Aug. 1: On February 20, 2002, Mahant Ramchandradas Paramhans greeted Ashok Singhal with a volley of abuse as the VHP leader called on him at Digambar akhara in Ayodhya during the run-up to the shiladaan scheduled for March 15.
The electronic media covering the event hastened to delete the expletive as the chief of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas gave Singhal a piece of his mind for trying to steal his thunder by organising daily news conferences on the shiladaan.
After a closed-door meeting, Singhal walked out taciturn and bureaucrats sighed in relief as he said: “The mahant is here to guide us. Sab theek hai (everything’s all right)’’. Paramhans had finally decided not to give up his life as he had threatened.
That was quintessential Ramchandradas Paramhans — overbearing, bullying and dramatic.
In his death, the Ram temple movement has lost not only a leader and chief of the powerful Digambar akhara, but also a marketable face. In a nod to the respect he commanded among religious leaders, hundreds of thousands of sadhus at the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Nashik today suspended all religious activity as a tribute to the mahant.
Cameras will flash a little less frequently in Ayodhya, now that Paramhans is gone. He was the colour that a rapidly greying temple movement sorely needed. He was also the pivot of the agitation that was fast losing its steam.
He knew that and resorted at all times to all kinds of antics to get the movement, and himself, back in the limelight.
An astute player of the politics behind the movement, he felt the proposed shiladaan fast coming under a cloud after the Godhra train burnings on February 27, 2002.
Paramhans, 94 (no one knew his exact age), immediately went on a hunger strike. As his condition deteriorated, the Prime Minister and the President begged him to end his fast. The Vice-President, too, called as did the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, and several other dignitaries.
The next day, foreign journalists chanced on a great photo-op as they caught Paramhans feeding peanuts to monkeys. The caption to one of those photos read: “Supreme leader of the…Ram temple movement ends fast, feeds monkey. India averts catastrophe.”
Paramhans always made good copy and a good photo. With his rough and ready clothes, straggly beard and knotted hair, he happily fed the media’s penchant for the drastic and the dramatic.
As the temple movement’s grand old man ended his last journey through the meandering alleys of his beloved Ayodhya, many in the akharas, the district administration and political parties might not miss him. But with Paramhans gone, the movement will be bland and his 70-year-old dream a lot less alluring.