivar’ (family), so named after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or National Volunteers’ Union, an all-male, rabidly chauvinist, secret society-like group that believes in a Hindu state.

The union, formed in 1925, is the BJP’s ideological mentor, political master and organizational gatekeeper. It also founded the VHP as one of its 200-plus “front” organizations.

The VHP in the 1980s launched a vigorous agitation against the Ayodhya mosque, said to have been built by the first Moghul emperor, Babar, in 1528. Numerous BJP leaders, including two of Vajpayee’s most senior ministers, Home Minister Lal Krishan Advani and Education Minister M M Joshi, actively led that movement.

This campaign was crucial to the BJP’s growth. The party increased its representation in Parliament’s 545-strong Lower House, from two seats to 89 between 1984 and 1989.

The BJP’s vote has declined in most parts of India since 1998. The party has suffered serious erosion in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, where it faces legislature elections in February.

The revival of the temple campaign is widely seen as the BJP’s desperate and cynical, tactic to avert a total rout at the hustings. But the poor response to the ‘chetavani yatra’ suggests it may not yield votes.

The VHP has trashed Vajpayee’s latest assurance. Its international secretary, Praveen Togadia says, it will go ahead with the temple construction no matter what happens. “The survival of the Vajpayee government is not our priority”, he said. The group says it will forcibly occupy the Ayodhya site on Feb 24.

However, there seem to be divisions within the VHP on the campaign and its timing. Its president and vice-president, far better known than Togadia, did not brief the media. The Feb 24 date suggests that the VHP does not want to embarrass the BJP party during its election campaign, which ends earlier.

The VHP probably will not precipitate a confrontation to the point of putting Vajpayee’s government at risk, but some friction between them is not excluded.

The temple issue divides the BJP and its Hindu-chauvinist cohorts not just from the largely secular opposition, but also from the rest of the National Democratic Alliance. No party supports the BJP’s position on the temple.

The electoral calculations of Vajpayee’s BJP party are only one factor behind the “last stage” of the speeded-up temple campaign.

The other factors have to do with a general hardening of sectarian, anti-secular, anti-pluralist tendencies in India in the wake of Sept 11 and the US ‘anti-terrorist war’, which Vajpayee’s right-wing government strongly, uncritically, supports.

The extreme Hindu right reckoned that the “anti-terrorism” platform would help it isolate and attack Muslims and flaunt its Rambo-style ‘national security state’ nationalism.

If the key Hindu fundamentalist groups here are doing a balancing act vis-a-vis the United States, Washington too is doing one vis-a-vis Hindu nationalism. Only a lot of fancy footwork can explain the United States’ intimacy with a regime mired in anti-secular and obscurantist politics. —Dawn/The InterPress News Service.

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