Security personnel march through the streets of Ayodhya on Friday. Picture by Naeem Ansari
Aug. 23: Paramilitary forces staged a flag march and troops were rushed to a tense Ayodhya today as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad threatened to defy the Akhilesh Yadav government’s ban on its planned three-week march from Sunday to press for a Ram temple.
Police stopped VHP chief Ashok Singhal as he headed to Ayodhya from Allahabad and put him on a Delhi-bound flight but not before he told reporters “no force on earth can stop” the programme.
The march, scheduled from August 25 to September 14, is being seen as a political campaign in the garb of a centuries-old ritual: the 84 koshi parikrama, a round trip from Ayodhya through six districts, covering 84 kosh or about 300km.
Any devotee can do the parikrama (circumambulation) at any time of the year but the traditional one by Ayodhya’s sadhus, held to commemorate King Dasarath’s successful yagna for a son (Ram), is held in April-May — like it was this year too.
Never before has the parikrama been announced a second time in a year or been tied to the demand for the temple.
Ayodhya virtually shut down today as the standoff revived memories of October 30, 1990, when kar sevaks had defied a ban by Akhilesh’s father and then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, prompting police firing.
Observers fear the VHP wants to use the march to replicate the charged situation of the early 1990s in the run-up to the Babri Masjid demolition.
The BJP, which participated in and made electoral gains from the ’90s kar seva programmes, has stayed away from this march in the changed political situation while demanding the ban be revoked.
The state government had banned the programme last Monday saying it was meant to “create fresh communal tension” and that a fresh parikrama, after the one in April-May, smacked of “a hidden political agenda”.
Earlier, the mahants and akharas of Ayodhya would organise the programme but the VHP took control in 1984 as the temple movement gathered steam.
“The sadhus will begin reaching Ayodhya from tomorrow,” Singhal said.
“The morale of the saints and devotees has been boosted by the memory of our past struggles,” VHP leader and former BJP parliamentarian Ram Vilas Vedanti told The Telegraph over the phone from a place he refused to identify fearing preventive arrest.
Key VHP leaders including the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas president, Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, went underground late in the day. The door of Das’s ashram in Ayodhya remained shut and journalists were told to keep away.
When the parikrama was carried out from April 25 to May 20 this year, it was led by 50-odd prominent local monks, with other sadhus and devotees joining them on the way. Like every year, the state government set up village camps for night halts and provided food and water to the participants.
Sitaram Behani, former vice-principal of Calcutta’s Heramba Chandra College and an expert on Ayodhya’s cultural and scriptural history, said three kinds of parikrama are popular in the temple town.
“These are the panch koshi parikrama around King Dasarath’s palace, the 14 koshi parikrama around the ancient city of Ayodhya, and the 84 koshi parikrama which covers much of Awadh Bhoomi, Ram’s kingdom,” said Behani, who has done the 14 koshi parikrama himself.
The flag march was carried out in the twin towns of Ayodhya and Faizabad by the Rapid Action Force, a central paramilitary organisation, and the state’s own Provincial Armed Constabulary this afternoon. The streets were otherwise largely deserted and the shops were closed.
Some 6,000 additional Provincial Armed Constabulary troops were despatched in the evening to reinforce the 1,600 police and paramilitary personnel posted in Ayodhya round the year. All 42 roads leading to the district, Faizabad, will be barricaded from August 25 morning, officials said.
Prohibitory orders had been clamped in Ayodhya on Monday simultaneously with the announcement of the ban. Today, the curbs on public assembly were extended to all the six districts — Faizabad, Barabanki, Basti, Akbarpur, Gonda and Bahraich — that the march is scheduled to cover, the police said.
State minister Rajendra Chaudhary said in a statement: “The VHP-RSS-BJP combine is speaking the same language and creating a climate of fear like they had done in 1992 on the eve of the (Babri) demolition. This parikrama has a political mission in the lead-up to the 2014 general election.”
Months after the 1990 police firing on kar sevaks, the BJP won the June 1991 state elections. The party dominated the state’s politics for nearly a decade, winning 58 of its then 85 Lok Sabha seats in 1998.
However, its tally went into steady decline after 1999, falling to just 10 in 2009 when the BJP bagged a little over 17 per cent of the votes.